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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is the main idea of chapter 5 of A People's History of the United States?

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Chapter 5 of A People's History is, along with the preceding chapter, one of two dealing with the American Revolution. In it, Howard Zinn advances an interpretation of the Revolution that emphasizes the aspirations and involvement of ordinary Americans. He stresses the conflicts and tensions that emerged between these farmers,...

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Chapter 5 of A People's History is, along with the preceding chapter, one of two dealing with the American Revolution. In it, Howard Zinn advances an interpretation of the Revolution that emphasizes the aspirations and involvement of ordinary Americans. He stresses the conflicts and tensions that emerged between these farmers, laborers, and artisans and the elites that we usually associate with leading and directing the Revolution. Ultimately, his argument is that, despite their contributions, ordinary Americans were excluded from the document that emerged from the Revolution—the US Constitution. This line of argument is heavily influenced by the Progressive historiographical school, but Zinn also incorporates much of the scholarship sometimes called the New Left. He discusses the many ways that revolutionary leaders—almost all wealthy elites—attempted to control the participation of "poor and middling" Americans. He uses examples ranging from restrictions in state constitutions to brutal disciplinary measures employed against conscripts in the Continental Army. He underscores the reality that African Americans, Native Americans, and women of all races were completely excluded from the fruits of the Revolution. Like A People's History as a whole, this chapter illustrates the fact that, when viewed from "the bottom up" (i.e., from the perspective of non-elites), American history looks considerably different. It was not only a struggle against the British, but an internal struggle over the future of an independent nation. The Constitution, which served as the denouement of the Revolution, was written by and for the elites, who emerged from the era with a government built to serve their interests.

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Chapter 5 of A People's History of the United States examines the level of support of the American men who fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. Perhaps only 1/3 of the men were real patriots who served loyally throughout the conflict. Southerners were often more concerned about potential slave revolts than fighting the British.

Most of the fighting was done by the poorest men, too. As some Americans fought the British, there was another—internal—American conflict between rich and poor. Although some common soldiers were not getting paid, rich and well-connected businessmen put profit over patriotism. Frustrated soldiers mutinied on more than one occasion. State constitutions drawn up during the war typically limited voting rights to men with property. In other words, poor men could fight—but not vote. "George Washington was the richest man in America," Zinn notes. John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin were also very well-off. Affluent men ran the Continental Congress. After the war had ended in 1783, the Founding Fathers continued to put the interests of the rich above all else.

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The main idea of Chapter 5 is that the Revolutionary War required elite whites to co-opt working class whites as rebels because the Revolution was not appealing to Native Americans and African Americans. Initially, colonial militias included only elite whites and excluded Native Americans, free African Americans, and less elite whites, but desperation drove elite whites to recruit less elite whites into the militias over time. 

Zinn writes that while the Continental Congress was made up of elites, the regular working men in the Continental Army were not convinced of the Revolution's benefits to themselves. Instead, they sometimes mutinied, and Washington himself was involved in putting down one of the mutinies as an example. During the Revolution, unrest against elites grew, and fear of slave revolts intensified. The Revolution did little to help lower-class white people while it enriched the elite. For example, Loyalists's lands were divided among the elite, and African Americans's position in society did not change after the Revolution. Native Americans were left out of the new society entirely. The Constitution was mainly intended to benefit elites and to protect their wealth and position in society.

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In this book, Howard Zinn’s general thesis is that American history is best understood through a Marxist lens.  That is, American history has typically been characterized by class conflict.  Chapter 5’s main idea is in line with this general thesis.  The main idea is that the Revolutionary War was fought by the poor for the sake of the rich.

Zinn argues that the people who led the Revolution were generally rich people.  However, they typically were not the ones who actually fought.  They were the political leaders, but they did not participate in the fighting.  As Zinn says, a

…study of the Peterborough (a town in New Hampshire) contingent shows that the prominent and substantial citizens of the town had served only briefly in the war.

The elites did sometimes serve as officers in the army.  When they did, they made sure to strictly enforce the distinctions between them and the more common run of people.  Zinn quotes a chaplain from Massachusetts who said that, in the army,

The strictest government is taking place and great distinction is made between officers & men. Everyone is made to know his place & keep it, or be immediately tied up, and receive not one but 30 or 40 lashes.

Zinn goes on to argue that the rich tended to benefit from the war economically while the poor did not.  After the war, he says, the elites set up a government that was meant to keep them in power.  He says that some people claim that the Founding Fathers wanted a balanced government that took into account everyone’s interests.  Zinn does not believe this.  He says

In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time.

In short, the point of this chapter is that the Revolution was fought mainly by the common people but it was the rich people who were in control and who gained the most from the war.

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