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3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition
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Author:  DWill [ Sat Jul 08, 2017 7:41 am ]
Post subject:  3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

The period between Jamestown and Plymouth to the era of the Revolution is pretty much of a blur to me. What was going on during this 150 years? Zinn fills some of this in, not with a sequential political account but in essay fashion in an attempt to characterize political life in the colonies. We already know that he will take the perspective of the lower classes, the Indians, the servants, and the enslaved. He wears his heart on his sleeve in that regard. Does he have an axe to grind? Maybe he does. Maybe this shows in his skating over of some complexities, which, on the other hand, he must do in order to keep his narrative moving. There are little telling details such as his reference to "the Jamestown crowd," the group of supposed elites in the first capital of Virginia. Bacon's Rebellion was an interesting event whose meaning and causes historians have been arguing about forever. Was it an anti-authoritarian uprising, as Zinn says? That the rebellion contained that element, among others, can't be denied. However, Bacon himself was an aristocrat motivated by having been cut out of the fur trade by Gov. Berkeley, and he had aristocratic backers. Bacon was also an Indian killer leading other whites who wanted the governor to kill more indians on the frontier, or they would do it themselves. It's complicated, of course, and not open to a single interpretation.

Zinn's themes are class contention, severe inequality, and the elite's playing society's lowest and most dangerous groups against each other. He says that class distinction became more, not less, rigid as we moved forward in time. He attributes the institutionalizing of black slavery to the need set the races apart, lest white and black combine to overthrow the white elites. The neutralizing of the threat from blacks, Indians, and servants was largely successful, though causing the rich and powerful many sleepless nights.

Zinn offers his portrait of the time as a corrective to the emphasis of traditional histories "on the external struggle against England, the unity of colonists in the Revolution." He quotes an author who cited "outbreaks of disorder...toppling established governments" in five colonies. That is all Zinn says about these major events. We need to know more or at least be told where to look for more, but there are no endnotes.

The information on indentured servitude was new to me and quite interesting.

Author:  Cattleman [ Mon Jul 10, 2017 6:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

Like DWill, I learned a good deal about the indentured servant and his/her 'requirements' to the master/mistress. In school (remember my age) we learned that an indentured servant signed a contract that provided essentially, that the master paid for his passage, and in return, the servant worked a set number of years (usually five to seven). Nothing about the contract being transferable, or the other restrictions Zinn mentions. I am no right-wing apologist, but Zinn's approach seems almost Marxist in its tenor. Class struggle, evil aristocrats, downtrodden masses, etc. Of course, given the deification of our founding fathers by some writers, maybe this is not a bad idea.

Author:  DWill [ Mon Jul 10, 2017 9:25 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

Cattleman wrote:
Like DWill, I learned a good deal about the indentured servant and his/her 'requirements' to the master/mistress. In school (remember my age) we learned that an indentured servant signed a contract that provided essentially, that the master paid for his passage, and in return, the servant worked a set number of years (usually five to seven). Nothing about the contract being transferable, or the other restrictions Zinn mentions. I am no right-wing apologist, but Zinn's approach seems almost Marxist in its tenor. Class struggle, evil aristocrats, downtrodden masses, etc. Of course, given the deification of our founding fathers by some writers, maybe this is not a bad idea.

I suppose it has a lot to do with the time in which he was writing, the late 70s. Maybe in those times a corrective like this seemed needed due to the "deification" and idealization that was probably common in mass-audience history books. Nearly 40 years on, the scene has changed. Haven't you heard of complaints by parents that their kids' history books knock the heroes off their pedestals and disparage American exceptionalism? I'm taking Zinn's somewhat dated tone in stride. He has read a great deal and writes well, so I'm able to take away things of value.
Zinn wrote:
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.

This is at the very end of the current chapter. While I wouldn't claim that he's wrong about the motives of those with the most to preserve economically, I just think his claim sounds too pat. It was only manipulation by rich white elites that got the middle class (or some of it) to buy into the revolution? It seems like a very restrictive interpretation. I've read the next chapter and am not persuaded.

Author:  Harry Marks [ Fri Aug 18, 2017 1:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

Cattleman wrote:
Like DWill, I learned a good deal about the indentured servant and his/her 'requirements' to the master/mistress. In school (remember my age) we learned that an indentured servant signed a contract that provided essentially, that the master paid for his passage, and in return, the servant worked a set number of years (usually five to seven).

There was a book for young people, back in Zinn's day, which won an award. "Johnny Tremain." It portrayed the lot of a young indentured servant whose hand was damaged in an accident pouring metal. Much more about the problems of his disability than about any particular trials of indentured servanthood. And a happy ending, if I remember right - ahh, Wikipedia reminds me that he was able to serve as a spy for the noble Sons of Liberty.

Not bad for making history interesting, but most of the time I find Zinn's facts and revelations to be even more interesting. This is not new stuff in the aggregate, but the details are worth spending time on.

Author:  DWill [ Fri Aug 18, 2017 8:08 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

Ah yes, Johnny Tremain. I had totally forgotten about that book that we read in the 4th (?) grade. I can't recall what I thought about it and wonder how I'd see it now. But it's a good example of humanizing history for children. I don't know for sure what Zinn's approach to pedagogy is. He hints strongly at myth-busting and warts-and-all, but I'm not sure that is in fact a good way to go about teaching kids.

Author:  Harry Marks [ Sun Aug 20, 2017 9:37 am ]
Post subject:  Re: 3: Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

Especially fourth graders (as opposed to, say, eighth graders.)

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