The American Class System
from the book
Declarations of Independence
by Howard Zinn
publisher - HarperCollins
Rugged Individualism and Self-Help
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence,
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal." (Or as amended by women who gathered in 1848
in Seneca Falls, New York, at a women's rights convention: "that
all men and women are created equal." Or as a possible children's
convention might say: "that all children are created equal.")
A common reaction to Jefferson's phrase "created equal"
is that it is just not so; people are endowed with different physical
and mental capacities, and with different talents, drives, and
energies. But this is a misreading of the Declaration of Independence.
There is no period after the word "equal," but a comma,
and the sentence goes on: "that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." In other words,
people are equal not in their natural abilities but in their rights.
Jefferson said this was "self-evident," and I would
think that most people would agree. But some selves do not think
it evident at all. We know that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers,
almost all of whom were very wealthy, did not really mean for
that equality to be established, certainly not between slave and
master, not between rich and poor. And when, eleven years after
they adopted the Declaration, they wrote a constitution, it was
designed to keep the distribution of wealth pretty much as it
existed at the time-which was very unequal. But that is no reason
for anyone to surrender those rights, any more than the ignoring
of the racial equality demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment was
reason for discarding that goal.
To say that people have an equal right to life, liberty, the
pursuit of happiness, means that if, in fact, there is inequality
in those things, society has a responsibility to correct the situation
and to ensure that equality.
Not everyone thinks so. One man whose thinking was close to
that of the Reagan administration in the eighties (Charles Murray,
Losing Ground ) wrote enthusiastically about doing away with government
aid to the poor: "It would leave the working-aged person
with no recourse whatsoever except the job market, family members,
friends, and public or private locally funded services."
It is a restatement of laissez-faire-let things take their
natural course without government interference. If people manage
to become prosperous, good. If they starve, or have no place to
live, or no money to pay medical bills, they have only themselves
to blame; it is not the responsibility of society. We mustn't
make people dependent on government- it is bad for them, the argument
goes. Better hunger than dependency, better sickness than dependency.
But dependency on government has never been bad for the rich.
The pretense of the laissez-faire people is that only the poor
are dependent on government, while the rich take care of themselves.
This argument manages to ignore all of modern history, which shows
a consistent record of laissez-faire for the poor, but enormous
government intervention for the rich.
The great fortunes of the first modern millionaires depended
on the generosity of governments. In the British colonies of North
America, how did certain men obtain millions of acres of land?
Certainly not by their own hard work, but by government grants.
The British Crown gave one semi-feudal proprietor control of all
of the land of Maryland. How did Captain John Evans of New York
get an area of close to half a million acres? Simply because he
was a friend of Governor Fletcher who granted three-fourths of
the land of New York to about thirty people.'
After the Revolutionary War, the new Constitution of the United
States was drafted by fifty-five men who were mostly wealthy slave-owners,
lawyers, merchants, bondholders, and men of property. Their guiding
philosophy was that of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's
closest adviser and the first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton
wrote, "All communities divide themselves into the few and
the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the
mass of the people.... Give therefore to the first class a distinct
permanent share in the government."
The Founding Fathers, whether liberal like James Madison or
conservative like Alexander Hamilton, felt the same way about
the relationship of government and the wealthy classes. Madison
and Hamilton collaborated on a series of articles (The Federalist
Papers) to persuade voters in New York to ratify the new Constitution.
In one of these articles (Federalist #10). Madison urged ratification
on the grounds that the new government would be able to control
class conflict, which came from "the various and unequal
distribution of property." By creating a large republic of
thirteen states, the Constitution would prevent a "majority
faction" from creating trouble. "The influence of factious
leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but
will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other
What kind of trouble was Madison worried about? He was blunt.
"A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an
equal distribution of property, or for any other improper or wicked
project." Like the other makers of the Constitution, he wanted
a government that would be able to control the rebellion of the
poor, the kind of rebellion that had just taken place in western
Massachusetts when farmers, unable to pay their debts, refused
to let the courts take over their farms.
