Howard Zinn on the American Revolution

The traditional view that we are all taught in school is that a handful of noble heroes gathered in Philadelphia and magnanimously gave to “The People” control of the reins of government—“If you can keep it,” added BF.

In Zinn’s perspective there was a genuine populist uprising brewing all through the colonies.  90 years before the publication of Das Kapital, people of the American colonies self-organized to throw off the economic shackles with which England was sapping their productive work.  But a handful of aristocratic connivers arranged to co-opt the  people’s energies, and divert the revolution toward a limited transfer of power—from British elites to American elites. — JJM

“In 1776, certain people in the English colonies made a discovery: 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 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. When we look at the American Revolution in this way, it was a work of genius.”

“The Revolutionary leadership distrusted the mobs of poor. But they knew the Revolution had no appeal to slaves and Indians. They would have to woo the armed white population.”

“It seemed that the majority of white colonists, who had a bit of land, or no property at all, were still better off than slaves or indentured servants or Indians, and could be wooed into the coalition of the Revolution.”

“Here was the traditional device by which those in charge of any social order mobilise and discipline a recalcitrant population, offering the adventure and rewards of military service to get poor people to fight for a cause they may not see clearly as their own.”

“[It was] a wonderfully useful device, the language of liberty and equality which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution, without ending either slavery or inequality.”

“Inspirational language is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in an apparent consensus and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.”

“It seems that the rebellion against British rule allowed a certain group of the colonial elite to replace those loyal to England, give some benefits to small landholders, and leave poor white working people and tenant farmers in very much their old situation.”

“One would look, in examining the Revolution’s effect on class relations, at what happened to land confiscated from fleeing Loyalists. It was distributed in such a way as to give a double opportunity to the Revolutionary leaders: to enrich themselves and their friends, and to parcel out some land to small farmers to create a broad base of support for the new government”

“The new constitutions that were drawn up in all states from 1776 to 1780 were not much different from the old ones. Although property qualifications for voting and holding office were lowered in some instances, in Massachusetts they were increased. Only Pennsylvania abolished them totally.”

“The inferior position of blacks, the exclusion of Indians from the new society, the establishment of supremacy for the rich and powerful in the new nation — all this was already settled in the colonies by the time of the Revolution. With the English out of the way, it could now be put on paper, solidified, regularised, made legitimate, by the Constitution of the United States.”

“At the Constitutional Convention, [Alexander] Hamilton suggested a President and Senate chosen for life. The Convention did not take his suggestion. But neither did it provide for popular elections, except in the case of the House of Representatives, where the qualifications were set by the state legislatures (which required property holding for voting in almost all states), and excluded women, Indians and slaves.”

“The Constitution serves the interest of a wealthy elite — it enables the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law all made possible by the fanfare of patriotism.”

“The problem of democracy in post-revolutionary society was not the constitutional limitations on voting. It lay deeper, beyond the Constitution, in the division of society into rich and poor. For if some people had great wealth and great influence — if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system — how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?”

— from A People’s History, by Howard Zinn

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