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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is Zinn's main argument in Chapter 3 of A People's History of the United States?

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Chapter 3 of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States discusses Bacon’s Rebellion. Bacon’s Rebellion is always complex to talk about because while it was an uprising of the masses against the wealthy, it was instigated by a wealthy landowner. It’s also overtly racist, in that the colonizer’s anger...

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Chapter 3 of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States discusses Bacon’s Rebellion. Bacon’s Rebellion is always complex to talk about because while it was an uprising of the masses against the wealthy, it was instigated by a wealthy landowner. It’s also overtly racist, in that the colonizer’s anger was also directed toward Native Americans. Zinn takes all of this more or less into account, and the basic argument he makes is that America was built on deep inequality, an inequality that persists to this day.

Poor white settlers in the 1670s felt they were being pushed toward the west, as most of eastern Virginia was owned by wealthy landowners. Thus they saw the Native Americans and wealthy landowners both as their oppressors, coming at them from each side. When Nathaniel Bacon was elected to the House of Burgesses in Spring 1676, there had been an escalation of violence between the white settlers and the Native Americans.

Some Doeg Indians took a few hogs to redress a debt, and whites, retrieving the hogs, murdered two Indians. The Doegs then sent out a war party to kill a white herdsman, after which a white militia company killed twenty-four Indians. This led to a series of Indian raids, with the Indians, outnumbered, turning to guerrilla warfare. The House of Burgesses in Jamestown declared war on the Indians, but proposed to exempt those Indians who cooperated. This seemed to anger the frontiers people, who wanted total war but also resented the high taxes assessed to pay for the war.

In July of 1676, Bacon published his “Declaration of the People,” which “show[ed] a mixture of populist resentment against the rich and frontier hatred of the Indians.” Given Bacon’s own status as a fairly wealthy owner of land, it’s highly likely that he was more invested in killing Native Americans than in reducing class differences, but the general population of Virginia backed him with gusto. William Berkeley, alarmed by the growing support, captured Bacon and named him a rebel but released him after over 2,000 supporters marched into Jamestown. The rebellion continued in the form of murderous raids on Native Americans but died soon after Bacon’s death at age 29.

It nevertheless alarmed the colonies’ elite, who worried that working-class whites and slaves would unite in another rebellion like this one. They tightened their grip in order to prevent this from happening, turning poor whites, blacks, and Native Americans against each other. The other main thrust of Zinn’s argument in this chapter, then, is that the reality of colonial America was nothing like our popular notion of a united front against Britain. There were far more complex class distinctions and race relations at work, and it was in part due to wealthy landowners’ manipulation of the poor that they managed to retain power.

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