The Constitution set up a government that the rich could depend
on to protect their property. The phrase "life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness," which appeared in the Declaration
of Independence, was dropped when the Constitution was adopted,
and the new phrase, which became part of the Fifth Amendment and
later the Fourteenth Amendment, was "life, liberty, or property."
In 1987 the Mobil Oil Corporation celebrated the adoption
of that phrase in ads appearing in eight major newspapers, reaching
so million people:
"Why was property so important as to be included with
life and liberty as a fundamental right? Because the Framers saw
it as one of the great natural rights . . . to keep what one had
earned or made-that ought to be forever secure from the tyranny
of governments or any covetous majority."
That phrase "covetous majority" goes back to Madison's
feared majority wanting "an equal division of property, or
. . . any other improper or wicked project."
The new government of the United States began immediately
to give aid to the rich. Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act
to enforce the provision in the Constitution that persons "held
to Service or Labor in one State" who escaped into another
"shall be delivered up" to the owner.
"Why make the slave-owner dependent on the government?"
a slave, holding to the conservative idea of rugged individualism,
might ask. "You want your slave back? You're on your own."
The first Congress also adopted the economic program of Alexander
Hamilton, which provided money for bankers setting up a national
bank, subsidies to manufacturers in the form of tariffs, and a
government guarantee for bondholders. To pay for all those subsidies
to the rich, it began to exact taxes from poor farmers. When farmers
in western Pennsylvania rebelled against this in 1794 (Whiskey
Rebellion), the army was sent to enforce the laws.
This was only the beginning in the history of the United States
of the long dependency of the rich on the government. In the decades
before the Civil War, great fortunes were made because state legislatures
gave special help to capitalists. The builders of railroads and
canals, needing large sums of money, were not told Raise your
own capital. They became dependents of the government, using their
initial capital not to start construction, but to bribe legislators.
In Wisconsin in 1856 the LaCrosse and Milwaukee Railroad got a
million acres free, after distributing about $900,000 in stocks
and bonds to seventy-two state legislators and the governor.
Altogether, in the decade of the 1850s, state governments
gave railroad speculators 25 million acres of public land, free
of charge, along with millions of dollars in loans. During the
Civil War, the national government gave a gift of over 100 million
acres to various railroad capitalists.
The first transcontinental railroad was not built by laissez-faire.
The railroad capitalists did it with government land and money.
The great romantic story of the American railroads owes everything
to government welfare. The Central Pacific, starting on the West
Coast, got 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in loans
(after spending $200,000 in Washington for bribes). The Union
Pacific, starting in Nebraska and going west, got l2 million acres
of free land and $27 million in government loans.
And what did the government do for the 20,000 workers-war
veterans and Irish immigrants-who laid five miles of track a day,
who died by the hundreds in the heat and the cold? Did it give
their families a bit of land as payment for their sacrifice? Did
it give loans to the 10,000 Chinese and 3,000 Irish, who worked
on the Central Pacific for $l or $2 a day? No, because that would
be welfare, a departure from the principle of laissez-faire.
The historical practice in the United States of aid to the
rich and laissez-faire for the poor was particularly evident in
the 1920S, when the secretary of the treasury was Andrew Mellon.
One of the wealthiest men in America, he sat atop a vast empire
of coal, coke, gas, oil, and aluminum. Mellon cut taxes for the
very rich, whose high living gave the decade its name "The
Jazz Age." Meanwhile, many millions of Americans lived in
poverty, with no aid from the government."
When the nation's economy collapsed after the stock market
crash of 1929, a third of the labor force lost their jobs. Hunger
and homelessness spread all over the country, and the historian
Charles Beard wrote an essay called "The Myth of Rugged American
Individualism." He noted the hypocrisy of those who said
the poor should make it on their own. He recounted the ways in
which the government had aided the business world: regulation
of the railroads and donation of hundreds of millions of dollars
to improve rivers and harbors and to build canals. Government
also granted subsidies to the shipping business, built highways,
and gave huge gifts to manufacturers (at the expense of consumers)
through higher and higher tariffs.
