Monday, January 30, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 3

Welcome to Week 3 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first two weeks? Check out my posts for weeks one and two.) I'm still thoroughly enjoying this read-a-long. This week I even took Jill's advice and snagged a copy of Voices of a People's History of the United States, which is collection of primary source documents organized around the chapters of A People's History of the United States. I'm not reading all of them, but I'm dipping into the ones that most interest me. It's adding another fascinating layer to this book.

My thoughts: Chapter 3, entitled "Persons of Mean and Vile Condition," deals with the class system in the colonies. More specifically, Zinn addresses how class was impacted by the existing class system of Britain and how it shifted to include Indians, slaves, (white) servants, and former servants. I'm deeply concerned at what I see as our current class system in this country, and this chapter was fascinating and disturbing to see how long we've faced these problems:
"A historian who studied Boston tax lists in 1687 and 1771 found that in 1687 there were, out of a population of six thousand, about one thousand property owners, and that the top 5 percent—1 percent of the population—consisted of fifty rich individuals who had 25 percent of the wealth. By 1770, the top 1 percent of property owners owned 44 percent of the wealth."
In the last chapter I was fascinated by the difference in behavior between freed slaves brought to the U.S. and those born here. This chapter offered a similarly eerie glimpse into the behavior of freed servants:
"The first batches of servants became landowners and politically active in the colony, but by the second half of the century more than half the servants, even after ten years of freedom, remained landless. Servants became tenants, providing cheap labor for the large planters both during and after their servitude."
The illusion of America as a place to start fresh is once again dissected in this chapter as Zinn looks at who these people were before they came to the United States:
"The servants who joined Bacon’s Rebellion were part of a large underclass of miserably poor whites who came to the North American colonies from European cities whose governments were anxious to be rid of them. In England, the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagrant poor, and from the reign of Elizabeth on, laws were passed to punish them, imprison them in workhouses, or exile them."
Perhaps the most damning (and incredibly fascinating tidbit) about America not being an idyllic land of opportunity is this one: "Parliament, in 1717, made transportation to the New World a legal punishment for crime. After that, tens of thousands of convicts could be sent to Virginia, Maryland, and other colonies."

In the midst of a presidential campaign, where the rhetoric of liberty and equality are thrown around my candidates able to self-finance a campaign, I witnessed eerie similarities to the behavior of the ruling class in colonial times. The cynic in me came out strongly as I read this chapter and bemoaned how little has changed.

Favorite passage: "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."

Intrigued? There's still time to join us! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!

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  1. I also found that today's situations were eerily similar to those found on the page, and it was very bothersome to me that so much of the wealth and power were given to such a small group of people. I was also struck by the nefarious games that the privileged played to keep the the poor under control and to stop them from rebelling. This book has been so enlightening for me, but also infuriating. There are so many misconceptions about this country, and Zinn is exposing all of them, one by one. It's sad to see that as much as some things have changed, a lot has stayed the same.

  2. I was kind of stunned into silence when I read the bits about the top 1% of the population having most of the wealth. How eerie that we are raving about the exact same thing so many hundreds of years later. Makes me more worried about the future - a great chapter this week and yes, the pacing is perfect.

  3. When I was a kid my dad said to me, "When they say anyone can be President? It's a lie. You have to be rich." I was reminded of that often as I read this chapter. Those with money were able to dictate the rules...and for the most part, they still do.

  4. Gosh … you are really good at doing these write-ups. I'm so impressed. Some of the same passages resonated with me … and it is so easy to see how our society today reflects the one Zinn describes in this chapter. Makes you feel a bit saddened by that.

  5. Books like this fascinate/horrify me -- the deep roots of inequality in this country -- intense! Good to learn/frightening to learn. I love these write ups -- you've got me searching for this.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!