What is the main idea of chapter 4 in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In his fourth chapter titled "Tyranny is Tyranny," of his book A People's History of the United States, author Howard Zinn presents a ground breaking interpretation of motives for the American Revolutionary War. Zinn asserts that the leaders of our nation found, by creating their own nation, "they could take over land, profits and political power" held by the British Empire. What's more, the founding fathers could subdue rebellions in their own land and create "popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership." In other words, though the history books have always taught that, through the revolution, America overthrew the tyranny of the British privileged ruling class, Zinn is asserting America really only created its own new privileged class.

However, Zinn also argues that the founding father's development of a privileged ruling class to crush rebellions "was not a conscious conspiracy" but rather a series of responses to events. The first events were a series of rebellions breaking out in the colonies, starting with Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia. A second event was that a leading elite class in the colonies was already starting to develop. A third event was the British successfully driving the French out of the country through victory in the French and Indian War. He further argues that, when England gave everything west of the Appalachians to the Indians, it was only a matter of time for the elite of the colonists to start thinking, if they could get rid of the British, they could have complete control of the whole continent. Hence, when the British began taxing the colonists to pay for the debt caused by the French and Indian War, the elite colonists were very quick to see they really had no more need for the British.

Zinn also specifically points to the Declaration of Independence for proof of an elite ruling class having been established in America. He points out that, though the Declaration speaks of "life, liberty, and happiness," the Declaration is really only applying those three rights to "white males"; however, Zinn further argues that the signers of the Declaration cannot be faulted for their limited perspective since it was the perspective held by all "privileged males of the eighteenth century."

Zinn ends his chapter by pointing out that all those who opposed fighting the British were drafted into the war unless they were wealthy enough to pay for substitutes. The draft led to rioting and shouting, "Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may."

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