Monday, February 13, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 5

Welcome to Week 5 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first four weeks? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothree, and four.)

My thoughts: Chapter 5, entitled "A Kind of Revolution," addresses the distracting impact of war on the lower and middle classes and the Constitution. This chapter is filled with cynicism and provides haunting parallels to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the current state of Congressional elections.

Here are some snapshots of (correct, in my opinion) cynicism:

"Ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations—consciously or not—that war makes them more secure against internal trouble."

"In short, as Francis Jennings puts it, the white Americans were fighting against British imperial control in the East, and for their own imperialism in the West."

Under the illusion of the mandate that all must serve in the Revolution, in reality there were two ways to get our of military service: finding someone to replace you or paying a fee. While not surprising, this reality was incredibly disheartening. Again, this chapter seemed quite similar to those that preceded it, but when the focus shifted to the genesis of the Constitution, I found it quite intriguing.

The discussion of the politics behind the Constitution more fascinating than depressing, which was incredibly refreshing: "The Constitution was a compromise between slaveholding interests of the South and moneyed interests of the North." I realized I had maintained some of my childhood enthusiasm for the Founding Fathers and the Constitution when I was surprised to think of it as a document of compromise. Even now, with every legal decision based on Constitutionality of a law, it's hard not to revere it as a guiding document.

It is a fascinating document, and this passage resonates powerfully still today: "The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity."

I thought the last chapter was a watershed chapter, but it seems next week will be more of a departure as the focus shifts to women. I'm excited to see how Zinn tackles the issue next week.

Favorite passage: "We see then, in the first years of the Constitution, that some of its provisions—even those paraded most flamboyantly (like the First Amendment)—might be treated lightly. Others (like the power to tax) would be powerfully enforced."

Intrigued? Read along! 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 agree with you: this chapter felt like everything he's been talking about coming together. It was an interesting way to look a the Constitution, which is so revered as a guiding document for everyone. One of the things that struck me was how the First Amendment rights got restricted within a few years with the passage of the Sedition Act. I too am ready for the next chapter.

    1. Jenners, I was really struck by the Sedition Act too. I can't wait to discuss again next week!

  2. Zinn seems to be adept at pointing out that there are always motives behind the obvious when governments begin to take shape, and wars are being fought. This was a very interesting perspective on the material. I enjoyed reading your take on it.

  3. I never thought of it like that, but it's so true...the War on Terror was brilliant only in the sense that it stirred up patriotism.


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