Howard Zinn, “Untold Truths About the American Revolution”

Howard Zinn, the renowned American historian, provides an account of equality and violence in the American Revolution that differs significantly from Arendt’s assessment. Here is a brief article that summarizes his view.  The original can be found here.


Untold Truths About the American Revolution

There are things that happen in the world that are bad, and you want to do something about them. You have a just cause. But our culture is so war prone that we immediately jump from, “This is a good cause” to “This deserves a war.”

You need to be very, very comfortable in making that jump.

The American Revolution—independence from England—was a just cause. Why should the colonists here be occupied by and oppressed by England? But therefore, did we have to go to the Revolutionary War?

How many people died in the Revolutionary War?

Nobody ever knows exactly how many people die in wars, but it’s likely that 25,000 to 50,000 people died in this one. So let’s take the lower figure—25,000 people died out of a population of three million. That would be equivalent today to two and a half million people dying to get England off our backs.

You might consider that worth it, or you might not.

Canada is independent of England, isn’t it? I think so. Not a bad society. Canadians have good health care. They have a lot of things we don’t have. They didn’t fight a bloody revolutionary war. Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England?

In the year before those famous shots were fired, farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place. But then came Lexington and Concord, and the revolution became violent, and it was run not by the farmers but by the Founding Fathers. The farmers were rather poor; the Founding Fathers were rather rich.

Who actually gained from that victory over England? It’s very important to ask about any policy, and especially about war: Who gained what? And it’s very important to notice differences among the various parts of the population. That’s one thing were not accustomed to in this country because we don’t think in class terms. We think, “Oh, we all have the same interests.” For instance, we think that we all had the same interests in independence from England. We did not have all the same interests.

Do you think the Indians cared about independence from England? No, in fact, the Indians were unhappy that we won independence from England, because England had set a line—in the Proclamation of 1763—that said you couldn’t go westward into Indian territory. They didn’t do it because they loved the Indians. They didn’t want trouble. When Britain was defeated in the Revolutionary War, that line was eliminated, and now the way was open for the colonists to move westward across the continent, which they did for the next 100 years, committing massacres and making sure that they destroyed Indian civilization.

So when you look at the American Revolution, there’s a fact that you have to take into consideration. Indians—no, they didn’t benefit.

Did blacks benefit from the American Revolution?

Slavery was there before. Slavery was there after. Not only that, we wrote slavery into the Constitution. We legitimized it.

What about class divisions?

Did ordinary white farmers have the same interest in the revolution as a John Hancock or Morris or Madison or Jefferson or the slaveholders or the bondholders? Not really.

It was not all the common people getting together to fight against England. They had a very hard time assembling an army. They took poor guys and promised them land. They browbeat people and, oh yes, they inspired people with the Declaration of Independence. It’s always good, if you want people to go to war, to give them a good document and have good words: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, when they wrote the Constitution, they were more concerned with property than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You should take notice of these little things.

There were class divisions. When you assess and evaluate a war, when you assess and evaluate any policy, you have to ask: Who gets what?

We were a class society from the beginning. America started off as a society of rich and poor, people with enormous grants of land and people with no land. And there were riots, there were bread riots in Boston, and riots and rebellions all over the colonies, of poor against rich, of tenants breaking into jails to release people who were in prison for nonpayment of debt. There was class conflict. We try to pretend in this country that we’re all one happy family. We’re not.

And so when you look at the American Revolution, you have to look at it in terms of class.

Do you know that there were mutinies in the American Revolutionary Army by the privates against the officers? The officers were getting fine clothes and good food and high pay and the privates had no shoes and bad clothes and they weren’t getting paid. They mutinied. Thousands of them. So many in the Pennsylvania line that George Washington got worried, so he made compromises with them. But later when there was a smaller mutiny in the New Jersey line, not with thousands but with hundreds, Washington said execute the leaders, and they were executed by fellow mutineers on the order of their officers.

The American Revolution was not a simple affair of all of us against all of them. And not everyone thought they would benefit from the Revolution.

We’ve got to rethink this question of war and come to the conclusion that war cannot be accepted, no matter what the reasons given, or the excuse: liberty, democracy; this, that. War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate.

Once a historical event has taken place, it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No.

We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.

Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States.” The History Channel is running an adaptation called “The People Speak.” This article is an excerpt from Zinn’s cover story, “Just Cause Does Not Equal Just War.” in the July issue of The Progressive.

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5 Responses to Howard Zinn, “Untold Truths About the American Revolution”

  1. crupert says:

    I know I’ve been all over this blog, and I promise to remain silent all of next week, but I just couldn’t let this one go.

