Around 1776, powerful people in the American colonies—whom we know as the Founding Fathers—discovered that, by creating the idea of a nation with its own culture and symbols, they could strengthen their own leadership and steal power from British colonial rulers. Their discovery was brilliant: they created “the most effective system of national control devised in modern times.”
The idea that the American Revolution created new systems of control and domination might seem absolutely wrong—surely the Revolution created more freedom, not less. Zinn’s point, however, is that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can be forms of control. Put another way, he’s arguing that the Founding Fathers pacified their people by giving them just enough freedom and power not to rebel, while still preserving an unjust status quo.
In the years leading up to 1776, the local American leadership was becoming dissatisfied with British leadership. After the Seven Years’ War, AKA the French and Indian War, Britain raised taxes in the colonies, which drove up starvation and unemployment. The Founding Fathers—an upper and middle-class group—realized that they could manipulate the working classes’ resentment of Britain to strengthen their own power. Modern American politicians have followed the Founding Fathers’ example, using working-class anger for their own agenda.
In Marxist terms, the Founding Fathers are a classic example of the bourgeoisie, the middle-class people who lead rebellions against the powerful by manipulating the working classes’ hostilities. While most history textbooks suggest that the Founding Fathers were motivated by their love for liberty and equality, Zinn instead argues that their motive was much baser: they used war with Britain as a “smokescreen” for their own attempts to secure power.
Before the Revolutionary War, there had been political and economic conflict in the American colonies, but the conflict was mostly between the rich and the poor, not between America and Britain. In New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina, poor land tenants staged riots against their wealthy landlords. In North Carolina in the 1760s, a working-class movement called the Regulators, upset with excessive taxation, petitioned the local government with their grievances, and protested the “unequal chances the poor and the weak have in contentions with the rich and powerful.”
In order to bolster his argument that the Founding Fathers’ Revolutionary War was a conservative movement designed to protect their own power and property, Zinn contrasts the Revolutionary War with some of the populist movements that occurred in the years leading up to it. Notice that the land tenants and the Regulators didn’t petition Britain with their grievances—they directed their anger at the nearest representatives of power (the colonial elites).
The majority of battles in the Revolutionary War took place in the Northern colonies. One reason for this is that, in the agrarian Southern colonies where poor tenants often worked alongside rich farmers, it was more difficult to redirect working-class resentment outward toward the British. In Boston, by contrast, the Stamp Act attacked the economic security of the working, middle, and upper classes; in response, the working classes staged riots and demonstrations against the British. After the Stamp Act, however, American elites faced a problem: they needed to foster resentment for Britain without allowing it to endanger their own property. Thus, leaders like Samuel Adams encouraged the working class to be moderate, rather than rioting again.
Having established what a proletariat, populist movement looks like (see, for example, the actions of the Regulators), Zinn contrasts populism with the Founding Fathers’ efforts to take power from Britain. Leaders like Samuel Adams encouraged their working-class followers not to be too violent or aggressive in their actions, which Zinn interprets as a strategy designed to protect Adams’s own property from violence. In many parts of the country, particularly, the South, working-class people continued to direct most of the aggression at colonial elites, not outward to Britain.
The American colonial elite faced a problem: how to fight the British without radicalizing the working classes. Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, delivered in Virginia, symbolized the solution. Henry was from “the world of the gentry,” but he used the rhetoric of freedom to form a bond between upper and lower classes. Around the same time, Thomas Paine wrote his famous pamphlet, Common Sense, in which he attacked the divine right to rule. Instead of addressing the divide between rich and poor, Paine and Henry established a “safer” conflict, between the colonies and Britain.
Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine were important figures in American history, not so much because of their concrete actions but because of their rhetorical innovations. As Zinn sees it, the language of equality and liberty is critical to the preservation of inequality in America, because such language can deceive people into believing that they live in a just, moral country.
The crowning achievement of colonial rhetoric was, without a doubt, the Declaration of Independence. In this document, Thomas Jefferson blurs any distinctions between the rich and the poor by writing that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration excluded many people from its vision of human equality: Indians, blacks, slaves, and women. In short, Jefferson’s celebrated phrase, “all men are created equal,” was not a visionary celebration of human rights so much as it was an attempt to mobilize specific groups of American society—most important, working class white men—and establish a firm bond between these groups and the colonial elites as they prepared to fight Britain.
Even a cursory consideration of colonial society suggests that Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” wasn't intended to be literally true. Rather, Zinn argues, Jefferson’s claims were intended to enlist the loyalty of working-class white men—arguably the most dangerous and volatile people in colonial America—for the Revolutionary War.
Another famous passage from the Declaration of Independence argues that governments must protect people’s rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s often pointed out that Jefferson’s quote is borrowed from the works of the philosopher John Locke, especially his Second Treatise on Government, in which he celebrated man’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. Locke, like Jefferson, was a wealthy man; partly as a result, Locke focused on “government and political rights, but ignored the existing inequalities in property.” Locke was useful to the Founding Fathers because he provided intellectual support for their agenda: mobilizing “enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power.”
Property, Zinn suggests, is the “blind spot” in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson focused on human beings’ abstract, ideology equality, but totally ignored the concrete, economic inequalities in colonial America. (Zinn’s argument here owes a major debt to the writings of the 20th century German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse.) By emphasizing abstract equality and ignoring real-world inequality, the Founding Fathers were able to gain the loyalties of many American colonists without surrendering any of their power or property.
The Declaration of Independence galvanized the American colonists, inspiring many of them to take up arms against the British army. Most of the soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were working-class; rich people could avoid the draft by paying money. The fact that rich people could opt out led to more rioting: the rioters chanted, “tyranny is tyranny let it come from whom it may.”
Although the Founding Fathers were successful in deceiving the working-class people of America to sacrifice their lives for revolution, not everyone was fooled. As the colonists in this passage seem to have realized, the Founding Fathers weren’t truly liberating colonists from tyranny; they were only replacing an old, overt form of tyranny with a new, subtler kind of tyranny.