A Usable Past (Slackers' Edition)

Thaddeus Russell, author of the new Renegade's History of the United States, has a contrarian take on early American history titled "11 Freedoms that Drunks, Slackers, Prostitutes and Pirates Pioneered and The Founding Fathers Opposed." Here's the opening:

During the War of Independence a culture of pleasure and freedom blossomed in American cities. Non-marital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was ubiquitous and rarely punished. Because divorce was unregulated, it was easily and frequently obtained, often by women. Brothels were legal and abundant and prostitutes were rarely prosecuted. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes commingled extensively in saloons and in the streets. Pirates who settled in the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced both general revelry and homosexuality. On nearly every block in every 18th-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America's leaders been less pleased by it.

To the Founding Fathers the culture of personal liberty was a more serious threat to their project of creating an independent republic than the British Army....The Founding Fathers hoped that self-rule would cure Americans of their love of frivolities. A government of the people, John Adams argued, would make the people disciplined, stern, hard-working, and joyless -- the qualities he most admired.

Read the whole thing here, or see a slideshow version here. Russell explains "Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History" here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Abdul||

    As awesome as that all sounds, I'm always a little skeptical of a historian who finds exactly what he's hoping to find in the past, especially when there are no citations.

  • ||

    Yeah. Amazing that each of the disparate 13 colonies was a libertarian paradise.

    "On nearly every block in every 18th-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America's leaders been less pleased by it."

    How can one even pretend to take such a blanket statement seriously?

  • ||

    It is a bit broad. But it is not that far from the truth. The temperance movement didn't pick up so many supporters in the 19th Century because things were tame. They were not. And the 18th Century is actually well known for its lose morals. I don't know about "every block of every city". But there was a tremendous amount of drinking, whoring and gambling going on in colonial America. Think about it, there wasn't TV or movies or electricity or really much of anything else to do beyond work, go to church, play cards, screw and drink.

    For a good example of this, read the accounts of Washington's Army when it occupied New York in 1776. They were generally a bunch of country boys who had never been to a city. They set the place on its ear. The Bowery at that time was full of brothels. And it was impossible to declare it off limits because few soldiers had uniforms. So you couldn't tell who was a civilian and who wasn't. Washington had to send the provost marshal in and pretty much clear the bowery out every night at dusk to keep the soldiers' drunken brawls with the locals to a minimum.

  • ||

    the claim that I would question is how the races interacted. I doubt it was that lose. But, I don't know. A lot of Northern racism arose after the civil war. And even in the South, not every mulatto was the product of some slave owner raping his slaves. It is a lot more complex and interesting story that then "evil white man" story they tell you in school. But I also doubt it was as benign as this guy makes it out to be.

  • ||

    As a person studied in American History, I won't argue that the Puritan and Victorian prudish attitudes weren't repressive, but I find his broad happy land assertions to be very naive.

    One must remember that the rule of law was very weak during this time period (The same can be set of the western frontier during the 19th century). Whites envied the slaves because they had never been one. Life spans were far shorter. Native Americans could be massacred with near impunity. Free blacks could be enslaved by hired slave catchers with little legal recourse. Women had few legal rights. Children worked in horrible conditions. Murder and violence was far more common and oft went unpunished. And property rights were far less secure.

    The author sees the colonial times were a wonderful liberal paradise for much the same reason that conservatives long for the good old days of morality and piousness...because he chooses to only see the parts of history he wants to see. While maybe not a firing offense, he made no great breakthroughs and retains a biased narrow view; just like many other history professors.

  • ||

    That is a good description of things. America was a very free place. But that freedom cut both ways. It was also a very rough and dangerous place by modern standards.

  • Warty||

    It was also a very rough and dangerous place by modern standards.

    I was going to call bullshit on you, but apparently you're right. How Homicidal Was the Old West?

    Still, I'd rather take my chances in the Old West than in modern Memphis.

  • Warty||

    The linked paper is well worth reading, by the way.

  • ||

    I will take modern Memphis. The problem with the old west was the disease and work was so rough. My grandfather was born in 1907 in Western Kansas. That was only about 25 years removed from "the Old West". And he could tell you, living was very hard.

  • Warty||

    Remember the house Will Munny and his kids lived in in Unforgiven? That was supposed to be in about 1879, so that would be how your grandpa's parents lived. That's kind of crazy to think about.

