Book Review: A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell

Posted September 29, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book Review: A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus RussellA Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell
Genres: Free Press
on September 28, 2010
Pages: 382
Format: Hardcover
Source: the library


In this groundbreaking book, noted historian Thaddeus Russell tells a new and surprising story about the origins of American freedom. Rather than crediting the standard textbook icons, Russell demonstrates that it was those on the fringes of society whose subversive lifestyles helped legitimize the taboo and made America the land of the free.

In vivid portraits of renegades and their “respectable” adversaries, Russell shows that the nation’s history has been driven by clashes between those interested in preserving social order and those more interested in pursuing their own desires—insiders versus outsiders, good citizens versus bad. The more these accidental revolutionaries existed, resisted, and persevered, the more receptive society became to change.

Russell brilliantly and vibrantly argues that it was history’s iconoclasts who established many of our most cherished liberties. Russell finds these pioneers of personal freedom in the places that usually go unexamined—saloons and speakeasies, brothels and gambling halls, and even behind the Iron Curtain. He introduces a fascinating array of antiheroes: drunken workers who created the weekend; prostitutes who set the precedent for women’s liberation, including “Diamond Jessie” Hayman, a madam who owned her own land, used her own guns, provided her employees with clothes on the cutting-edge of fashion, and gave food and shelter to the thousands left homeless by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; there are also the criminals who pioneered racial integration, unassimilated immigrants who gave us birth control, and brazen homosexuals who broke open America’s sexual culture.

Among Russell’s most controversial points is his argument that the enemies of the renegade freedoms we now hold dear are the very heroes of our history books— he not only takes on traditional idols like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, but he also shows that some of the most famous and revered abolitionists, progressive activists, and leaders of the feminist, civil rights, and gay rights movements worked to suppress the vibrant energies of working-class women, immigrants, African Americans, and the drag queens who founded Gay Liberation.

This is not history that can be found in textbooks— it is a highly original and provocative portrayal of the American past as it has never been written before.

A look at what makes America great, how the discontented, the criminal, the bad citizens changed this country. Yep, Russell thinks history has expended too much time on the good people — settlers, abolitionists, capitalists, suffragists, conservatives and not enough on prostitutes, pirates, gangsters, and slaves who set the stage for change.

Just to warn you, it is a wee bit on the long side, but it truly only touches on bits here and there.

My Take
I don’t buy all of Russell’s premise, but I can see where it comes from. There certainly are some facts in here I was NOT aware of from our history. Not from the history I learned in school, and it makes me angry. I hate revisionist history. If you screwed up, own it! Explain what you learned from those mistakes. Don’t change things around to make yourself feel better. Mistakes aren’t truly bad unless you DON’T learn from it. It’s that old adage: if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it. Don’t make us do that!

You may well be asking what those mistakes are. Well…there’s Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal — christ, this is a terrifying idea! Substituting fascism for democracy…ugh. And a good example of why censorship is so incredibly wrong. A different take on the implementation of welfare. It was a “deal” everyone ignored on pain of going out of business. How patriotic and enthusiastic America was about going “over there” to fight in the war. The truth behind the Japanese internment camps and the Boston Massacre which, I remind you, set off the American War for Independence. A new perspective on our Founding Fathers and their obsession with work, work, work, work, work, work…work… Fun? You ask about fun? Oh, my lord, bite your tongue! Well, unless you’d enjoy doing that!? I do like Russell’s point that historians chose to interpret people having fun as “resistance” against oppression when all they were doing was havin’ a good time.

“America developed a national culture that was more sexually restrained and work obsessed than Victorian England.”

Russell also provides an encapsulated look at the waves of prejudice America coughed up. Oh, brother. I didn’t learn until some five or six years ago, that part of my heritage is…shhhIrish. Shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone! I can certainly understand why my great-greats didn’t want to admit to that one! ROFLMAO. Truly. How incredibly stupid. No. Not them. Not my great-greats. People. I know I’ve read this description of the Irish in a wide variety of books, and again, I’m very curious as to the why of this. I certainly never felt that my grandparents were filthy, disgusting people. But then again, they’d “assimilated”…

Why do we have to feel so bloody insecure that we have to oppress others? Can you believe that people of the time thought the Irish, the Jews, and then the Italians were niggers? Because…shhh…they liked to dance! They liked music. They liked having a good time. Just like them darkies! *Eye roll*. If that what makes you of the negroid race, I’m volunteering. Yeah, race. Scientists of the times “proved” that the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians were of different races from Nordic races. When the Irish, Jews, and then the Italians immigrated to America, they saw nothing “wrong” with mixing it up with African Americans. They lived with them, married them, had affairs, danced, and had fun. But Americans, “normal” citizens, didn’t like how much fun they were having, thought they were a bad influence, so the Irish/Jewish/Italians were discriminated against. Finally Irish/Jewish/Italian leaders started to lean hard on their people to look down upon African Americans, that they must keep away from them if they wanted to succeed at anything in America. Martin Luther King was one of the African Americans who wanted to help his fellow man mainstream as well. All this is the equivalent of having to knuckle under to a bunch of bully boys.

When you think about it, every generation has its new omigod fashion, dance, music that the older generation claims will destory civilization as they know it. And that new generation cycles on to become the older generation shocked by what their younger generation brings forth. Parents were shocked by the waltz, the lindy, the jitterbug, tap dancing, the twist… It was dresses that came above the ankle, to the knee then above it!! Zoot suits! Blue jeans! Today’s hilarious habit of wearing your pants so they hang halfway off your butt, exposing your boxers. Duck tails, bobs, long hair on men, heck, I’m sure someone was shocked at buzz cuts.

Omigod, Russell lists the contributions the African Americans and Irish/Jews/Italians made to this country! Wow, just…wow…! And it includes, lol, the Jews’ and Italians’ valiant efforts to keep us wet during Prohibition! Seems the Jews were pretty athletic as well back in the day…until they were forced into assimilation. ‘Cause, you know, “real” white men don’t move with grace. Then consider Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Sophie Tucker, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, Randy Newman, Jelly Roll Morton, Frankie Avalon, Dean Martin, Ben Stiller, Larry David, the Beastie Boys, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, and so many more.

I have to wonder if Americans saw these incoming Europeans as “disgusting” and “indolent” because they weren’t as committed to that Puritan work ethic. If it was because they took the time to have some fun.

This prejudice was disgusting, and it makes me wonder how we’re still doing it today. What I did love was the joy that people experienced when they “rebelled” and mixed it up — blacks, whites, Chinese, men, women, miners, Mexicans, Indians together! The shock!! LOL.

Some interesting sections on fashion, makeup, and hairstyles are scattered throughout. A look at the Ku Klux Klan and Russell notes that the KKK didn’t only go after African Americans, they also went after “vile places of amusement”, partially to protect their white women.

At one point, Russell notes how the Italians took a long time before they identified themselves as Americans, but in truth, we still identify ourselves by our ancestral origins. If I’m overseas, I’ll say I’m American. If I’m home, here, I’ll say I’m half-German, a quarter Norwegian, you know, a mutt. And it must be due…gasp…to not limiting immigration enough to keep out the “wrong” element. Omigod, we let mongrel races mix with AMERICANS! We’re, we’re…*gasp*…a mongrel race. Hullo??

One point that Russell raises continually is the very different culture of African Americans, and I’m hoping some African Americans will weigh in on this. Russell’s statements do seem borne out by what I’ve read in the news, and it makes sense if what he stated about slavery was true. It does seem as if African Americans were rejecting the white man’s work ethic and cultural expectations, which only makes sense if you are offered citizenship in name only.

All of this is a result of that Puritan work ethic of our Founding Fathers. Yes, the same ones who also went out and had fun in their own lives, but didn’t want it for anyone else. It’s a completely different perspective on Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and others who thought there was too much wickedness and corruption — ’cause once we had their democracy, everyone behaved themselves from mine owners to business tycoons at the turn of the twentieth century to plantation owners to today’s venal corporations…*eye roll*… This idea continued through centuries even down to the labor unions wanting to cut back on working hours, so workers would find work “enjoyable”, a place they wanted to come back to. They thought that if workers had extra time at the end of the day, they’d be rested and want to sit through lectures on improvements, morality, etc. Even Margaret Sanger and those who promoted birth control were actually interested in eugenics and controlling the population.

The section on freedom for slaves after the Civil War is interesting. There’s a different perspective on how slaves were treated and what they thought about it as well as the why of Russell’s statements. I suspect it might have been less cruel to be a slave than a white child growing up with parents who believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child”. At least slaves had value…jesus. I have to wonder how much of my interpretation of it is based on novels and white historians rewriting history. I can see Russell’s point, and he does have a slew of facts and a few interviews that seem to support his conclusions. I’d want to read a lot more primary sources before I can buy it all.

“William Ellery Channing, an intellectual founder of abolitionism, made plain the ugly irony of his movement. The problem with slavery was that slaves were too free…”

Russell also looks at Reconstruction after the Civil War, and if his earlier statements are correct, then it puts a different light on Republican efforts. It also seems shameful. Play by our rules, however stupid, or you’re out. I dunno. I’d want to see more primary sources on this as well.

The democracy the Founding Fathers wanted was denial of desire, to feel shame for wanting, to instead desire restraint and more work. They actually liked the boycott of British goods as it would teach Americans to deny themselves luxuries! Hmmm, wonder if Jefferson would have denied himself his books…or Sally? They tried to tax pleasure — and it gives new meaning to the Whiskey Rebellion!

Russell notes that historians [and contemporary pundits] see consumerism as bad. That spending money on anything not essential to sustaining life is “bad”, that it distracts from finding joy in working. I’m wondering who decides what the minimum amount is and if everyone is expected to adhere to this minimum. The governor? The billionaire? The business owner? This desire to enforce a work ethic also explains why only landowners could vote! No manufacturers, bankers, merchants, or consumers need apply. Yeah, you won’t be able to believe it, but it does make sense if you buy into this. Of course, when you see how many wealthy men believe that consumerism is bad, ya gotta wonder why they manufacture anything. Although Carnegie did think the rich should be heavily taxed so the state would have a nice chunk of change to help people. Then again, Max Weber believes they wanted their wealth so they’d have more power to control people. That’s a concept I’d believe.

Then there’s his comment about psychologists saying “that sexuality informs all of our social activities and that people are obsessed with sex [NO?!!], but historians rarely mentioned it. Well, unless they’re talking about Henry VIII, lol.

If sex is so awful, why do we keep seeking it out?

There are reasons today why there are restrictions on various vices such as drinking. For one, back then, nobody had to drive home drunk and alcohol was healthier to drink than water.

I love this comment Russell makes about the Volstead Act, lol

“To try to explain the theory of prohibition … sounds interesting [but] … people of this type, who are otherwise law-abiding and patriotic and well-intentioned, protect bootleggers and otherwise violate the Volstead Act with the same faith in the justice of their actions that a group of Middle Western Americans would have in evading a law that prohibited them from planting corn…”

Ah, women’s lib. I’ve always loved this. Well, I am a woman. When you consider that any woman before this revolution was essentially considered a whore or “asking for it” if she wore makeup, was alone in public, attempted to be independent and more. In truth, real prostitutes had it pretty good, before the Revolution and in the Old West. Consider that the average weekly wage for a “good” woman in 1916 was $6.67 while a prostitute could earn $30 to $50 a week. Before laws were enacted against it, prostitutes in a bordello had free health care, food, nice clothing, a warm place to live, free birth control, safety, and legal assistance. None of this was a guarantee for “good” women. Ya gotta read what happened in Denver when the council decided to shame its prostitutes, lol. Russell’s comments on the Social Purity movement of the 1870s will make you shake your head in disgust. All it did was lead to women being turned out onto the streets and being subjected to pimps. Without health insurance. It’s not for nothing that prostitution and brewing alcohol are considered some of the oldest professions. Hullo?

Hmmm, the reason for Coney Island’s continued success back then…

Before America became independent, sex was freewheeling and women could work at anything; there were no laws about marriage or divorce; prostitution was not the horror we all think it was (remember who writes the histories!); and, gay liberation was in very interesting hands, lol. You thought the scandal about Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy was salacious… Hah, it ain’t got nothin’ on Vito Genovese and “Fat Tony” Lauria!

What Russell emphasizes is that these “rebels” who enjoyed life, who danced, listened or created music, drank, gambled, had sex are why we (and the Soviet bloc) have the liberty we have today. In many respects, I agree with him. The entertainment we enjoy today — movies, dancing, music, Las Vegas etc. — are due to mobsters and ex-slaves who influenced others who helped spread such decadence as doo-wop, jazz, blues, rap, scat, rhythm and blues, ragtime, and rock and roll. The truth behind “Dixie” and the Selwyn Theater. And it explains why the whitey ain’t got no rhythm, lol. There’s Edison and his Trust versus the nickelodeons along with what led to the Hays Code. Interesting insights into the movies produced during World War II as well as why San Francisco became a mecca for gays! Oh, oh, and the start of growing marijuana!

I love it! An Italian opera house went bankrupt while an Ethiopian opera flourished, ’cause one was fun and the other wasn’t. I’ll let you decide which one.

“Elvis Presley ‘a Cold War Weapon'”!

Tons and tons and tons of facts in here, but Russell writes it well. He does have a tendency to run on and repeat himself and yet he is trying to make a point.
I’d like to see this book used as part of a history class in high school. And incorporate a lot of his facts into history classes. His book explains a lot about a number of legislative acts passed by the government. History should be balanced, honest, true, and not only the “victor’s” idea of true.

It makes me sad to think how much richer America would have been if the control freaks had simply left people alone.

It all comes down to embracing pleasure, being free with one’s body, and that work is simply a means to fun.

Or we could go back to the Puritan work ethic and give up our novels, movies, music, and Xboxes.


The Cover
The cover is a close-up of an American flag with “naughty” symbols replacing some of the stars. A skull for the poison symbol, a guitar, high heels (oh, no!), a cigarette, handcuffs, a marijuana leaf, and a smoking cigarette. I do like the title overlaid on the two white stripes of the flag.

The title is the perspective Randall takes at A Renegade History of the United States.

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