A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Founding Fathers won the Revolutionary War in large part because they used rhetoric to convince large numbers of working-class colonists to fight against Britain. However, it’s important to note that a huge portion of the colonists were either neutral or supported the King. Many working-class whites who did join the American militia didn’t join simply because of patriotic fervor: they believed that serving in the military would bring them fortune.
At many points in his book, Zinn will emphasize that the majority of people in the United States aren’t convinced by their leaders’ lofty rhetoric and arguments for patriotism. Here, for example, he makes the point that many colonists—indeed, the majority of colonists—either didn’t support the revolution, or only supported it because they sought economic advancement.
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Throughout the Revolutionary War, there continued to be conflicts between the rich and the poor in the American colonies. Some militia groups, furious with the wealthy colonists who claimed to support the Revolution but did not fight for it, staged mutinies. In Trenton, New Jersey, George Washington ordered the execution of three militia leaders planning a mutiny.
Few history textbooks talk about the colonists who refused to fight in the Revolutionary War, or who staged mutinies when they realized that the Revolutionary Army was no less tyrannical than the British government. In this chapter, Zinn remedies some of these omissions.
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After the Revolutionary War, colonial elites had to decide what to do with the land left by fleeing Loyalists; by and large, they claimed this land for themselves or gave it to middle-class farmers who’d fought in the war. Women, slaves, and indentured servants didn’t gain any property. In short, the Revolutionary War didn’t create a new social class; it just allowed the wealthiest and most powerful Americans to become wealthier and more powerful.
The aftermath of the Revolutionary War established a pattern that would continue throughout American history: after implying that working-class people stood to gain a lot from military victory, the elites proceeded to claim most of the “spoils of war” for themselves, doling out only small rewards for the less powerful. War, Zinn argues, doesn’t really benefit “America”—only a few wealthy American elites see any gains from war.
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The Revolutionary War was a milestone for American Indians, because it encouraged American colonists to push Indians off their land, “killing them if they resisted.” From the 1750s onward, with the colonial population increasing quickly, most Indian tribes opposed the colonists, and in the Revolutionary War they largely allied with the British. After the Revolutionary War, “Americans assumed now that the Indian land was theirs.” Working-class colonists expanded westward, and continued to fight Indian tribes. Some historians have argued that the working-class colonists who went west acted as a “bulwark” against colonial elites, effectively protecting elites’ property from Indian aggression.
It’s telling that, both in the French and Indian War, and in the Revolutionary War, Native Americans supported European powers against the American colonists. By this time, American colonists had a lengthy history of disrespecting Native Americans’ rights. With the end of the Revolutionary War, working-class colonists were able to claim new land in the west; however, Zinn suggests that these colonists were perhaps allowed to claim that land because of the benefits bestowed on elites by a working class population living between elite property and Indian lands.
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The Revolutionary War was also a milestone for black slaves. Slaves fought in the war, usually on the American side. Zinn argues that the war created “opportunity for blacks to begin making demands of white society.” Free blacks in the North petitioned their leaders to repeal discriminatory laws. However, the economic structure of early American society, resting on slave labor, prevented almost all positive changes for African Americans.
Zinn is willing to credit the Revolutionary War with providing some minimal advantages for black Americans; nevertheless, as he makes very clear, the Revolutionary War did nothing to end the fundamental problems with black life in America. Thus, slavery continued for almost a century after the war.
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The Constitution is often called a work of genius. But other historians, such as Charles Beard, have argued that it represented a way for American elites to protect their own economic interests through a strong federal government. Most—though not all—elites favored a strong government because they wanted a force to protect their property from potential uprisings. In 1786, for example, the farmer Daniel Shays, who had fought in the Revolutionary War, mobilized other working-class veterans to protest the new American status quo. American elites were frightened that Shays’ example would set off other rebellions.
It’s telling that, even after the Revolutionary War, working-class people continued to demonstrate and exert force in the colonies. Zinn, following Charles Beard, argues that Shays’ Rebellion helped convince the Founding Fathers that they needed to create a strong national state that could protect their property from future rioters and revolutionaries like Daniel Shays.
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To understand the Founding Fathers’ motives for signing the Constitution, it’s instructive to study the Federalist Papers—the essays penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay at the time when the thirteen colonies were ratifying the Constitution. In Federalist Paper #10, Madison argues that American government must play the part of a referee, moderating disputes between different factions—especially factions that wanted the abolition of debts and an “equal division of property.” Zinn posits that Madison wanted the government to “maintain … a certain distribution of power and wealth … in which government officials are not neutral referees but participants.”
The Federalist Papers are often praised in political science classes; however, Zinn interprets them very differently from how they’re usually understood. Zinn argues that Madison’s statement that the government should be a “referee” for factions suggests Madison’s belief that powerful people need to sew discord and disunity in their subjects, in order to ensure that these subjects are too weak to rise up and rebel. In short, Federalist #10 codifies and intellectualizes the strategies of division that the colonial elites pioneered after Bacon’s Rebellion.
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The Constitution was ratified throughout the colonies because it appealed both to the wealthy and to the middle class. Middle class merchants, farmers, and artisans were essentially nationalistic in their beliefs: they wanted a government that could protect their property from populist uprisings, especially those led by slaves and poor whites.
Zinn argues, somewhat cursorily, that the Constitution was, above all, appealing for wealthy and middle-class people, not the working classes. Historians have criticized Zinn for not clarifying what, precisely, he means by “middle-class” Americans—sometimes, he lumps this group in with the working-classes, and at other times, he links them with the elite.
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Following the ratification of the Constitution, the first Congress of the United States passed the Bill of Rights, a series of amendments to the Constitution that seemed to protect personal freedoms. However, it quickly became apparent that the new American government had the power to limit personal freedoms however it saw fit. In 1798, under the John Adams administration, the federal government passed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to say anything against the government.
Zinn sees the Bill of Rights as a symbolic tribute to American freedom, more than a strong protection of freedom—it didn’t take more than a decade for the federal government to begin attacking people’s right to free speech.
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Also in the early days of the United States the federal government proved itself to be as aggressive with taxation as Britain had been. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, formed a Bank of the United States and levied a series of taxes—including the Whiskey Tax, which hurt small farmers. Hamilton personally led troops to enforce the tax and put down any potential rebellion among the farmers.
The early days of the United States eerily parallel the final days of British rule. Just like Great Britain in the 1750s and 60s, the early U.S. government levied a series of heavy taxes on the working class, and used military force to maintain its domination.
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To this day, the Founding Fathers are often seen as wise men who wanted to maintain a healthy balance of power. In reality, the Founding Fathers wanted to maintain an unequal “balance,” in the sense that they wanted to protect their own property and keep the working classes subservient. Furthermore, the women of early America were mostly “invisible” from the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy, as we’ll see in the following chapter.
Zinn concludes the chapter by offering some harsh truths about the Founding Fathers. Most history textbooks paint Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson as heroic, larger-than-life people—an interpretation that’s credible only when one ignores the experiences of common, working-class people during and after the Revolutionary War. The Founding Fathers were brilliant, but Zinn implies that their greatest achievement might have been “tricking” their followers (and generations of historians) into believing that their motives were loftier and more idealistic than they really were. For a more “balanced” account of the Founding Fathers—one which agrees with many of Zinn’s points, but which also takes seriously some of the Founding Fathers’ radical beliefs—consult Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution.
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