Who Built America?

By Bruno, Robert A. | Transformations, March 31, 1992 | Go to article overview

Who Built America?


Bruno, Robert A., Transformations


Who Built America?

Ralph Ellison provocatively observed that much of what gets into American Literature "gets there because so much is left out" (quoted in Gutman, 1976, p. 74). One could say the same about American History textbooks. All historical texts tell a story, but until Who Built America? Working People and The Nations Economy. Politics. Culture and Society, most history students could only know the United States in the language of the dominant class. With a few notable exceptions, Howard Zinn's A Peoples History the most impressive, American History has been retold as a private bedtime story between a noble "founder father" and an admiring amorphous "people." But who were the real builders of American society and what was the actual flesh and blood existence of the people? Who Built America? provides a sophisticated and decisive answer: working people.

The everyday lived experiences of artisans, small farmers, factory workers, free blacks, slaves, "home work" women and diverse immigrant groups are woven into a dynamic analysis of the formation of a capitalist republic. Unlike popular historical works which focused on politics, presidents, wars and the nation's elite, the reviewed text looks at American economic, political and cultural development from the "bottom up." Instead of history as state formation, we have history as class formation.

The central focus of this two volume project is the changing nature of the work that built and transformed American society. The principle emphasis of volume one (from 1607 to 1877) is the rise and subsequent decline of various pre-capitalist labor systems. Attention is centered on the dialectic between racial slavery and early forms of capitalism as competing systems of labor. Beginning with 16th century European mercantilism, Volume One presents colonial acquisition as a search for riches and cheap, docile labor. Consider the following excerpt: "The brutal, militaristic approach to labor and discipline flowed from the Virginia Company's goal of making money in the New World. It financed the expedition to Jamestown for profit, not in the Puritan hope of establishing a more perfect society, morally and politically superior to England. The company's method of coercing labor did succeed, but at the same time it established a social precedent that helped to pave the way for the most extreme form of coerced labor, chattel slavery" (p. 44). Compare the above with this sanitized commentary on Jamestown from a conventional text: "With money earned in England from the sale of tobacco, the colonist could buy the manufactured articles they could not produce in a raw new country; this freed them from dependence on outside subsidies and led to rapid expansion. It did not mean profit for the London Company, however, for by the time tobacco caught on, the original colonists had served the seven years and were no longer hired hands" (Garraty, 1971, p. 29).

Seventeenth century colonization introduces the essential economic problem of how to organize labor: "No planter, no matter how hard he worked, could accumulate great riches without employing others to till his fields. Thus it happened that the first two generations of planters, rich in land but poor in workers, had to find and discipline a labor force to make their land yield its wealth. It was their central preoccupation and their hardest task" (p. 48). Indentured servitude was the initial answer to profit-seeking investors but for a multitude of reasons (masterfully laid out there) the "purchase" of white Europeans for a limited period of time proved inadequate for market-oriented production. Who Built America? speaks forcibly to the evolution of a labor system: "For generations, Chesapeake planters had searched for a labor force that could be exploited to the fullest. Only slaves, the colony's experience had demonstrated, could fulfill this need, and it seemed easiest to enslave African men and women, who could be uprooted from their homeland, stripped of all rights, and treated as property" (p. …

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