A Renegade History of the United States
by Thaddeus Russell
2010 Free Press
(This book review is divided into three parts. The first traces white America’s puritanical work ethic and tradition of self-denial. The second discusses the debt of gratitude Americans owe prostitutes and ex-slaves for many of the liberties we currently take for granted. The third discusses Martin Luther Kingâ€™s little publicized campaign to rid black people of “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits.)
I absolutely loved A Renegade History of the United States. This is definitely my kind of book. It think it’s a great pity it didn’t receive more attention in the progressive and so-called “alternative media. In my view, it’s even more important than Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, due to its examination of social influences that cause the disadvantaged to reject middle class rules and convention. I think it should be required reading for all progressives who are serious about recruiting white and minority blue collar Americans. It turns all the “rights and responsibilities” claptrap we hear from liberal and progressive pundits on its head, including all the “moral high ground” talk. The notion that virtue and moral purity have any role to play in radical change is ludicrous. It appeals to beliefs and value systems that have never held any sway with the working class.
Thaddeus Russell’s second book offers a totally unique but compelling perspective on the expansion of personal liberty in the US and other English speaking countries. Unlike Zinnâ€™s The People’s History and similar “working class” histories, Russell argues that that most of the person freedoms we enjoy originated, not from political movements, but from the refusal of renegades, degenerates and discontents to accept the puritanical work ethic the founding fathers tried to foist on us. In other words, we should thank America’s drunkards, prostitutes, pirates, slackers, “shiftless” slaves and juvenile delinquents for the unprecedented levels of personal freedom Americans enjoy.
I was really surprised by many parts of Russell’s book, especially where he describes the uptight, repressed social conservatives (including Martin Luther King) who led American campaigns for abolition, womenâ€™s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. Despite their high profile campaigns for specific legal “rights,” the leaders of these movements worked nearly as hard trying to correct the “inappropriate” behavior of the masses they claimed to represent.
Our Socially Conservative Founding Fathers
Russell sets the stage by reminding us that the Puritans first left England due to the profound corruption in their homeland, as evidenced by liquor consumption, public holidays, communal feasts, sporting events and public festivals such as May Day. Most of the colonies they established in the new world glorified the ideal of hard work and strict frugality and scorned all forms of pleasure, including music, dancing and the purchase of luxuries and wearing of colorful apparel. The founding fathers who laid out the workings of our republican form of government were all steeped in these influences. Their writings universally condemn the lower classes of the colonies for the failure to live up to these precepts. Some examples:
- John Adams writes about the “corruption” and “depravity” of ordinary Americans being a worse enemy than â€śfamine, pestilence and the sword.â€ť
- Alexander Hamilton called the behaviors of lower class Americans “vicious” and “vile.”
- Samuel Adams wrote about a “torrent of vice” running through the country.
According to Russell, what the founding fathers referred to as corruption, depravity, viciousness and vice were behavior many of us would consider personal freedoms, such as drinking, dancing, non marital sex (especially between different races), prostitution and homosexuality (both were legal in the 18th century). What I find most fascinating about Russell’s description of early industrialism is that factory workers, not their bosses, decided when they would show up for work and when they would go home.
The Internal Restraint of Citizenship
One of the primary aims of the founding fathers, according to Russell, was to stem this libertine way of life by establishing a system of government that replaced the external controls of the monarchy with the internal restraint of citizenship. They were all part of a transatlantic movement, heavily influenced by British philosopher John Locke, which believed that “self rule” was the most effective method of instilling self-discipline. This comes out most clearly in Russellâ€™s description of the Freedmen Schools the Republicans established in the South, in order to persuade ex-slaves that freedom meant renouncing pleasures such as music, dancing, and unrestrained sexuality.
The ratification of the Constitution set up a system of government that placed a number of uptight sexually repressed lawmakers in control of state and federal government, the legal system and, to a large extent, public education and the press. Most states moved to enact strict laws against many of the “depravities” the founding fathers found so offensive: prostitution; taverns that allowed “suggestive” music and dancing and the intermingling of races; birth control; homosexuality and the right of women to own property, enter male identified professions and engage in sex outside of marriage.
To be continued.Share and Enjoy: