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Was the Purpose of Revolution to Protect the Landed Gentry in the Colonies?
Howard Zinn proposes an alternate view of the American experiment with A People’s History of the United States, which situates itself far from what traditional education teaches. Instead of drawing inspiration for the revolution from a true belief that all men are created equal, 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 new, privileged leadership.
He also speaks of the deal struck between the British and the American Indians that guaranteed no further westward expansion would continue. Of course, this treaty was in the direct opposition to the notion of Manifest Destiny within the American elitist circles. If the American colonies allowed Britain to dictate their affairs from across the ocean, it would set a dangerous precedent that could later affect the ability of the colonial governments to exert power and curtail the future ambitions of the landed gentry to expand their influence.
On the contrary to Benjamin Franklin’s popularized assertion that there was abundance in the colonies, Zinn argues that a majority of the taxable assets were concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites, and this has led to conditions that were bad enough to warrant commentary in the local newspapers about poor individuals on the streets and wealth disparity between the colonists. The division of the colonists by class lines was turning into a serious issue and the established gentry was becoming a convenient target for those less established in society. Zinn cites a few instances of class tensions fomenting attacks on the symbols of that wealth by mobs of commoners.
Throughout the fourth chapter of his treatise, Zinn portrays the rising discontent among the less privileged and rural settlers versus the desire of the top tier of the society to maintain its undue influence over the rest. This pitted the laborers and farmers against the lawyers, jurists, and merchants that were perceived as preying upon the former. Much of the resentment surely arose from the disenfranchisement of the lower classes, because they lacked the property necessary to obtain a vote in the local affairs according to the classic English model. Insurrections and rioting caused consternation among the power brokers because it threatened not only to diminish the propertied class that resided in England but also those, who dwelled in the colonies. They were particularly concerned with the vehement attacks on the symbols of affluence.
This propertied class has actively tempered the emotion behind the movement with short term alliances linking them with leaders of uprisings for short durations. The political convenience of these temporary arrangements was demonstrated by the reaction to the Stamp Act, and later protests were stressed as nonviolent in order to prevent any damage to the colonial elites’ business interests or personal effects.
Zinn indicts the mainstays of Revolutionary literature such as A Call to Arms, Common Sense, and The Declaration of Independence of being contrived to further the aims of the propertied class and, in regard to Paine, provides that his actions following the publication of his pamphlet did not fall in line with the ideals put forth therein.
This portrayal of contradictions between the rousing language of the independence movement and the activities of the authors and orators, who spoke them, is the crux of Zinn’s argument in Chapter 4. The effectiveness of works are evident, but the inspiration behind them is what A People’s History of the United States leaves readers to question.
Throughout the course of an American student’s education, one is taught that the founding of the United States of America was the reaction of a benevolent class of the colonial elites who, as the voice of the common man within the colonies, broke from the status quo of the British rule. History books and television programs present the story as of the people, who were fed up with the autocratic rule of King George and the projection of his military’s power upon the developing continent. The rallying cry of “Taxation without Representation” formed a bond with a shared experience among colonial subjects, who still regarded themselves as subjects of the British crown, deserving of the rights afforded them, since the signing of the Magna Carta centuries earlier.
The infringement of these inherent rights of Englishmen mounted until they could support the yoke of tyranny no longer. Thus, Thomas Jefferson was commissioned by the Continental Congress to pen the Declaration of Independence that officially provided the notice of grievances among the colonial populace that compelled them to proclaim themselves independent of the English King’s rule. This magnanimous act, which put the signers of the Declaration and their property in the great peril, appears to be the most selfless act by any group of men in a position of power since the dawn of time. It was simply that, as the Declaration states, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”.
As a general summary of these motives it may be said of the founders” “That elite- gentlemen of distinction….were not career politicians and took it seriously to heart that they were sworn and entrusted to serve-not master- the people… had no notion of enriching themselves at a cost to others… possessed a natural nobility and… labored for the common good: the well being of all”. Certainly, the demonstrable results show that the result of their action was the greatest opportunity for men to be free and the first document to recognize the inalienable rights granted by the creator. The Revolutionary War was fought to secure these freedoms, and the men, who instigated it, but their lives and those of their families at great risk during these struggles.
