One of the premises of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is that the supposed heroes of our history textbooks weren’t really heroes. They were exploitative schemers, and the great trick of the American Revolution was getting a ragtag group of unsettled, angry, hungry and impoverished citizens to fight for the capitalist desires of the land-owners, slaveholders, and capitalist merchants. One way they did this was through language that seemed to include and represent their best interests, such as in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. To include the white male without wealth was a tricky endeavor, because, as they had noticed in previous encounters in calling up the masses, their anger and frustration is not easily controlled. When the colonial leaders called upon the landless to help protest against British taxes, the people didn’t just stop with an effigy burning. Their anger drew them to destroy property and occasionally hold governors captive. Part of how the Fathers (because this is a patriarchy, so “Fathers” is a wholly appropriate term) solved this dilemma is by framing the fight for their own economic determinism as one for the commoner’s freedom as well.
To be sure, the Framers and Fathers did extend them some rights, but – as with all wars – it was the poor that had to fight and die for the rich in the rich’s wars in the first place.
But even in the Declaration, we see that there are people represented (“all men”), people ignored (women), and people discounted as savages and property (indigenous and enslaved). Those sneaky, sneaky bastard Fathers.
Excerpted from A People’s History, Chapter 4:
To say that the Declaration of Independence, even by its own language, was limited to life, liberty, and happiness for white males is not to denounce the makers and signers of the Declaration for holding the ideas expected of privileged males of the eighteenth century. Reformers and radicals, looking discontentedly at history, are often accused of expecting too much from a past political epoch – and sometimes they do. But the point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try to understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race…
In America… the reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence (issued in the same year as Adam Smith’s capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations) was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history. Indeed, 69 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England.
John Adams, by the way, had served as the defense lawyer of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre which had killed Crispus Attucks just six years prior.