In A People’s History of the United States, polemicist Howard Zinn devotes chapter 4, titled “Tyranny is Tyranny,” to a protracted denunciation of the formation of the United States, the authors of the nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Zinn’s point was that, in throwing off the dictatorship of the British Crown, the privileged elite of the 13 colonies were merely replacing one autocratic system of governance with another. In the final passage of this chapter, Zinn writes:
When the Declaration of Independence was read, with all its flaming radical language, from the town hall balcony in Boston, it was read by Thomas Crafts, a member of the Loyal Nine group, conservatives who had opposed militant action against the British. Four days after the reading, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve. This led to rioting, and shouting: ‘Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.'
In advancing his argument that the formation of the United States did not represent an actual revolution—Zinn notes that 69 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had served the British Crown as colonial administrators—the author suggests that the entire episode known as “the American Revolution” was, in actuality, a farce perpetrated against the common citizens of the colonies. The use of the quote “tyranny is tyranny let it come from whom it may” is included to buttress this argument. Zinn chose to place economic freedom and representative government on the same practical and moral plane as government ruled by monarchy.
This sentence is the last sentence of Chapter 4 in the book. In this chapter, Zinn is arguing that the American Revolution was not really the noble effort to create a fair and democratic society that we tend to think it was. Instead, he argues, the Revolution was mainly a way of replacing one elite (the British one) with another elite (the colonial or American one). The Revolution, then, did not really do much to change the experience of the working class and the poor.
In this chapter, Zinn argues that the Founding Fathers were really just a set of elites who were interested, as all elites are, in maintaining their own power and keeping the lower classes in their place. He says that the American elites used democratic rhetoric to get the lower classes on their side but did not really believe in the rhetoric.
Zinn points out that 69 percent of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had held office under the British government. This was not a revolution, just a changing of the top layer of society. Zinn closes the chapter by saying that the coming of the Revolutionary War led to a draft in Boston, but one that the rich did not have to participate in. In other words, the American “patriot” elites (he says) were simply treating the lower classes just as tyrannically as the British had. Their tyranny, he argues, was no less tyrannical just because it was done by people born in the colonies.
What this sentence means, then, is that the Founding Fathers were, in Zinn’s mind, no better than the British elites who had ruled before them.