Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.3

Notes on Chapter 3, Persons of Mean and Vile Condition. Previously: chapter 2.

This chapter and the previous one really interrelate, to the extent that I’m almost not sure it made sense to separate them. On one hand, it makes a sort of intuitive sense to dedicate each of the first three chapters to native Americans, black people, and white people, and their respective interactions with the white ruling class. But in reality, these were not separate historical processes that can be examined in isolation; each influenced the others to a significant extent, and it’s only in this chapter about “poor whites” that we really get a full picture of the situation of native Americans and black people (both slave and free).

In itself the chapter details the situation of white servants, rural tenant farmers, and urban artisans. In particular it shows how the development of capitalist land ownership and trade in England (and its colonies in Ireland) helped to instigate migration to the Americas which was in turn exploited for profit first by ship-owners then by colonial landowners. It goes on to note that although even at this early stage there was a dream of class mobility and equality, only the earliest indentured servants had significant financial success after gaining their freedom; later migrants remained relatively poor. Particularly significant in this chapter, though, is the examination of the ways in which class conflict (i.e., between rich and poor whites) is defused by the process of racialization. Racial distinctions were entrenched, argues Zinn, in order to heighten the perception by poor whites that they had interests in common with the white ruling class — i.e., that the white landowner was not an exploiter but a protector of their common interests. This meant, for example, that the poorer farmers further away from coastal regions could act as a “buffer” against the native peoples, and look to the governments for protection rather than with resentment; it also meant that white farmers and servants could be counted on for assistance against potential slave revolts, rather than (as had earlier been the case) becoming part of the rebellion themselves.

We also see in this chapter (and with some foreshadowing of the next chapter) more of Zinn’s idea (not unfounded) that nationalism and liberal ideals serve to mask internal conflicts, both as a historical process (i.e., that contemporaries used ideas of an American nation to attempt to build unity against a common enemy) and one reflected in the historiography (he is critical of “the emphasis, in traditional histories, on the external struggle against England [and] the unity of colonists in the Revolution”).

However it’s at this point of the book that some of its flaws start to become apparent. After all, what is a history of the United States of America before 1776? A history of the thirteen colonies that would then go on to declare their independence? This seems to exclude, for no objective reason that I can see, the colonies in what would become Canada, for example; is their situation significantly different, thus leading to their later divergence? Or is that merely historical accident? It has also overlooked (after the beginning of the first chapter, at least) the non-British colonies in North America, even ones which (like Florida) would soon become part of the United States, and while New York for example is discussed at length (especially in the urban context) there’s very little discussion of whether the Dutch colonial authorities had been much different from the British.