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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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What are Howard Zinn's main arguments in chapter 5?

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The main points of argument raised by Howard Zinn in chapter 5 of A People's History of the United States are that many poor colonists were deceived into fighting and dying for the interests of a group of wealthy elite that would not benefit them, and that the Revolutionary War was fought according to the interests of this wealthy business class.

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In the chapter "Some Kind of Revolution," Zinn seeks to undermine the traditional American idea that the Revolutionary War was fought by and for the liberty of common American people. Rather, according to Zinn's argument, the wealthy business elite in America were interested in having more direct control over their enterprises and in avoiding losing profits to the British empire through taxation; the American Revolutionary War was fought according to their interests.

Zinn explains that there was genuine popular unrest occurring during the time leading up to the American Revolution, and many conflicts, undertaken by overburdened colonist poor people against the wealthy colonist politicians and businessmen who constantly robbed them, would complicate the fight.

Zinn also describes the process by which many poor colonists were coerced into anti-British sentiment through the language of the Enlightenment and through the colonists' desire to align themselves with the concept of "whiteness." They preferred this identification, allying themselves against slaves and Natives, to standing in solidarity with those who shared their genuine interests. Enlightenment language—which appealed to the notions of liberty that the poor really desired but claimed that these goals were attainable through the same channels that created so much suffering in the present—effectively coerced many poor colonists into fighting and dying for the interests of a group of wealthy elite that would not benefit them.

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The main point of this chapter could be summed up by The Who song "Won't be Fooled Again:" "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

In other words, unlike the French Revolution which would occur a decade later, the American Revolution did little to change the basic structures of society. 

Zinn argues that the rich elites in America fought the war for two reasons: First, once the British army took care of getting rid of the French and subduing the Indians, the ruling class in the colonies didn't need them anymore. The British became simply a nuisance and an encumbrance. If the ruling class in the colonies didn't have to pay taxes to Britain, they would be able to keep more of the wealth they were generating for themselves.

Second, Zinn argues that unrest was beginning to grow in the colonies against both British and homegrown elites. The homegrown upper classes wanted to take advantage of this energy and channel it wholly against the British.

Zinn supports his arguments by showing that the condition of the slaves, women and the working classes didn't change after the United States achieved independence.  

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Class relations with regard to the revolutionary war are among the major points discussed in chapter 5. The author is trying to establish the state of society at the time of the war. He notes that most people belonging to the lower classes saw no need for their participation in the war since it was being led by the wealthy. On the other hand Indians, blacks and mulattoes who tried to get involved believing it would help them achieve their freedom were turned away especially for the black slaves. This created a problem for the revolutionary army because the poor whites who owned no slaves urged the black slaves and other communities suffering a similar fate to side with the British who promised them their freedom. This situation was compounded by fact that most of the wealthy and the ruling elites knew each other either through business or family ties and the war was seen as a means to further enrich them. The policies being advanced by Congress did not offer many benefits or changes to the status-quo. This made it difficult to get support for the war as among those who enlisted, most were just motivated by the opportunity to change their living standards with ranks and earnings awarded for their participation.

"No new social class came to power through the door of the American revolution. The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial ruling class."

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The focus of chapter 5 is the American Revolution.  In dubbing it, "A Kind of Revolution," Zinn is able to develop the idea that the American Revolution did not fundamentally transform who owned the means of production in the new nation.  Zinn also brings out the main point that much of the repressive economic and social attitudes that the British had towards the Colonists were repeated in the "Founding Fathers" and their attitudes as the new arbiters of power.  Zinn's primary argument was that freedom could not have been the major reason the revolution was fought.  The repression of women, people of color, and poor people after the Revolution would make it clear that it was not the restoration of power that motivated the "Founding Fathers" in the Revolution.  Rather, Zinn concludes, it was power, and the ability to control that which represented it as the driving force behind the Revolution. It created change, but that change was not lasting in terms of radicalizing the distribution of power, making it in Zinn's mind, "A Kind of Revolution."

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