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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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In A People's History of the United States, what evidence does Zinn offer to support his assertion that "colonies, as it seems, were societies of contending classes"? Why is this significant?

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In discussing the formation of England’s North American colonies that would later become the core of the United States, Howard Zinn looks (Chapter 3) at the origins of the settlers in class and race terms. Along with the massive enslavement of Africans, both before and after they were taken to the New World, various systems of servitude kept poor white in subordinate positions. The gap between rich and poor was already well established in 17th-century England. Indenture was one common system into which poor whites were bound, but not all of the whites participated in such arrangements, and many others were dismissed from their positions.

Zinn explores the case of Boston, Massachusetts from the 1680s – 1770s. Estimates show that by 1770, almost 30 percent of adult males were poor, but “the top 1 percent of property owners owned 44 percent of the wealth” (49). He cites contemporary newspapers and recent secondary sources that examined New England and other East Coast regions, which comment on the large number of beggar and vagabonds, the latter being the homeless, unemployed, “wandering poor.”

Among the evidence he offers for contention between these classes is reference to the large number of strikes by artisans, ranging from butchers to carters. As unemployed people could be rounded up and put into military, often naval, service—known as “impressment”—riots broke out against that procedure as well. One notorious incident of this type led to an attack on the Massachusetts governor’s house, in which a mob burned it down.

In some respects outside of the class system, because of limited employment and widespread enslavement, Native Americans together with Africans and their American descendant also challenged the upper classes. Fugitive slaves often found refuge in Native American communities, or formed new communities on their land, where they might live self-sufficiently and from which they could stage raids on the larger white settlements.

Zinn also explains the growth of a small middle-class as advantageous to the upper class, for it served as a buffer by supporting economic growth in exchange for “small rewards”; they would join forces with merchants and planters and help keep “black slaves, frontier Indians, and very poor whites” from challenging elite domination (57).

Thus, the 1670s rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon in Virginia, which aimed at “redressing the grievances of the poor” along with fighting Indians (41). Far from being an anomaly, the rebellion was one significant step along a path of class conflict that characterized what became U.S. society more than a century before the nation was formed.

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The quote that you cite is found about halfway through Chapter 3 of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  Most of the rest of the chapter gives his evidence for this, so there is more evidence that we can possibly put in an answer.  This is all significant because Zinn is Marxist and Marxism holds that societies are characterized by class conflict.  If Zinn is right, then Marxist analysis, and not talk of democracy and rights, can explain colonial American society.

There is a great deal of evidence that, according to Zinn, shows class conflict in the colonies.  Some examples include:

  • Bacon’s Rebellion was largely caused by poor people angry at the aristocracy.
  • There were lots of indentured servants who were treated very badly.
  • Abbot Smith, who studied indentured servitude, said that colonial society was “was not democratic and certainly not equalitarian.”
  • Carl Bridenbaugh did a study of colonial cities that showed that they had “a clear-cut class system.”

Zinn presents all of this evidence and much more.

His claim is significant because it would mean that conventional wisdom about the colonies (and the Revolution that came out of them) is wrong.  We emphasize how the colonies were more democratic and egalitarian than Europe.  We emphasize that their rebellion was based on the idea that “all men are created equal.”  If Zinn is right, the colonies were the site of Marxist class struggle.  This would be a significant finding.

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