Zinn ends his chapter, ‘ Persons of Mean and Vile Condition’ describing the creation and emergence of a white middle class...

“to call them “the people” was to omit black slaves, white servants, displaced Indians. And the term “middle class” concealed a fact long true about this country, that, as Richard Hofstadter said: “it was...a middle-class society governed for the most part by its upper classes.””

Zinn then moves us into Chapter 4, “Tyranny is Tyranny”, in which he begins to trace the development of the American Revolutionary Movement. He describes the happy discovery made by the American elite when they realized the power and leverage they could acquire with the white servant and working class if they succeeded at distinguishing themselves favorably from the British colonial elite. 

He discusses how those upper classes which were governing the society, “in order to rule,” had to make efforts to keep the middle class portion of society happy. They had to, “make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, [and] at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760’s and 1770’s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.”

Zinn begins to explain what that “device”, the “language of liberty and equality”, was working to dissuade.

There was a growing unrest with the distribution of wealth. There are records of letters in the newspaper which speak to this: “How often have our Streets been covered with Thousands of Barrels of Flour for trade, while our near Neighbors can hardly procure enough to make a Dumplin to satisfy hunger?” 

There was also a growing questioning as to whether the accumulation of private property should be a right. Zinn references Gary Nash: “By mid 1716, laborers, artisans, and small tradesmen, employing extralegal measures when electoral politics failed, were in clear command in Philadelphia...Helped by some middle class leaders, they launched a full scale attack on wealth and even on on the right to acquire unlimited private property.”

During a constitutional convention in 1716, the Privates Committee drew up a Bill of Rights for the convention which included this statement: “an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”

So how did the American elite manage to divert those notions about wealth and private property that might have drastically changed the direction in which our nation evolved? How did they manage to transform it into a movement/a revolution, not against wealth and private property accumulation, but against the British?

We will have to read on!

Leave a Reply.