Ryanne Moore

The crime Howard Zinn describes in A People's History is the fact that during the time the government supported businesses in keeping workers poor. Being in a country where the government strongly believes in capitalism made the government believe that keeping businesses strong was the best thing to do. The government helped businesses and industrialist get rich by paying for their debt, and by passing bills that would give them surplus in their treasury. The government was only "serving the interest of the rich."(258)

The government was not the only creator of this crime. "The schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure and that the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck."(262) These elites used education and ideology to control the working class by putting these thoughts in their minds to keep them down. This strategy of getting into the workers mind made them feel that it was impossible for them to be successful, and that for them to keep their low paying jobs was the best thing for them to do. But as the years progressed the elites started to realize that it was getting harder to keep control of the working class. "It seemed that despite the strenuous efforts of government, business, the church, the schools, to control their thinking, millions of Americans were ready to consider harsh criticism of the existing system, to contemplate other possible ways of living."(264) After a time the elites no longer had control over the workers minds, and they started movements. "The movements went beyond the scattered strikes and tenants' struggles of the period 1830-1877."(264)

During the 1880s and 90s immigrants from Europe came to the US looking to escape poverty, but their arrival only caused more trouble. Immigrant workers took on little jobs such as:laborers, house-painters, stone-cutters, and ditch-diggers. In__A People's History of the United States __ Zinn tells one Italian man's story: "He was going to Connecticut to work on the railroad, was taken instead to sulfate mines in the South, where he and his fellows were watched over by armed guards in their barracks and in the mines, given only enough money to pay for their railroad fare and tools, and very little to eat. He and others decided to escape." (266) Work was so brutal for workers that it was like a jail that they had to escape from, this is an example of how badly workers were treated.
There was competition for work between the new comers and the old, and argument about who was "superior".The competition grew so serious that things began to get violent. Riots often broke out and many were killed. "There were 5 1/2 million immigrants in the 1880s, 4 million in the 1890s, creating a labor surplus that kept wages down. The immigrants were more controllable, more helpless than native workers; they were culturally displaced at odds with one another, therefore useful as strikebreakers. The ones who were "superior" in this case was the government because they used immigrants for their work, votes, and displacement in society.
In a way this life is still applicable to American society today, but it as not as strong as it was in the 1880s and 90s. The strategy of the government is more subtle and we don't really think that we are being mistreated, but as more people lose their jobs, and homes poverty grows in America.

Great exploration of ideas, Ryanne. You do a particularly good job of showing the complex system of controls that kept workers "in their place," so to speak: education, religion, and the prevailing social philosophy of the time. Your essay hits its peak when you mention that despite these controls, the laboring class still recognized the "crime" of poverty inflicted upon them and fought back. Expand here. How did they fight back? Were they successful? What can we learn about what does and does not work in fighting against an alliance of economic and political elites?

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License