A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell, Free Press, 400 pages
The cities of colonial and early republican America teemed with whores, homosexual pirates, and illegitimate children; slaves frequently labored less and enjoyed leisure more than free whites in the antebellum era; and the mob is responsible for far more of the freedoms that modern Americans enjoy than are the prudish leaders of the civil rights movement. All that is according to the provocative and revelatory Renegade History of the United States, which Thaddeus Russell describes in the preface as “history from the gutter up.”
Russell, a professor of American Studies at Occidental College, defends the bad people of our history—prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, drunks, etc.—by showing how their refusal to conform to the expectations of mainstream citizens has enhanced the sphere of personal liberty over the years. This idea has made Russell something of a renegade himself—he was fired from a position at Barnard College because some of his fellow historians found his conclusions unpalatable. Russell makes a convincing case that these bad people are much underrated, but he never fully grapples with the deepest criticisms of their behavior made by good Americans.
Social conservatives who look to the origins of the United States as a moral and political Eden will be shocked by the happily libertine portrait of colonial America that Russell paints. Workers drank on the job and set their own hours, as evidenced by their common refusal to report for work on “Saint Monday,” which they instead whiled away in one of the numerous taverns that filled the country. Prostitutes not only advertised their services openly in the streets, but often they performed them “in full view to any passersby.” Their customers were by no means limited to disreputable men. The great-grandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn married a Philadelphia prostitute and retained his social status. In port cities, homosexual sailors exposed themselves to male passersby in hopes of rousing the interest of their fellow man, yet prosecutions for sodomy were rare.
The bad people of early America knew how to have a riotously good time. “But,” according to Russell in one of his many lines of wry humor, “the Founding Fathers invented a way to make Americans think fun was bad. We call it democracy.” The Founders supported independence in part because they believed it would force Americans to control their vices. Leading revolutionaries welcomed war not only as the path to independence but also as a means of ridding the country of extravagances. John Adams was so disgusted by the degenerate behavior of many of his fellow Americans that when the British army prepared to attack Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, he longed for the redcoats to conquer the city and “cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and effeminate Appetites, Passions and Habits.”
Nor were the Founders early free-marketeers. Trade allowed people to gain wealth and indulge bad habits. South Carolina delegate and president of the Second Continental Congress Henry Laurens pined for the British to institute the harsh discipline of penury upon America. “Reduce us all to poverty and cut off or wisely restrict that bane of patriotism, Commerce, and we shall soon become Patriots…”
After the Revolution, American politicians attacked their countrymen’s licentious freedoms, not, Russell insists, “because the revolutionaries were puritans but because democracy is puritanical.” Partially in an attempt to stem drunkenness, the federal government passed an excise tax on alcohol, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. State and local governments also took a more active interest in citizens’ sexual behavior. Prosecutions for prostitution increased more than 60 percent over the next 20 years. Women were also arrested for interracial sexual relations in the early republican era—behavior that had been tacitly tolerated by colonial governments. Divorce, largely unregulated before the war, was restricted by the states. When Georgia tightened its divorce laws in 1802, the new legislation was justified on the grounds that the “dissolution [of a marriage] ought not to be dependent on private will, but should require legislative interference; inasmuch as the republic is deeply interested in the private business of its citizens.” Although the Revolution was dressed in libertarian rhetoric, its political consequences were deeply communitarian.
Of course, laws did not eliminate taboo desires, but respectable Americans were forced to project them onto a surprising object of envy: slaves. Modern Americans find it difficult to imagine that free whites would envy slaves, considering that a slave’s life was filled with drudgery and harsh punishment. Russell argues, however, that most free whites did not have it much better—especially those living on the frontier, who were frequently forced to toil endlessly to eke out a living from the land. Nor was the horror of whippings reserved solely for slaves. Americans as diverse as Davy Crockett, Robert E. Lee, John D. Rockefeller, and Abraham Lincoln were all regularly beaten as children with the likes of horsewhips and hickory sticks, and many a schoolmaster employed a cat-o’-nine-tails on disobedient pupils. As adults, free whites could face corporal punishment for criminal infractions, as well as the terrors of early American prisons.
Slaves were forced to work by their overseers, but they did not accept it as a moral obligation and resisted excessive labor by malingering or running away to the woods for days or weeks at a time. They were also guaranteed all of their necessities as long as it was in their masters’ economic interest to keep them in good health. Russell points out that because slaves were not regarded as fully human by the law, they enjoyed some liberties that were prohibited to free citizens. Slaves were not bound by the sexual rules of whites, for example, and frequently engaged in nonmonogamous relationships known as “sweethearting” and “taking up.” Slave culture also celebrated worldly pleasures like music, flashy clothing, and dancing, which respectable white society viewed with disdain.
It should come as no surprise, then, that some renegade whites sought to imitate the lives of slaves, and blackface minstrel shows were one expression of this mimicry. Long before Lou Reed sang “I Wanna Be Black,” T.D. Rice, creator of the Jim Crow character, expressed much the same sentiment in a minstrel song supposing “dem who happen to be white” would “spend ebery dollar / If dey only could be / Gentlemen ob colour.” Russell argues that such songs were sincere odes to the freedom many whites believed slaves enjoyed outside the strictures of American morality.
Even if Russell cannot slay all of American history’s sacred cows, he at least tries to tip them. In the modern era, Russell takes civil rights leaders to task for repeating the same criticisms of black culture as those found in mainstream white society. He quotes Martin Luther King criticizing other black ministers and churches for being, in Russell’s words, “too black”: “[If] we’re going to get ready for integration, we can’t spend all of our time trying to learn how to whoop and holler.”
Far more damning is the condescension Russell finds dripping from white civil rights workers who traveled to the South to teach poor blacks the value of “Soul Things” over “Material Things.” When a white volunteer in Mississippi told a group of blacks to focus on voter registration instead of integrating a movie theater because the latter would not “achieve anything basic,” a teenage girl reprimanded him: “You say that we have to wait until we get the vote. … But you know, by the time that happens, the younger people are going to be too old to enjoy the bowling alley and swimming pool.” Civil rights activists may have had noble intentions, but they frequently dismissed as frivolous the concrete desires of the people they were supposedly working to free.
Contrast the paternal attitudes of the civil rights movement with the more tolerant outlook of organized crime. Russell shows that the mob was the one institution repeatedly willing to stand up for deviant pleasures. When Thomas Edison tried to shut down early movie theaters for violating his film-production trust with racy content, Jewish mobsters defended the theaters from Edison’s agents, stole film equipment from Edison’s companies, and set fire to his distributors’ warehouses. Jazz was condemned by the bien pensant until the middle of the 20th century, but gangsters like Al Capone employed jazz musicians to play in their nightclubs and tipped them handsomely. Later, when homosexuals were harassed by the police anywhere they tried to gather, mafiosi (some of them gay themselves) paid off the cops and raked in profit by virtually monopolizing an underserved market. The Stonewall Inn—the Greenwich Village gay bar usually considered the birthplace of the modern homosexual-rights movement—was owned by the Genovese family, and after the Stonewall riots, the family helped fund an annual gay-rights parade. Despite its fearsome reputation, the mob has been one of the most inclusive forces in American life.
Russell’s work shows beyond a doubt that contemporary Americans owe many of the freedoms they take for granted not to the typical heroes of American history but to a number of mostly unknown renegades who were almost universally condemned in their time. But he never considers whether this is an entirely positive development. Russell does make clear in the book’s preface that he does not support “a renegade revolution” because if it came to pass, “No one would safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected.” Even so, it’s worth considering whether the Founders, for instance, were right. Perhaps our material abundance and moral license have made us unfit for self-government. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that something has gone horribly wrong with the American experiment when the debt approaches 100 percent of GDP, we are running annual deficits of $1.5 trillion, no major political leader can find more than $100 billion to cut from the budget, and some imbecile from “Jersey Shore” has “written” a New York Times bestseller.
Yet these considerations are beyond the realm of pure history. Russell has written a thoroughly entertaining, provocative, and informative book that should fundamentally alter how we look at our past—and maybe give us a bit more respect for the renegades of our present.
John Payne is a researcher at the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, Missouri.