Beard pointed to the use of the nation's military force to
help business interests around the world, a most crass violation
of the laissez-faire philosophy. In our time, the dependence of
very rich corporations on the military power of the United States
and on its secret interventions in other countries has become
very clear. In 1954, the CIA organized the overthrow of the elected
president of Guatemala to save the properties of the United Fruit
Company. In 1973 the U.S. government worked with the IT&T
Corporation to overthrow the elected socialist leader of Chile,
Salvador Allende. Allende had not been friendly enough to the
foreign corporations that exploited Chile's wealth for so long.
In 1946 a secret air force guideline (which became public
knowledge when it was declassified in 1960) said that the aircraft
companies would go out of business unless the government made
sure they got contracts. Since that time certain major aircraft
companies have depended totally for their existence on government
contracts: Lockheed, North America, and Aero-Jet.
The giant businesses depend on the government to arrange tax
schedules that will, in some cases, permit them to pay no taxes,
in other cases, to pay a much smaller percentage of income than
the average American family. For instance, five of the top twelve
American military contractors in 1984, although they made substantial
profits from their contracts, paid no federal income taxes. The
average tax rate for those twelve contractors, who made $19 billion
in profits for 1981, 1982, and 1983, was 1.5 percent. Middle-class
Americans paid 15 percent.
All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, landlords
have depended on the government to suppress the protests of tenants
(for instance, the anti-rent movement of the 1840S in the Hudson
River Valley of New York) and to enforce evictions (as in the
thousands of evictions during the Depression years). Employers
have depended on local government's use of police and the federal
government's use of soldiers to break strikes-as in the railway
strikes of 1877, the eight-hour day strikes of 1886, the Pullman
rail boycott of 1894, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the
Colorado coal strike of 1913, the auto and rubber and steel strikes
of the 1930S, and hundreds more. If those employers were truly
"rugged individualists," as they asked their workers
to be, they would have rejected government aid.
Furthermore, employers with the money to hire lawyers and
to influence judges have depended on the courts to declare strikes
and boycotts illegal, to limit picketing, and to put strike leaders
in jail (as when Eugene Debs, the leader of the Pullman strike
and boycott of 1894, was jailed for six months because he would
not call off the strike)
Through the nineteenth century, according to legal historian
Morton Horwitz, the courts made clear their intention to protect
the business interests. Mill owners were given the legal right
to destroy other people's property by flood to carry on their
business. The law of "eminent domain" was used to take
farmers' land and give it to canal companies or railroad companies
as subsidies. Judgments for damages against businessmen were taken
out of the hands of juries, which were unpredictable, and given
to judges. Horwitz concludes,
By the middle of the nineteenth century the legal system had
been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry
at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less
powerful groups within the society. . . . It actively promoted
a legal redistribution of wealth against the weakest groups in
Yet when someone advocates "a legal redistribution of
wealth" on behalf of the poor, the cry goes up against "government
interference" and for "rugged individualism."
After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment's phrase "life,
liberty, or property," which turned out to be useless to
protect the liberty of black people, was used in the courts to
protect the property of corporations. Between 1890 and 1910, of
the cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment that came before
the Supreme Court, ~9 were concerned with the lives and liberties
of blacks and 288 dealt with the property rights of corporations.
The working conditions in American industry during that much
praised time of speedy industrialization were horrible and also
legal. (The Senate's Committee on Industrial Relations reported
that in the year ~914 alone, 3S,°°° workers were killed
in industrial accidents and 700,000 injured.) This led to thousands
of strikes, and to demands for protective legislation.
