Friday, November 09, 2007

The other, persistent American story

Howard Zinn is a masterful historian and a great writer of descriptive narrative. His A People's History of the United States 1492--Present should be required reading for everyone who cares about this nation, its past and its future.

The American story is complex, with many chapters going unnoticed and unread. Zinn specializes in bringing the "other American story" out in the open. Recently, I re-read this section of his treatment of a part of the colonial period.

Let me know if this sounds familiar in any way.


The colonies grew fast in the 1700s. English settlers were joined by Scotch-Irish and German immigrants. Black slaves were pouring in; they were 8 percent of the population in 1690; 21 percent in 1770. The population of the colonies was 250,000 in 1700; 1,600,000 by 1760. Agriculture was growing. Small manufacturing was developing. Shipping and trading were expanding. The big cities--Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston--were doubling and tripling in size.

Through all that growth, the upper class was getting most of the benefits and monopolized political power. A historian who studied Boston tax lists in 1687 and 1771 found that in 1687 there were, out of a population of six thousand, about one thousand property owners, and that the top 5 percent--1 percent of the population--consisted of fifty rich individuals who had 25 percent of the wealth. By 1770, the top 1 percent of the property owners owned 44 percent of the wealth. /div>

As Boston grew, from 1687 to 1770, the percentage of adult males who were poor, perhaps rented a room, or slept in the back of a tavern, owned no property, doubled from 14 percent of the adult males to 29 percent. A loss of property meant loss of voting rights.

Everywhere the poor were struggling to stay alive, simply to keep from freezing in cold weather. All the cities built poorhouses in the 1730s, not just for old people, widows, crippled and orphans, but for unemployed, war veterans, new immigrants. In New York, at midcentury, the city almshouse, built for one hundred poor, was housing over four hundred. A Philadelphia citizen wrote in 1748: "It is remarkable what an increase of the number of Beggars there is about this town this winter." In 1757, Boston officials spoke of "a great Number of Poor. . .who can scarcely procure from day to day daily Bread for themselves and Families."

(from chapter three--"Persons of Mean and Vile Condition," pages 49-50)

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