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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is the main idea of Chapter 10 of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn?

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Zinn defies the usual division of United States history into pre-Civil War, Civil War, and post-Civil War periods. Instead, he examines 1830 1870 as a whole, from the perspective of the working class struggle to obtain fair wages, shorter working days (such as the 12 or 10-hour day), and...

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Zinn defies the usual division of United States history into pre-Civil War, Civil War, and post-Civil War periods. Instead, he examines 18301870 as a whole, from the perspective of the working class struggle to obtain fair wages, shorter working days (such as the 12 or 10-hour day), and safer working conditions. However, Zinn says, the working class struggle is often obscured by historians, in part by the emphasis on the Civil War and slavery, as well as simple neglect of the workers' stories and the workers' own prudent need to work quietly:

The full extent of the working-class consciousness of those yearsas of any yearsis lost in history, but fragments remain and make us wonder how much of this always existed underneath the very practical silence of working people.

Zinn makes the point that working class people toiling in northern factories, including women and children, fought almost nonstop for a better deal, largely through strikes. At certain points, such as the economic crisis in the 1850s, the situation was so bad that the ships to Liverpool were crowded with immigrants returning to Europe.

Yet, Zinn writes, working people never staged a revolution. Instead, they tried to work through political parties and legislation. However, because politics and the courts were controlled by the rich, the working classes could not achieve their goals that way. At the end of the 1870s, they were still largely powerless.

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Chapter 10, "The Other Civil War," is about the ways in which the federal government became essentially conservative and crushed any serious attempt at social reform; as a result, the government largely supported the capitalist class. The chapter starts with two popular uprisings, the Anti-Renter Movement in upstate New York and Dorr's Rebellion in Rhode Island, both of which were crushed. Zinn writes of the aftermath of the Anti-Renter Movement, "It was intended to make clear that farmers could not win by fighting--that they must confine their efforts to voting, to acceptable methods of reform." The Supreme Court ruled in the aftermath of Dorr's Rebellion, an attempt to open up the franchise to non-land owners, that it would not interfere in political questions. Zinn writes, "The decision reinforced the essentially conservative nature of the Supreme Court: that on critical issues--war and revolution--it would defer to the President and Congress."

Zinn writes that while the Jacksonian Era is seen as advantageous to the common man, in reality, forces during that era co-opted the working class into a system that hurt them, in part by only allowing two political parties. He goes on to document a number of working-class rebellions during the time period, such as the Flour Riot of 1837 in New York carried out by the  Equal Rights party (called the Locofocos) in reaction to the excesses of capitalism and to economic downtowns. However, class consciousness among the working class never fully gelled. Even during the strikes that followed the Civil War, the working class could never defeat the combined power of the federal government and capitalists.

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The main idea of Chapter 10 is that in an almost forty-year period from 1839 - 1877 there was another Civil War occurring in addition to the one fought between the military forces of the North and the South. This other Civil War was pitting the rich against the poor.

Just as with the military civil war, this other conflict was fought on many fronts. In the summer and autumn of 1839 the Anti-Rent Movement had its beginnings. Following closely in time was the Dorr Rebellion that focused on voting rights for those who did not own land. Other, more involved clashes of rich versus poor took place in the mid-1800s across the US as cities grew and East reached out to connect to West. These dealt mainly with sanitation and clean fresh water. Unions began organizing during this time period as well. Finally in 1877 the nation experienced numerous railroad strikes.

In summary, many clashes and strikes took place between 1839 and 1877, almost a forty-year period that included the North-South Civil War.

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