    Response to Zinn and a Defense of Arendt

    I sympathize with Zinn’s intention, which is why I’m slightly infuriated at his position. It seems to ignore contradictory evidence and highlight only the convenient parts of history. For example, his example of the peaceful removal of the British by the Western Massachusetts farmers hinges on the equivocation of British government with THE British government. The farmers drove out the local magistrates and administration, which were unprepared for such an action. However, that action obliged the British government in London to send a military force to restore that government. Zinn cannot end the flow of events where he pleases, as if all events following what he highlights belong to a different occasion. It was those same farmers who answered the Lexington Alarm under the assumption that their past deeds provoked the British into military action, and they were prepared to meet it. This was a largely “leaderless” response. No proclamation or order came from the Continental Congress, who was hotly debating the issue of independence from England. The main point of contention there concerned the fact that if independence was declared, England would respond with military force and war would be the inevitable result (a fact that didn’t trouble the Massachusetts farmers at all, and greatly vexed the Pennsylvanian Quakers).

    To move toward a defense of Arendt, which is my main point, while it is true that independence would not benefit the natives, the slaves, or women (the domestic slaves) neither would the status quo, the political situation took no account of them. Poor farmers on the other hand did stand to gain some, albeit not as much as the rich farmers, from the separation, a self-determinacy that was unavailable to them under British rule. It is likely in fact that mercantilist economic control of the colonies contributed a great deal to these farmers “poverty” and it was the lifting of these controls that inspired them to take up arms. I put poverty in quotations because poverty is a relative term. The Hessian mercenaries, who arrived in New York under the employ of the British, wrote in their letters home of the sheer audacity of these Americans, who living in such great abundance could think of rebellion toward their king. Perhaps they had the “pressure cooker” model of revolution in mind, or perhaps Locke’s assessment that only when the grievances of government are long intolerable, might a people shuffle off their government and establish one anew (intolerable being another relative term).

    My point here is that there is poverty and then there is POVERTY! The poverty of the American farmers was different from the poverty of the French les malheureux. These farmers largely owned their own land or if they worked for another, had the option, the availability of land to the west. This might not be an altogether ideal option, but it was one that people took, frequently and in droves. This is not the case in France where access to land, necessary for self-employment, was essentially monopolized by parts of the population, leaving an utterly hopeless poverty for some inhabitants. (I’m truncating this argument for space, but the idea here, in Marxist language, is that there could be, at most, a small and entirely voluntary “surplus army” in the colonies, where as in France a vast one.) This pressure release safety valve in the budding United States is, I think, what Arendt is saying made all the difference in the two revolutions.

    Let me then address what lies beyond class, especially gender, race, and ethnicity. The main difference between Zinn and Arendt is the highly political question of “who counts?” in this revolution. Zinn is trying to make a place at the table for the apolitical players; Arendt is excluding them as they were excluded then. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Arendt is acting exclusionary in her assessment. She is making a historical argument and history has women, children, blacks, natives, as well as the poor and others, simply assumed as apolitical. It was neither contradictory nor manipulative of the Founding Fathers to speak of liberty for all in the midst of such a situation, because for them, these apoliticals simply did not count as part of the all (the political agents in a political affair). Similarly when we speak today of liberty and equality for all, of respect for every individual, we are not being hypocritical to bar children adult political rights. We have our reasons for our answer to the question of “who counts?” as they had theirs. It is apocryphal, then, for Zinn to paste our more inclusive modern answer over the historical one. Arendt’s drawing of a distinction between historically-considered equals, the European males of France and the European-descended males of America, is more reflective of the political culture of the so-called ‘revolutionary era’ which she is detailing. Let me end then with a quote. She writes on page 61 (new Penguin Classics ed.), “we can only conclude that the institution of slavery [domestic slavery would fit equally well here] carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked’.” The apoliticals were omitted, not because they were considered and ignored, but because they were never considered.

  2. grockhil says:

    You raise some interesting points. Other than the small handful of references to slavery, are there other passages in Arendt’s text that lead you to believe that she is making a historical claim and simply arguing in the terms of the time?

  3. crupert says:

    I don’t have a passage other than the one (I looked), but the one may be enough. If one were to write a book about the a sports event it would hardly make sense to dwell long on the spectators (all those reduced the side-lines).

  4. ecetin says:

    I was also wondering why it is apocryphal for Zinn to highlight “who didn’t count”. History is mostly written from the victors’, dominants’ perspective, and I think limiting our historical account to those dominant narratives are political acts (highly problematic ones) themselves. Just because white male property owners of that time considered other actors as apolitical, do we have to reproduce their narrative today to be historically accurate? I think the very distinction between properly political and apolitical actors, which Arendt is so eager to establish, has itself a politics to be historicized.

    • crupert says:

      I’m all for hearing other perspectives, but not at the price of untruth. It is a misguided attempt to restore visibility to the obscured that would suppress historical accuracy in favor of convenient lies. I think it is the duty of scholarship to honor the accuracy and spurn that sort of political correctness. My defense of Arendt is that the plight of the silenced is outside the scope of the (albeit particular) type of revolution, namely eighteenth-century regime-building political revolution that she is exclusively discussing. I’m not saying that she is as inclusive as she could be either; there are sources from women (such as letters of Abigail Adams) that would have been informative. What is apocryphal of Zinn is not his highlighting of those “who didn’t count,” but his particular portrayal of events (e.g. his suggestion that the American revolutionaries who answered the Lexington and Concord Alarms were following the orders of the Founding Fathers) to paint the picture he prefers rather than the picture that is there.

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