Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.3

Notes on Chapter 3, Persons of Mean and Vile Condition. Previously: chapter 2.

This chapter and the previous one really interrelate, to the extent that I’m almost not sure it made sense to separate them. On one hand, it makes a sort of intuitive sense to dedicate each of the first three chapters to native Americans, black people, and white people, and their respective interactions with the white ruling class. But in reality, these were not separate historical processes that can be examined in isolation; each influenced the others to a significant extent, and it’s only in this chapter about “poor whites” that we really get a full picture of the situation of native Americans and black people (both slave and free).

In itself the chapter details the situation of white servants, rural tenant farmers, and urban artisans. In particular it shows how the development of capitalist land ownership and trade in England (and its colonies in Ireland) helped to instigate migration to the Americas which was in turn exploited for profit first by ship-owners then by colonial landowners. It goes on to note that although even at this early stage there was a dream of class mobility and equality, only the earliest indentured servants had significant financial success after gaining their freedom; later migrants remained relatively poor. Particularly significant in this chapter, though, is the examination of the ways in which class conflict (i.e., between rich and poor whites) is defused by the process of racialization. Racial distinctions were entrenched, argues Zinn, in order to heighten the perception by poor whites that they had interests in common with the white ruling class — i.e., that the white landowner was not an exploiter but a protector of their common interests. This meant, for example, that the poorer farmers further away from coastal regions could act as a “buffer” against the native peoples, and look to the governments for protection rather than with resentment; it also meant that white farmers and servants could be counted on for assistance against potential slave revolts, rather than (as had earlier been the case) becoming part of the rebellion themselves.

We also see in this chapter (and with some foreshadowing of the next chapter) more of Zinn’s idea (not unfounded) that nationalism and liberal ideals serve to mask internal conflicts, both as a historical process (i.e., that contemporaries used ideas of an American nation to attempt to build unity against a common enemy) and one reflected in the historiography (he is critical of “the emphasis, in traditional histories, on the external struggle against England [and] the unity of colonists in the Revolution”).

However it’s at this point of the book that some of its flaws start to become apparent. After all, what is a history of the United States of America before 1776? A history of the thirteen colonies that would then go on to declare their independence? This seems to exclude, for no objective reason that I can see, the colonies in what would become Canada, for example; is their situation significantly different, thus leading to their later divergence? Or is that merely historical accident? It has also overlooked (after the beginning of the first chapter, at least) the non-British colonies in North America, even ones which (like Florida) would soon become part of the United States, and while New York for example is discussed at length (especially in the urban context) there’s very little discussion of whether the Dutch colonial authorities had been much different from the British.

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.2

Notes on Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line. Previously: chapter 1. Next: chapter 3.

When I originally read this chapter a few years back, it struck me for two reasons: firstly, it was the first time I’d seen an attempt to explain how the slave trade came about; secondly, because it went further than that and identified the slave trade as being the origin of modern racism. In reading again, the causative process is more clearly identifiable: the use of slave labour grew out of economic pressures (to increase productivity while minimizing cost in the colonies), and over the next several decades the system was increasingly institutionalized through the passage of legislation that denied Africans and African-Americans equal rights, while granting increasing privileges to lower-class whites.

It’s that latter process that I found most fascinating: rather than racism having been the result of some inherent human bias, early black slaves and white indentured servants seemed to find that their situations, while not identical (Zinn gets into the specific situation of indentured servants in the next chapter) were close enough that their interests aligned with each other against the employer/enslaver. The solution that was found to this problem, to prevent black and white people working together for their common interests, was to undermine those interests, for example by punishing “fraternization” and, for example, by rewarding white servants with their freedom for informing the authorities of rebellion.

One thing that stands out in this chapter is that by focusing on the history of America and what happens in the Americas, important context can be lost. Although Zinn does note that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in fact began before Europeans reached the Americas, not much thought is given to why this might be the case. I’m currently also reading Empire of Cotton, which looks at the international history of the cotton industry and argues that the enslavement of West Africans was prompted, in part, by the importance of West Africa as a market for cotton fabric being exported from India by Europeans. There is, of course, only so much international history that can reasonably be covered in a book on US history, but it seems to me that so many of the significant events and processes that directed the course of American history are, really, international.

Overall, on the second reading, this chapter felt a little lightweight; on subsequently reading chapter 3 (on poor whites) it seems like a lot of the internal social pressures are described better there, and with equal relevance for the relationship between white and black people as between rich and poor whites.

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.1

I’ve started re-reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” with some friends, and as we go through and discuss I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on it and some of the issues that came up in the discussion. I’m particularly trying to read with a Marxist perspective, that is to say, looking for the economic basis for the events and processes described or else for evidence that economic causes are an insufficient explanation. This is Chapter 1, “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress”. Next: chapter 2.

The first thing that really stood out to me about this chapter was not the descriptions of Spanish and English violence towards and exploitation of Native Americans, but that Zinn is using it as a way of laying out his philosophy of history and as such setting the groundwork for the rest of the book. He argues, in short, that a work of history cannot be unbiased, and that neutrality inherently masks a support for the status quo (i.e., for the ruling class). As such, the intention behind this work is explicitly to show another side of history, details that may be overlooked in histories in favour of (or not in opposition to) the status quo. In this sense it fits into the tradition of Marxist histories like E. P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”, although Zinn was not, as far as I know, a Marxist in either his politics or his historical approach.

In terms of the historical content of the chapter, the parts which I found the most significant were those which hinted at the broader worldwide historical processes. Although only a few paragraphs are spent on the motivations behind Colombus’ voyages, the implications here go well beyond the activities of the early Spanish colonists. Spain had, as of its first contact with the Americas, only very recently ended a long-running series of wars against the Muslim Emirate of Granada. The increasing cost and complexity of wars in this period meant Spain, along with other states, needed to find a new financial basis in order to support them. Along with the attempt to find new sources of income from trade with Asia, this also prompted a shift in forms of land ownership (in part because huge tracts of land were granted to the nobility in return for military and financial support, with an impact on Andalusian agriculture that lasted into the twentieth century). As such, the colonial ventures of this period are a fundamental part of the development of capitalism on an international scale.

One thing that seemed weak in this chapter was an understanding of the reasons and justifications for European brutality towards Native Americans. While, objectively, we may now understand that the conflict was brought about due to the European need for resources, particularly given the expansionist tendencies implicit in the newly-emerging capitalist social relations, this in itself doesn’t help to understand the subjective reasons — the justifications Europeans made to themselves for their behaviour. Zinn does briefly refer to these economic impulses, even specifically to the Marxist concept of primitive accumulation, but there’s little in the way of an explanation of the mindset that justified these impulses. Relevant to the topic, for example, would be an understanding of the ways in which liberal–capitalist property rights developed in the context of colonialism (e.g., Locke), but even this seems to me to be only a partial explanation — was the belief that their ownership of the land was justified sufficient to justify (even to themselves) the violence with which they enforced that ownership?