Aristocracy in America: Notes for a Review of “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn.



At the very start of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, the governor, John Winthrop, had declared the philosophy of the rulers: “… in all times some must be rich, some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjection.”
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States (p. 48). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.

We Americans like to think of the US as always the land of opportunity, but the facts are pretty different.  In British America, an aristocratic society was established very early.

It seems quite clear that class lines hardened through the colonial period; the distinction between rich and poor became sharper. By 1700 there were fifty rich families in Virginia, with wealth equivalent to 50,000 pounds (a huge sum those days), who lived off the labor of black slaves and white servants, owned the plantations, sat on the governor’s council, served as local magistrates.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States (p. 47). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.

John Locke (yes, that John Locke) wrote the constitution of the Carolinas in the 1660s.  It set up a system where eight barons would own 40% of the land and only barons could serve as governor.

Howard Zinn sets out his agenda early.  He intends to tell the story of the oppressed: Indians, slaves, indentured servants, workers and protestors.  The story of the mighty gets short shrift, except mostly for when they star as villains.  This is not your high school American history.  It is, however, meticulously documented.  Those interested in how the world really works (as opposed to hagiographic folk tales) should read this, even if they are convinced that they won’t agree with Zinn’s assessments (I frequently don’t).

Zinn called himself an Anarchist and Democratic Socialist, but the "Commies under every bed" crowd are sure he was a Communist.  But they tend to think anybody to the left of Francisco Franco is a Communist, and the evidence adduced is slim.  It’s pretty clear that he sees history through a class struggle tinted lens, though he’s far from dogmatic when it comes to details.  Of course the idea of oppression by upper classes explains a lot of history, if not nearly so much as Marxists think.  Hobbes and Darwin saw more clearly.

Zinn sees the American Revolution mainly as a clever method for the American upper class to better exploit the lower classes, but he does pick up a thread that’s particularly relevant today.

We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States (p. 61). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.

In fact, as Zinn himself points out, the Bostonians who led the Revolution were middle class.  It was a bourgeois revolution.


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