  • ||

    My great grandfather on my dad's side was born in the 1880s on a homestead in a sod house in Western Nebraska. He lived until 1969. He wrote an unpublished book on the wildlife of Nebraska. In it, he describes where he grew up and what it was like. It is fascinating reading. I have often thought of trying to get it published.

  • Mike Laursen||

    I know the area well, and how tough it was (still is). All my family on both sides are from around Box Butte county. My mom spent her early childhood in a sod house, with rattlesnakes burrowing through the walls every once in a while. My dad's dad lived in a hole dug in the side of a hill his first year of homesteading, and my dad's sister was killed by lightning.

    Think I'm a libertarian because I grew up exposed to all these extremely self-reliant, tough-as-nails, zero-whining folks.

  • skr||

    there were far fewer blocks in the cities back then.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Yeah, I'm not so sure it's all that "renegade" to note that multiple towns in colonial America had bars--the establishments he describes were fairly common-place here not because a culture of libertinism existed (which is really what the author is trying to establish), but because the very same type of gathering places existed back in Europe.

    It's not exactly "OUTLAW" to note that the settlers were trying to recreate their native societies--I imagine it's more about Russell's need to feel like he's tweaking WASPish sensibilities than about expanding historical knowledge.

  • ||

    An interesting point for ladies who visit Charleston: Don't wear red shoes. The red light district was outlawed, so they only identifier for sailors coming ashore was to seek out women wearing red shoes.

    At least, that's always the story I got growing up, so it must be true.

  • ||

    I imagine that he's right, though. The Founding Father's love of whiskey and pot aside, they were rather stodgy fellows. Especially the Federalists, they had a real stick up their asses.

  • creech||

    Equally true of London, Paris, and many other places of the time.

  • Pip||

    "On nearly every block in every 18th-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling."

    But no sheep?

  • Name Nomad||

    There were fewer tort lawyers and New Zealanders back then, so no.

  • Old Mexican||

    A government of the people, John Adams argued, would make the people disciplined, stern, hard-working, and joyless -- the qualities he most admired.

    No further proof needed that governments are not set up by civilized people but by prudish fuddy duddies to stop everybody else from having fun.

    Or, who else do you get all these prohibitions from? And they don't come from Repubs only; the Dems are masters of deceiving people into thinking they are for more partying (i.e. personal liberty) when in fact they are more Blue Code than a host of Baptist pastors.
  • Geotpf||

    An average Republican is much more, um, "anti-fun" than an average Democrat. Do you really believe otherwise?

  • Spoonman.||

    They're anti different fun. Liberals will let you have your porn, but not your milkshake.

  • ||

    They'll let you have your milkshake, but then they'll drink your milkshake. They'll drink it up! (and spit out to milkshake-less people the world over)

  • ||

    No, I don't believe otherwise.

    There is a list of pleasures that both parties want to deny me.

    Then there is a list of pleasures that the Dems want to deny me.

    About the only thing Repubs want to deny that Dems don't is porn, as near as I can make out.

  • feminist democrat||

    Porn is rape!

  • ||

    "Typical was a Burlington, New Jersey grand jury's charge in 1707 that a laborer named William Cale ((or the REASON comments section) kept a "common house of drinking . . . and there received harbored and supported diverse vagabond (Warty) and other idle and suspected persons of evil conversation (SugarFree) as well as diverse servants and Negroes of the inhabitants of the town."

  • ||

    More damning evidence that unions had zilch to inventing the weekend

    Typically, workers in the first industrial factories decided when they would show up and when they would go home. Long afternoon periods of eating, drinking, and sleeping were taken for granted. And the three-day weekend was the norm. Workers in many of the first major industries were normally paid for six days of work, but on Saturday they drank beer all day while on the job. The drinking usually continued through Saturday evening and into Sunday, so that on Monday the workers were usually unable and unwilling to work. This created a wonderful but now forgotten American tradition called "Blue Monday" - a workers' day of rest following the Lord's day of rest. Most importantly, simply by being lazy, early American workers established the idea of the weekend.

  • ||

    I am going on a limb and simply taking this book as gospel truth. What the hell.

    Also others have mentioned that Europe had similar libertine cities.

    I disagree. Colonial America did not have a state church and the commoner in the colonies was generally wealthier.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement