Bottoms-Up American History
A Renegade History of the United States
(Free Press, 2010)
Thaddeus Russell’s new book, A Renegade History of the United States, is a collection of great stories about some of the country’s grand down-and-outers—and many others neither down nor out—who normally are either not mentioned or only marginally referred to in more conventional histories. To many Americans, Russell’s underlying thesis will seem as simple as it is startling: “The Founding Fathers understood what we now choose to ignore: Democracy is the enemy of personal freedom.” To illustrate this, Russell recounts the lives of a series of “renegades” in what he calls “the story of ‘bad’ Americans.”
The book documents how the boundaries of the acceptable have changed since the nation’s founding over two centuries ago. It details numerous struggles pitting those in authority, often representing respectability and wealth, against those who reject, ignore, or challenge the imposition of moral authority, the latter category often drawn from the poor, minorities, and the discontented.
Russell tells his tale through a divergent cast of characters that include such threats to traditional America as rebels, drunkards, hookers, “shiftless” slaves, gangsters, criminals, rock-and-rollers, drag queens, slackers, and immigrants from every background. Embracing a loosely libertarian perspective, the author draws upon a selective assortment of outsiders to address what he says is “the fight that political philosophers have always identified as the central conflict in history: that between the individual and society.”
For many, whether political philosophers, historians, or ordinary Americans, Russell’s “central conflict” is a false dichotomy, an artificially drawn juxtaposition that is at root ahistorical. Russell, who has a doctorate from Columbia and teaches history at Occidental College, seems more interested in provocation, in proving an ideological point, than really addressing the question as to the role of marginalized people in American life.
More troubling, Russell’s analysis is based on a facile or clichéd, if not false, opposition between “good” and “bad” people. It prevents him from considering how the notion of the “good” and “bad,” let alone the “acceptable” and the “unacceptable,” were established and changed over time. Nor does it permit him to consider how the mass of “ordinary” people lived their lives pulled and pushed between his moralistic polarity. It is this mass of Americans—including you and me—who embody the complex, and often contradictory value system that defines America and what it means to be both an individual and part of a society.
Russell’s Renegade History is not an academic work. Rather, it is a highly opinionated popular account of a traditionally marginalized subject: the outsider. It joins the much more illuminating accounts by Herbert Asbury of the underworlds of New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and other cities as well as the works of Louis Adamic (Dynamite) and Luc Sante (Low Life), among others, to help tell the story of an America that, for most, remains unseen.
Russell presents his most sustained and coherent argument about the “bad” American in his account of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath. He recounts the growing tension between an increasingly assertive colonial population and a tone-deaf, repressive British government that ultimately culminates in a revolutionary war. It was a war that dragged on for eight long years and eventually led to national liberation. Against this background, the author presents the reproaches of John Adams, the most prudish of the Founding Fathers, as the voice of “democracy” and traditional Christian and bourgeois moral values.
Adams was deeply offended by the general public’s love of the bottle and what he conceived as its immoral ways, especially among the lower classes. Russell reminds us that during the 18th century, Americans consumed roughly “6.6 gallons of absolute alcohol per year—equivalent to 5.8 shot glasses of 80-proof liquor a day—for each adult 15 or over.” (He forgets to mention that little potable water was available.) He acknowledges that taverns were often the only venue in which whites and blacks, unfree and free (slave or indentured servant), and men from mixed economic backgrounds could congregate. While (white) women were usually not formally welcome, they were often present as tavern owners, helpers, travelers, and prostitutes.
He also shows that during the early days of the new nation, work-discipline was determined by workers, not bosses; marriage and sexual relationships were fluid, with less emphasis placed on matrimony; pre-marital sexual intercourse was deemed to be legitimate when a couple was engaged; out-of-wedlock children were common, and female prostitution was quite common and rarely punished. Americans really need to know their history.
While Russell carefully considers, if not celebrates, the role played by drunks and drunkenness during the Revolutionary War era, he does not offer a comparable analysis of 1920s Prohibition when the manufacturing, importation, distribution, and sale of alcohol (but not its drinking) were illegal. More important, he fails to consider our current period. Are today’s alcoholics, meth-heads, and heroin addicts “renegades” like the drunkards of old? And if not, why not?
The most challenging dimension of Russell’s often-informative book is his confusing treatment of African-Americans. Russell embraces the black experience so ardently that he suffocates it. In one of his most compelling discussions, Russell notes that “in the summer of 1957, a Baptist preacher in the segregated South issued a series of fiery sermons denouncing the laziness, promiscuity, criminality, drunkenness, slovenliness, and ignorance of Negroes.” This minister was none other than the 28-year-old Martin Luther King.
Russell uses King, like Adams, as a straw man, a prop to juxtapose a false or simplified moral conflict. For Russell, King serves to reduce the complex tensions about race relations in American society during the tumultuous ’50s and after. In the author’s story, King represents the black bourgeoisie, out to suppress a radical, insurgent “renegade” black movement expressing a more fundamental challenge to American values. The unasked (and unanswered) question is what did King’s suit and tie mean to those African Americans he effectively organized? Another way of putting it is: Both Duke Ellington and Malcolm X wore suits and ties when they presented themselves to black and white audiences. Their “respectable” appearance was as much an acceptance of bourgeois conventions to engage the white world as a statement of respect for the black people they identified with. Russell lacks an appreciation of such complexity.
His treatment of African-American slavery is more provocative. “The beautiful irony of slavery was,” according to Russell, “that it guaranteed food, shelter, clothing, health care, and child care for the enslaved—and even allowed for the acquisition of luxuries and money—without requiring the self-denial of ‘free’ labor.” Slaves “enjoyed pleasures that were forbidden for white people” that made them “the envy of [white] America.” He argues that this “envy” was the impetus for popular white entertainment, be it the minstrel show, jazz, popular dance, or rock-and-roll. Russell does not defend slavery, but rather attempts to locate its contradiction. The weakness of his analysis is that slave importation was ended in 1808; in the half-century before the Civil War, slaves, as private property, became more valuable as supply dwindled to indigenously produced off-springs. Sadly, as slaves, they had little freedom, least of all the freedom to say “No!” to their captivity, which is at least one freedom wage labor bestows.
Russell’s book chronicles the battle between “degenerates,” those who pursued their own desires, against the “respectable.” His discussion of how immigrant Irish, Jews, and Italians became “white” is an important reminder that a social category like race is more than skin deep.
Unfortunately, Russell’s politics sometimes undercut his analysis. His antipathy toward political radicals prevents him from appreciating the contributions of such figures as Daniel Shays, John Brown, and Emma Goldman. More unclear is why he ignores Puritan-era witches (dozens of whom where hung, including for having sex with the devil), Francis Wright and the other 19th century free love advocates (including polygamist Mormons), and even Bettie Page, who rivaled Marilyn Monroe as the country’s leading beauty queen during the ’50s and helped launch the modern porn movement.
For all its ideological limitations, A Renegade History of the United States is a useful chronicle of the great American outsider. Russell’s account reminds us that the nation’s social norms or values are not given, but rather terrains, battlegrounds of often bitter, contentious struggle. It is a battle that lives on today.