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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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Discussion Topic

Arguments presented in Chapters 3 and 4 of A People's History of the United States

Summary:

In Chapters 3 and 4 of A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that class struggles and racial divisions were central to the development of early America. He highlights how the elite classes manipulated racial tensions to maintain control and prevent unity among the lower classes, emphasizing the systemic nature of inequality and exploitation from the country's inception.

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What are the arguments presented in Chapter 3 of A People's History of the United States?

Some of the basic arguments and ideas put forth in chapter 3 is how rebellion threatened those in the position of power.  Chapter 3 details how the theory of rebellion and the existential threat it posed to the Status Quo.  Zinn's point in bringing this out is to suggest that the idea of rebellion was something basic in the historical condition of the United States.  At the same time, this condition was put down in the most intense of ways possible.  In this dynamic, Zinn suggests that American History was predicated upon those who felt the need to change the Status Quo to reflect their interests, such as Bacon and the frontiersmen as well as those who were economically challenged.  At the same time, the passing of laws by those in the position of power to suppress and limit this expression was also a part of the historical evolution of the nation.  This dynamic was essential in understanding the basic condition of life in Virginia.  Zinn's point in this making such an argument is to show how there was a fundamental chasm between those in the position of power and those who lacked it, a dynamic that will come to define the growth of the nation.

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What are the arguments in chapter 4 of A People's History of the United States?

The central thesis of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is that, notwithstanding claims of American exceptionalism based on democracy and equality of opportunity, the political systems of the United States have always exploited the vast majority of citizens for the benefit of a small elite. In this sense, America is not exceptional but resembles the nations of Europe from which its colonists came.

Chapter 4, "Tyranny is Tyranny," provides a cornerstone of this argument by examining the motives of the Founding Fathers for starting the American Revolution. Zinn points out that the majority of those who signed the Declaration of Independence had already been colonial officials under King George III, and almost all of them came from a wealthy, educated elite. They were far more concerned by the leveling movements, which were advocating for economic equality in the colonies, than they were by any threat from England and they went to war largely to distract the common people from ideas of social justice (a tactic which Zinn claims would recur many times in American history).

The tyranny of King George III was replaced, therefore, not with a popular revolution but merely with another tyranny—that of wealthy, conservative landowners, many of whom had ruled as proxies for the British in any case and who did not make any substantial changes when running the country on their own account.

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What are the arguments in chapter 4 of A People's History of the United States?

In this chapter, Zinn looks at the American Revolution as a form of tyranny that took power away from the privileged British elite and replaced them with an American elite that rallied enough support to keep working-class rebellions at bay. According to Zinn, leaders of the Revolution, such as James Otis and Sam Adams, were people who were elite but kept out of the British elite system; to gain more power, they convinced working-class Americans to support them.

Before powerful colonists could sway the poor to their side, there were a number of revolts conducted by the poor against colonial landlords. During the lead up to the Revolution, the leaders of the movement harnessed the anger of the working class to defeat the British while trying not to give the working class too much power. While the merchants of Boston and other cities wanted to encourage revolt against the British, they still wanted to maintain civic order and preserve restraint. In Virginia, Patrick Henry, a member of the elite, was able to motivate the lower classes to revolt with his fiery words. Thomas Paine, who was from the working class and who wrote Common Sense to urge the colonists to rebellion, came to support a restrained revolution. Even the Declaration of Independence was in many ways, like the American Revolution itself, a conservative document, as it supported rights only for propertied men. 

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What are the arguments in chapter 4 of A People's History of the United States?

The basic point of Zinn’s argument in this chapter can be seen in the title of the chapter:  “Tyranny is Tyranny.”  Zinn is arguing that the American Revolution was really just a substitution of one tyranny for another.  He is saying that the Founding Fathers that we venerate were really just another elite who wanted to keep the lower classes down.  As he says early in the chapter, the Founders were able to

take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.

Zinn is saying that the Founders were really not that different; they were just a new privileged class.

According to Zinn, there was a great deal of lower class anger against the rich elites before the Revolution.  The question for the colonial elites was

Could class hatred be focused against the pro-British elite, and deflected from the nationalist elite?

In the time leading up to the Revolution, the Founders managed to find a way to convince the lower classes to support them against the British. 

Zinn closes the chapter by pointing out that most of the leaders of the Patriot movement had been leaders under British rule.  He says that 69% of those who signed the Declaration of Independence had held office under the British.  He says that the lower classes came to recognize that the elites were still going to lead and were going to do things that would support their own interests.  Therefore, he says, there were riots against the Patriot leadership, with protestors shouting

Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.

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