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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 4 in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

Chapter 4 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a discussion of the American Revolution. Chapter 5: The Constitution, Part 1

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Chapter 4 is in many ways a summation of the last fifty years of revisionist interpretations of the American Revolution. In fact, Zinn essentially adheres to the old Progressive interpretation of the Revolution, an early twentieth-century approach that stressed the economic, rather than ideological, motives of Revolutionary leaders. Zinn focuses on a series of Revolutionary-era conflicts rooted in class antagonisms: the Regulator movement in backcountry North Carolina; the Stamp Act protests; and impressment riots in New York and Boston. But he argues that the Revolution was at its core a struggle to protect the property interests of wealthy Americans (without considering, it must be added, that Regulator leaders, many of whom were comfortable landholders, might have had similar motives).

As is the case throughout A People's History, Zinn's focus is on the disconnect between American ideals and what he perceives as the actual motives of political leaders. In particular, he takes aim at the Declaration of Independence, looking at its intellectual foundations in the work of John Locke. He points out that the "people" Locke saw as the wellspring of political power were actually property owners and business interests and argues that the elites who tried to lead the American Revolution believed the same thing. In chapter 5, he attempts to show how ordinary Americans sought to shape the Revolution according to their motives, but in this chapter, he argues that the rhetoric of egalitarianism that characterized the Revolution was actually quite limited.

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In chapter 4, Zinn states that despite the stirring rhetoric schoolchildren are taught about liberty and equality, the American Revolution was primarily focused on economics and primarily fought to help the wealthy. After the British dealt with the French threat in the French and Indian War, the American elite saw little need for staying united with their colonial masters. Without being yoked to England, they themselves could keep more of the profits that were being siphoned off to Britain.

The ruling class also noted that the lower classes in the colonies were repeatedly rebelling against colonial rule; they worked to harness this energy in their own interest, especially in places like Boston. The American Revolution thus fulfilled two purposes: the ruling elite attained greater control of American wealth and also greater control of the masses, whose anger was channeled toward the British and then suppressed after the war.

The rights that the colonial leaders talked about in the Declaration of Independence were property rights, not universal human rights, Zinn contends. The tip-off, he says, is the reliance on Locke's Second Treatise on Government. Locke was a wealthy man, and his Second Treatise was an attempt to expand mercantile rights; he envisioned a system in which the rights of the well-to-do allowed more profit from trade. As Zinn states,

The Declaration, like Locke's Second Treatise, talked about government and political rights, but ignored the existing inequalities in property. And how could people truly have equal rights, with stark differences in wealth?

The American Revolution was for the benefit of the wealthier classes, Zinn argues, and the United States was structured from the beginning to be unequal.

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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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