Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch. 5

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Notes on Chapter 5, “A Kind of Revolution”. Previously: chapter 4. 

This chapter begins by building on the previous chapter’s discussion of class divisions within the colonies, taking it now into the war of independence and the period immediately following, then continues by addressing the contradictions between theory and practice as reflected in the constitution.

The first example given was not particularly enlightening: a man who had joined the army not due to revolutionary convictions but simply due to a desire for self-advancement (Zinn himself notes that the source, a Tory writer, is not the most reliable). It’s when these examples build into a pattern that it becomes useful—multiple mutinies over low or late pay, for example, along with contemporary concerns that crewing the navy via impressment was precisely one of the complaints against the British government. Post-war rebellions were dealt with just as harshly; treason against a republic, according to founding father Samuel Adams, was unforgivable.

The question of Native American support for the war is also addressed—while in the Seven Years’ War just a few years previously, Native people had sided with the less–intrusive French against the British, in the intervening period the agreement of a boundary at the Appalachians reversed this. The Proclamation Line was one of the grievances of the colonists against the British government, setting a colonial victory clearly against the interests of the Native people whose lands were under threat.

The second theme of this chapter, like the previous, is the gap between revolutionary rhetoric and the real policies that were put into place. “All men are created equal”—but most of the new state constitutions still contained property qualifications for voting and holding office, in Maryland excluding 90% of the population from political office. Similar contradictions are seen in the new federal constitution too—for example, the almost-immediate undermining of the First Amendment by the Sedition Act. And while the Constitution did not formally discriminate against black men who were not slaves, neither did it do anything to put an end to the existing discrimination.

It’s important here not to overemphasize the personal attributes of the drafters of the constitution—although most of them would have benefitted personally, it’s a matter of a structural imbalance from which they benefitted, not their personal choices. Zinn does address this, but it could be stressed more; the discussion of other landowners’ interests also helps to clarify. In particular, understanding the way that support for the Constitution is built; a pledge to protect the right to property is, after all, useless to those who don’t own property. Thus, confiscated land was distributed to supporters, and leases were converted to freeholds (though, as Zinn notes, this just meant paying a mortgage rather than a rent); the middle class was expanded, creating just enough people with a material interest in the new arrangement to counterbalance those who did not.

For the urban middle class, on the other hand, this material interest took the form of support against British trade which threatened to outcompete them; America’s later insistence on free trade was only possible thanks to this protectionism allowing its own industry to develop (Britain’s policies similarly shifted from protectionism to free trade as its interests changed, some decades ahead of America).

This chapter and the one before it were, in my first reading, quite eye-opening about the extent of the gap between liberal–republican theory and practice; while it was obvious by the 20th century that the US government was not truly representative, and that it had never been so for women and people of colour, it was nevertheless possible to see this as a failure to meet an ideal set forth in the Constitution; Zinn shows that not only was this ideal never met, but it was never intended to—the quotations from the Federalist Papers in particular go some way to revealing some of the real intentions behind the Constitution. He’s not really putting forth much of a theoretical framework beyond a divide between the elites and everyone else, but simply draws attention to this and, perhaps, prompts further investigation.