Fizzy Jill and I (and a bunch of others) are reading a chapter a week of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Each Monday, we’ll be posting our thoughts on that week’s chapter. Feel free to join us in whatever way you prefer—by reading along, commenting, or writing your own posts. To keep things organized, link up posts over at Jill’s blog as she is the quasi-official host who designed the button and reading schedule. This week, we read Chapter 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition.
What This Chapter Is About
While Chapter 2 discussed the beginnings of slavery in the U.S., this chapter looks at the lives of white indentured servants and the development of a class system that solidified the power of the “haves” at the expense of the “have nots” by creating a middle class that acted as a buffer between the richest and the poorest.
The chapter starts with Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising in Jamestown, Virginia by several disenfranchised groups—poor white frontiersman, white servants and black slaves. The rebellion had two targets: the Native Americans (who the frontiersman perceived as a threat) and the leaders of the Jamestown colony (the rich and privileged landowners). Although moderately successful, Bacon’s Rebellion ultimately failed—partly due to Bacon’s premature death and the trickery and bigger gun power of the colony’s leaders.
The rest of the chapter examines the lives of a large underclass of poor whites who were shipped to America as indentured servants. (An indenture was an agreement in which the costs of passage to America are paid off by working for a master for 5 to 7 years.) Treated as property upon their arrival, most indentured servants found life difficult. Historians found that very few indentured servants who earned their freedom were able to obtain property or build a good life for themselves. Soon, the colonial cities were filled with “the wandering poor,” whose daily lives were simply a struggle to find food.
By the end of the chapter, we see the formation of a middle class—”industrious farmers, artificers or men in trade.” This middle class (which excluded black slaves, white servants, displaced Indians and poor whites) was governed by the upper classes. Zinn discusses how the upper classes solidified their position:
Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, 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 1760s and 1770s, 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.
Folks, we’ve got our lead-in for Chapter 4, which deals with the start of the American Revolution (or, as Zinn titles the chapter, Tyranny Is Tyranny).
One of the things that stood out for me in this chapter was an account of an indentured servant’s passage to America. This was no pleasure cruise! Considering that you had to pay for your passage to America with 5 to 7 years of hard labor and servitude, one might expect something a bit different from this account by Gottlieb Mittelberger, who described his 1750 voyage to America like this:
During the journey the ship is full of pitiful signs of distress—smells, fumes, horrors, vomiting, various kinds of sea sickness, fever, dysentery, headaches, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and similar afflictions, all of them caused by the age and the high salted state of the food, especially of the meat, as well as by the very bad and filthy water. … Add to all that shortage of food, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, fear, misery, vexation and lamentation as well as other troubles. … On board our ship, one a day on which we had a great storm, a woman about to give birth and unable to deliver under the circumstances, was pushed through one of the portholes into the sea…
Did you read that last line? A woman in the midst of trying to give birth is pushed overboard into the sea. Just imagine that scenario for a minute. Of all the horrors and injustices that I’ve read about so far in this book, this particular image just boggled my mind.
Another thing that gave me pause was the description of the class structure that was developing during this time—with the upper class occupied by a few rich landowners, a large middle class (acting as a buffer) and the lowest classes (who have little chance of escaping poverty). Sound familiar? That this description doesn’t sound all that different from our society today is both disheartening and depressing. In addition, Zinn’s assertion that the American Revolution was the catalyst for cementing this class structure makes you think long and hard. Once again, I’m struck by the difference in traditional U.S. history taught in schools and the view that Zinn is presenting, which widens and expands our view by giving us different eyes to see with.