BookTalk.org Hall of Fame
2064 times in 1560 posts
Chap. 10: The Other Civil War
The war Zinn talks about here took place over many years from the 1830s to the 1870s, so his use of "war" is partly metaphorical. But there is a literal sense, too, because of the numerous clashes that members of the poorer underclass had with police, militias, and the regular U.S. army. Whether the eastern part of the country was in constant turmoil is hard to say. What would it have been like to live during the time? Was socialistic revolution feared by the general populace? Zinn makes it appear that the country was on the brink, and maybe it was. At any rate, what he tells us of riots, demonstrations, strikes, and abominable living and working conditions for a large minority of citizens is eye-opening. Zinn says that this side of U.S. history was never told to us as we were learning in school. That is all a blur to me, actually, but the service Zinn renders is to make us take another look, as adults, at where we've been.
Not that I don't have quibbles with him. He sometimes tries to shoehorn his ideological preference onto the facts regardless of whether the facts merit such an interpretation. He also may downplay inconvenient complications in order to still take the side of the unprivileged masses. For example, he says that the New York draft riots were anti-black, anti-aristocrat, and anti-capitalist, but the fact that the rioters killed a number of blacks whom they encountered speaks most loudly of a racist intent. Sometimes he tells us that apparent progress wasn't progress in fact, such as when the manorial System in New York state was finally dismantled, with most leases having passed into the hands of the farmers. :"The farmers had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact.
It was a common sequence in American history" (p.214). One might ask whether such a sequence is necessarily negative in all aspects. Zinn had argued that the signal achievement of the leaders of the Revolution was the system of control they devised. He continues to emphasize in this chapter the control of the lower classes by the upper. It's at least worth asking whether "control" is as negative as Zinn makes it sound. Isn't a degree of control in a society really a good thing?
What we see in a wide-lens view of history is a mixed bag noble and ignoble motivations and actions by a diverse set of players. This welter makes it difficult and probably unwise to take sides.