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 4: Tyranny Is Tyranny.
What This Chapter Is About
In this chapter, Zinn traces the causes of the American Revolution and provides a new way of looking at the Declaration of Independence. The chapter is best summed up by its opening paragraphs:
Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.
When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.
This was the most “history” lesson type chapter so far, with Zinn sweeping through a host of rebellions—from the reactions to the Stamp Act of 1765 to the Regulators Movement in North Carolina to the Boston Tea Party. The famous Common Sense pamphlet by Thomas Paine is also discussed. All of this leads up to the big moment when the colonists established the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence gave most colonists something to hang their hat on. As Zinn writes:
All this, the language of popular control over governments, the right of rebellion and revolution, indignation at political tyranny, economic burdens and military attacks, was language well suited to unite large numbers of colonists, and persuade even those who had grievances against one another to turn against England.
Of course, Zinn must point out who is excluded from the “circle of united interest drawn by the Declaration of Independence: Indians, blacks, slaves and women.”
Zinn does grant that the phrase “all men are created equal” was “probably not a deliberate attempt to make a statement about women. It was just that women were beyond consideration as worthy of inclusion. They were politically invisible.” He goes on to say that, although the Declaration of Independence really was talking about life, liberty and happiness for white males, to expect otherwise, is to “lay impossible moral burdens on that time.”
Still, I think it is interesting that, in modern times, we like to think that the Declaration of Independence was more inclusive than it was initially meant to be. Over time, as the country has granted more rights to those initially excluded, we’ve gone back and collectively revised the statement of “all men are created equal” to be more expansive—having it now apply to women, blacks and Indians. I think it is important to view the Declaration of Independence in the context in which it was written—just like it is important to view the Bible in the context in which it was written. Over time, we’ve taken these documents and made them fit what we need and want them to mean to us today. It is an interesting exercise to go back and look at them in the proper context. By looking at the events and society at the time, I think Zinn provides a new lens through which to view this document that has been so critical in U.S. history and how the U.S. thinks about itself.