If you associate the era of the American Revolution with individual liberty, you’re right in more ways than you probably realized. In the lead-up to the War of Independence and during the revolution itself, prosecutions for prostitution, sodomy, and drunkenness were rare. Divorce was easy. Women entered a wide range of professions. Members of different races mixed freely in raucous taverns.
Such liberties shocked the more respectable classes, including the Founding Fathers; in what one historian calls “a counterrevolution against the pleasure culture of the cities,” the young country’s leaders called for new restrictions on disreputable recreations. Soon there were crackdowns on illicit sex, tighter controls on divorce, and a booming network of anti-vice groups that “targeted gambling houses, brothels, dance halls, and lower-class taverns.”
The historian speaking is Thaddeus Russell, 45, a professor at Occidental College and the author of a provocative and engaging new book, A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press). The book’s title deliberately echoes A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn’s retelling of the American story from a New Left perspective. But Russell’s book takes a rather different vantage point, celebrating the prostitutes who seized new freedoms for women, the gangsters whose gay bars opened spaces for same-sex liaisons, the lower-class Birmingham blacks who threw bricks at racist cops, and the consumer revolution that expanded American pleasures. And while Russell is a man of the left, more or less, he doesn’t have many kind words for the traditional pantheon of liberal heroes. One chapter of his book attacks Franklin Roosevelt for cartelizing the economy and regimenting the culture. Another highlights the puritanical side of Martin Luther King, who “called for blacks to stop drinking and gambling and to curtail their desires for luxuries.” Even the ’60s counterculture gets a mixed review, with Russell finding an ascetic strain in a movement more famous for its hedonism.
There’s a lot here for libertarians to cheer, but this is no more a conventional libertarian account than it is a standard leftist tale. When Russell describes the Founders’ clampdowns on drinking and other pleasures, he doesn’t merely point out that they felt such restrictions were necessary for democratic self-government. He forthrightly agrees with their analysis, with just one difference: He counts this as a mark against self-government. In one controversy-courting chapter, Russell celebrates the ways plantation slaves managed to resist their masters’ controls and build their own autonomous culture. That might not sound so controversial, except he argues that the slaves were able to create this culture “not despite slavery, but because of it” and that “slaves enjoyed pleasures that were forbidden to white people.” This isn’t, he stresses, a defense of slavery. But it takes his critique of self-government into potentially precarious places.
The Berkeley-bred son of two socialists, Russell is the author of one other book, a revisionist study of the Teamsters titled Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class (2001). In addition to his academic work, Russell writes regularly for popular venues such as The Daily Beast, where his articles on subjects ranging from ultimate fighting to Glee have sparked some of the most entertainingly angry and puzzled comment threads on the Internet.
I spoke with Russell via phone in December.
reason: One of your themes is that the outlaw classes tend to be invisible not just in mainstream histories but on the left.
Thaddeus Russell: Traditionally, history was written about elite white males, an approach that critics called history “from the top down.” With the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s, scholars started writing history with a new class of heroes, who they claimed were the bottom of society. That is now known as history “from the bottom up.” But as a graduate student and as a professor, I was always skeptical about that. Those heroes didn’t really seem to be at the bottom of society. The way they spoke and their aspirations were very much in line with the 19th-century middle class.
I began as a labor historian. I started out as a fairly orthodox Marxist-inspired intellectual. But the more I researched labor unions, and later civil rights leaders and feminist leaders, the more I found that they talked just like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller and Thomas Edison and George Washington. They urged, and in some ways forced, their constituencies to adopt Victorian sexual repressions, to adopt the Puritan work ethic, to speak in proper English and avoid slang, to show propriety at all times, to dress respectfully, and the rest. Then I began to look down further, at what they were worried about among their constituencies, and a whole new world opened up to me.
reason: Your book draws heavily on existing historical work. So bottom-up historians were already beginning to reach further down.
Russell: Absolutely. There’s been a whole wealth of literature focusing on the same people I do. Especially since the mid-’90s, when younger scholars—people who were born after the New Left—started to go into the academy. People who are now in their 30s and 40s have had similar curiosities. They still are essentially wedded to a left-liberal politics. But nonetheless, they have looked in the right places.
[Interview continues after the video, "Historian Thaddeus Russell on the Renegades Who Made America Free."]
reason: How do you define your own politics?
Russell: Left-libertarian. I have major issues with the left, and some issues with libertarians, but in the last five years I’ve become really enamored with a lot of libertarian thinking. To me libertarians are the only people doing really radical intellectual work right now.