But when the New York legislature passed a law limiting bakery
workers to a ten-hour day, six-day week, the U.S. Supreme Court
in 1905 declared this law unconstitutional, saying it violated
"freedom of contract."' It took the economic crisis
of the 1930S and the turmoil it produced to get the Supreme Court
to reverse its stand and approve a minimum wage law in Washington,
D.C. The Court in 1937 decided that the freedom of contract was
not as important as the freedom to be healthy. "
However, the Supreme Court has been careful to keep intact
the present distribution of wealth and the benefits in health
and education that come from that wealth. In ~973 it decided a
case where poor people in Texas, seeing that much less money was
allocated for the schools in a poor county than in a rich one,
sued for the right of poor children to equal funds for their education.
The Court turned down their plea, saying that these children (mostly
Mexican-American) were not completely denied an education, but
just denied an equal education, and education was not a fundamental
right guaranteed by the Constitution.
Clearly, the same would apply to the right to food and medical
care, which, like education, are not specifically mentioned in
the Constitution as fundamental rights. One constitutional lawyer,
however, has argued that the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement
that no state can deprive any person of "life" ("life,
liberty, or property") could be used to provide an equal
right of the poor to food, medical care, a job. Professor Edward
V. Sparer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School has said:
We guarantee income to farmers for not producing crops. We
guarantee subsidies to railroads and to oil companies. It seems
to me only reasonable that we should guarantee the subsidy of
life to those who are starving and to those without shelter or
medicine-reasonable not only on humanitarian grounds, but because
there is a 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of
Most of the accumulation of wealth is strictly legal. And
if any question comes up about the legality of corporate behavior,
lawyers are available to straighten out any accuser. The columnist
Russell Baker once wrote, "There are plenty of rich men who
have no yachts and others who have no Picassos.... Every last
one of them, however has a lawyer.... Having a lawyer is the very
essence of richness.... What we have here is a class structure
defined by degree of access to the law '
When the rich commit the truly grand larcenies, which become
too flagrant to ignore, their lawyers work out deals with the
government and no one goes to jail, as would happen to a petty
thief. For instance, in 1977 the Federal Energy Administration
found that the Gulf Oil Corporation had overstated by S79 million
its costs for crude oil obtained from foreign affiliates. It then
passed on these false costs to consumers. The following year the
administration announced that to avoid going into a court of law,
Gulf would pay back $42 million. Gulf cheerfully informed its
stockholders that "the payments will not affect earnings
since adequate provision was made in prior years." One wonders
if a bank robber would be let off if he were to return half his
Jimmy Carter was president at that time. It seemed that liberal
Democrats did not behave terribly different from conservative
Republicans where wealthy corporations were involved.
Adam Smith's famous book The Wealth of Nations, published
around the time of the American Revolution, is considered one
of the bibles of capitalism. He spoke candidly on the class character
"Laws and governments may be considered in this and indeed
in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor,
and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would
otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if
not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to
an equality with themselves by open violence."
Around the same time, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his Discourse
on the Origin of Inequality, an imaginative account of how government
and laws came into existence, and concluded that society and laws
which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich,
irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the
law of. property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation
into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious
men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude,
A roughly similar point was made in the 1980s, by a black
taxi driver in Los Angeles, who was interviewed by a filmmaker
about "democracy." The man laughed and said, "We
have government by the dollar, of the dollar, for the dollar."
Surely we need to clear guilt from the air in the poorer districts
of our cities (there are enough impurities there already) by asking:
Why shouldn't people in need be dependent on the government, which
presumably was set up exactly for the purpose of ensuring the
well-being of its citizens? The words promote the general welfare
do appear in the Preamble to the Constitution, even if ignored
in the rest of it.
Indeed, is there such a thing in this complicated society
of the twentieth century as true independence? Are we not all
dependent on one another, and is that not a necessity of modern
life? We all depend on the government for schools, garbage collection,
protection against fire and theft, and many other things. Welfare
is only one kind of dependency.