Untold Truths About the American Revolution by Howard Zinn (2009)

Howard Zinn

Image by Truthout.org via Flickr

Repost from July 4, 2009

by
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Excerpt from The Progressive July 3, 2009
July 5, 2015

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 we’re 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.

see

Put Away The Flags by Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s “Three Holy Wars”

Howard Zinn: Myths of the Good Wars (Three ‘Holy’ Wars) (must-see) (longer version)

A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

11 thoughts on “Untold Truths About the American Revolution by Howard Zinn (2009)

  1. Pingback: The Violent Seduction of Thomas Paine by Rocket Kirchner | Dandelion Salad

  2. Pingback: Howard Zinn: Myths of the Good Wars | Dandelion Salad

  3. Pingback: A Leftist Guide to the Fourth of July | Dandelion Salad

  4. Well… Canada is not the care bear country you seem to think. Propaganda is working well I guess. Never heard about the patriots rebellion in the 1836-38, or about the Indian law ? And what about our crown’s representative, the not so symbolical General Governor of Canada ?

    The (civilisation) system want to centralize all the powers. If you want to be independent and free, you have to show them, show that you are strong enough to defend yourself against them.

  5. Love this article. Everything I admire about Howard as a critical thinker and historian. The truth would scare the shit out of many US citizens and surprise the rest of the world.

  6. Surely Zinn’s account in at least part is not only questionable but a romantic account that reminds one of Victorian popular paintings of children that were propaganda as to what really happened to most British children who were enslaved to industrialization with no rights and no health concerns, to return to Zinn’s peculiar idea that Britain loved the Indians? if as in Australia the revolution did not happen and Aboriginals were massacred, in fact the most are unaware that the cruelty to Aboriginals and hatred as a sub human species deserved to be killed off as similar to say fox hunting in Britain as to human beings to be virtually treated as same? check the last Aboriginal in Tasmania to see what genocide is by Britain?
    The mythology of Britain ending slavery was the fact that instead of investing in a slave that is capital investment and the cost of maintenance was more expensive than to free the slaves and put them on the open market to be hired and having no capital outlay nor any associated costs in maintaining them, it was a economic decision, the fact that Southern Americans at the time of war did not have this information and either could not get the idea or were not informed as the Eastern Americans, as information could not travel across America to let them in on what is going on in this case a war could have been avoided?
    I suggest the reader checks Australian and British law around the time of inception of Australia 200 hundred years ago? I refer to theft of goods or value to being no more that the cut off point of 39 shillings? if above this amount the chances would be you are to be hanged, this being law, if below this amount you most likely would be sent to Australia as a penal colony which became a suitable dumping ground for the undesirables of Britain as their became a shortage of space in Britain to incarcerate British lawbreakers, the Thames boats for imprisonment were now becoming a burden to the State, and the far distance of Australia become a useful and ever increasing destination for those who were surplus to the needs of military human fodder and human use and needs for industrialization.
    Indeed the history is looked as a favorable state of power at best rather than macabre condition of institutionalized terrorism, that today we still see the karmic residue of a militaristic power that is prone to terrorist activity such as Woolwich and the bomb tube and bus saga’s that now puts Britain on alert of potential threats that govern the psychological state of many British citizens of quiet anxiety which is important to Britain’s ruling class to externalize the threat to British sovereignty rather than see the threat within such as the Eton mafia.

    • Don, reread Zinn’s comments again on the Indians. He didn’t say the Brits loved the Indians, but he said they didn’t want any trouble from them, hence the Proclamation of 1763.

  7. Pingback: Put Away The Flags by Howard Zinn | Dandelion Salad

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