a People’s History if the United States, chapters 1 -5

A People’s History if the United States, by Howard Zinn chapters 1 -5

“It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.

My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological, it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.” (8)

At first glance I took issue with Zinn’s distinction between cartography as non-idealogical and history as ideological. On closer inspection I realize where I differ with Zinn is with his notion ideology. Zinn evokes a notion of ideology that is about conflict or “contending interests,” while I prefer to think of ideology as the foundation to a kind of conceptual thought language. Using the latter notion I would argue both cartography and history, under the banner of all interpretive gestures, are firmly grounded in an idealogical framework. But to his credit, the notion of contending interests is foundational to his agenda, an agenda that attempts to rethink the authority of power, irregardless of who happens to be seated there.

“My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of the states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the of the executioners.” (10)

This paragraph seems to establish Zinn’s agenda for the rest of the book. To examine the moments of struggle that are otherwise over looked in the telling of the established power’s story. And in doing so, understand the nation not as a unified entity by rather as a set of conflicting forces.

“Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.” (57-58)

“Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.” (59)

“It was a problem for which the rhetorical talents of Patrick Henry were superbly fitted. He was as Rhys Isaac puts it, firmly attached to the world of the gentry,’ but he spoke in words that the poorer whites of Virginia could understand. …

Patrick Henry’s oratory in Virginia pointed a way to relieve class tension between upper and lower classes and form a bond against the British. This was to find language inspiring to all classes, specific enough in its listing of grievances to charge people with anger against the British, vague enough to avoid class conflict among the rebels, and stirring enough to build patriotic feeling for the resistance movement.” (68)

“ ‘The people’ who were, supposedly, at the heart of Locke’s theory of people’s sovereignty were defined by a British member of Parliament: “I don’t mean the mob. . . . I mean the middle people of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman. . . .’

In America, too, the reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence (issued in the same year as Adam Smith’s capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations) was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history.” (74)

Hierarchal power structures seem intrinsic to how we order our lives, granted there are times when it is appropriate for a given technical function, but as the foundational distribution of wealth and power it clearly is problematic. What I’ve missed with these excerpts is Zinn’s description of the tribal communities of native Americans, and how they operated in a much more communal non-hierarchal manner. That’s not to say they didn’t have hierarchal systems internal to their order, it just wasn’t the dominate organizing factor to how they lived. The history of imperialist nations on the other hand seems to be dominated by a notion of progress and gain that is fueled by the suppression of fellow sentient beings. As an reflection of this, it seems Zinn is arguing that our very notion of justice is a product of the historical conditions of economic production.

“Four days after the reading [of the Declaration of Independence], the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve. This led to rioting, shouting: ‘Tryanny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may’.” (75)

“Edmund Morgan sums up the class nature of the Revolution this way: ‘The fact that the lower ranks were involved in the contest should not obscure the fact the contest itself was generally a struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established.’ Looking at the situation after the revolution, Richard Morris comments: ‘We the people of the United States’ (a phrase coined by the very rich Gouverneur Morris) did not mean Indians or blacks or women or white servants. In fact, there were more indentured servants then ever, and the Revolution ‘did nothing to end and little to ameliorate white bondage.’

Carl Degler says (out of our past): ‘No new social class came to power through the door of the American revolution. The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial ruling class.’ George Washington was the richest man in America. John Hancock was a prosperous Boston merchant. Benjamin Franklin was a wealthy printer. And so on.” (84-85)

“In the Federalist Paper #10, James Madison argued that representative government was needed to maintain peace in a society ridden by factional disputes. These disputes came from ‘the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.’ The problem, he said, was how to control the factional struggles that came from inequalities in wealth. Minority factional struggles could be controlled, he said, by the principle that decisions would be by vote of the majority.

So the real problem, according to Madison, was a majority faction, and here the solution was offered by the Constitution, to have ‘an extensive republic,’ that is, a large nation ranging over thirteen states, for then ‘it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. . . . The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.’

Madison’s argument can be seen as a sensible argument for having a government which can maintain peace and avoid continuous disorder. But is it the aim of government simply to maintain order, as a referee, between two equally matched fighters? Or is it that government has some special interest in maintaining a certain kind of order, a certain distribution of power and wealth, a distribution in which government officials are not neutral referees but participants? In that case, the disorder they might worry about is the disorder of popular rebellion against those monopolizing the society’s wealth. This interpretation makes sense when one looks at the economic interests, the social backgrounds, of the makers of the Constitution.” (96-97)

Zinn establishes that there is no neutral player, that all participants (wherever their position) are invested in “a certain distribution of power and wealth.” This notion of social positioning segues interestingly back to a discussion of cartography, as an interpretative gesture of orientation. For instance I recently visited New Orleans, and when examining the tourist maps, readily available for free at hotels, there were neighborhoods clearly marked for cultural consumption and those neighborhoods left completely blank. We decided to walk into the “blank” neighborhoods, and found the housing projects, where mostly poor blacks live. One could discuss at length the reading of these neighborhoods as “blank” or as not having anything to offer, a fine example of an interpretative system for making sense of the world and our place in it.

“The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum or coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.”(99)

This paragraph sums up why critics of the current system are met with such grief by so many middle (working) class Americans. It’s true that capitalism has been very productive, and the latest gadgets seem to give a sense of rapid progress, a sense of progress that is tantamount to salvation! How often do you hear some version of the idea that technological innovation will solve our problems? Whether its some version of green washing, with “green collar” jobs bring the economy back, or fundamental techno determinists talking about the unbridled march of technology, both fail to acknowledge the social element. That we are people living together, and no matter how many solar panels you put on your roof or the amount of processing power you put into your computer our problems will always be negotiated through the (collaborative / competitive) labor of living. If anything new technology solves problems as much as it creates them.

“Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at the time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.

As many as half the people were not even considered by the Founding Fathers as among Bailyn’s ‘contending powers’ in society. They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, they were absent in the Constitution, they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the woman of early America.”(101-102)

Zinn closes chapter five with a conclusion that segues nicely for chapter six (that looks like it will be focusing on issues of gender and possibly the emergence of feminist thinking). So while it is easy to consider these developments as attempts to resolve the problematics of an intrinsic human condition that is marching through a linear progression of history, there is another way of seeing it. As Zinn argues racism is not a “natural” expression of human relations, it is a way of justifying the ownership and sale human beings as slaves. That such modes of though are an expression of economic means. That gender and race issues are a product of an ideological system of interpretation that is an out growth of our economic mode of production. As the saying goes, we build the road and the road builds us. Further investigation into the dynamics of tribal communities might be a productive direction to look into.

addition information on Howard Zinn:

a conversation with history, Howard Zinn

democracy now, howard zinn & noam chomsky


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