“The Declaration was a call to revolution rather than a framework for a new form of government, but the ideas that it contained- liberty, equality, individual rights, self-government, lawful powers- became the basis, eleven years later, for the Constitution of the United States” (Patterson 40). The new form of the government produced later from these ideals is a testament to the founder’s intentions to provide from an egalitarian position. It takes further steps to broaden the rights once assumed by the colonists, as their English birthright for the dawn of a new age of self-direction.
Even with respect to a provision that is oft-cited by detractors of the founding fathers’ motives, Posner offers the perspective that, “From a 1787 political standpoint [the electoral college] was ingenious… device for achieving two purposes important to the framers. These were (1) preserving the balance among the states that had been struck in the design of the Congress (2) without confiding the election of the President to Congress, a method of achieving the objective (1) that would have weakened the Presidency unduly” (McKenna 108). This desire to preserve the rights of the states and not enshrine a centralized government provided a more comprehensive model to promote personal liberty and the unfettered ambitions of the people, who inhabited early America.
Zinn presents the Seven Years War as a way for the elites in America to drive out a rival by using the might and influence of the English Empire and its military. By ousting a competing interest in America’s resources, these power brokers among the colonists had narrowed the field and now needed to focus their attention on their former allies against the French and Indians. The Stamp Act offered a suitable impetus in that the colonies were not accustomed to paying taxes to the British. The practice was for Britain to raise its revenues from tariffs on the colonies’ foreign trade while the colonists controlled and kept local taxes.
The prospect of losing autonomy in the colonies was a threat to the elite and they could not allow the precedent of King George’s encroachment on their power in the New World. The founding fathers, many of whom served in the official capacities within the colonial offices of the Empire, used the angle of no representation to ignite the passions of the common people at an opportune time to launch an ideological offense against a competing interest in their hemisphere.
It is interesting to note that the mainline source presents the Seven Years War as a pivotal change in the relations between the colonies and the center of power and that until then the colonists had viewed themselves as loyal subjects of the Crown and although there had been occasional disputes, few voices argued for independence. Even during the Revolutionary War, much of the population in the colonies wanted to remain loyal to the British Empire. The Founding Fathers controlled many of the printing presses and mobilized a large-scale propaganda machine to recruit the less privileged classes in order to increase the influence of the wealthy elites’ struggles against the controlling interests overseas. By doing so, they were able to create a perception of unrest and guide popular opinion more effectively than the Crown, due to the barriers that distance posed to its centralized bureaucracy.
A great opportunity eluded the elites because manufacturing was banned in the colonies, and they were used simply as a source of the raw materials for goods to be created in the metropole and then shipped to their final destination including back to the colonies. The market of manufactured goods for the established citizens and those, pushing the ever-expanding frontier, likely whetted the appetite of such intelligent and ambitious men. Surely the only individuals poised to benefit from growing the manufacturing sector in the Colonies were the elites represented by and comprised of the members of the Continental Congress. Having established themselves as the producers of the raw materials, and is the most qualified to provide investment capital for the manufacturing equipment, the next logical step was to create the conditions that would give rise to an opportunity to seize such a prize.
There was support among these same people for enthroning George Washington as king of the newly created state, which shows that for all of the language dedicated to creating a new form of the government for the people; there were some, who apparently did not object to the system of rule, but rather the proximity of monarchical authority that set the rules. Obviously, this paints a direct contrast to the school of thought which praises “This [as] a selfless, patriotic aspiration for the benefit of the entire body politic,” but a common-sense analysis leads one to the conclusion that people in power will do what they can to strengthen their position.
Being that the Founding Fathers were, at their core, merely human beings, they follow the same basic principles as any other. It is only logical that they would encounter the same pitfalls as anyone to come before or after them, plus examination shows it is inconceivable that those with power and wealth would not band together with a common bond, a common interest, and a long-range plan to decide and direct the future of the world. For those with the resources, to do otherwise would be totally irresponsible.