American Renegades

From A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell, who was recently interviewed by

But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, venality, and vice, many of us would call freedom. During the War of Independence, deference to authority was shattered, a new urban culture offered previously forbidden pleasures, and sexuality was loosened from its Puritan restraints. Nonmarital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was rampant and unpunished. Divorces were frequent and easily obtained. Prostitutes plied their trades free of legal or moral prescriptions. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes danced together in the streets. Pirates who frequented the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced wild dances, nightlong parties, racial integration, and homosexuality. European visitors frequently commented on the “astonishing libertinism” of early American cities. Renegades held the upper hand in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Charleston, and made them into the first centers of American pleasure culture. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America’s leaders been less pleased about it.

But the Founding Fathers invented a way to make Americans think fun was bad. We call it democracy.

And they largely succeeded. The revolution was followed by wave after wave of moralistic legislation that cracked down on alcohol, prostitution, racial integration, fornication, contraception and pornography.

This is the paradox of American freedom: self-rule allows much greater repression than a monarchy. When the community itself is promulgating the law, it is much more effective at reining in the individual.

Russell’s idea is that American history can be viewed as a tug-of-war between these sides: those who believe that the power of the society should be used to create virtuous citizens, and those who refused to assimilate. That means he focuses on those who we label as “bad:” the shiftless, the shameless and the scandalous. It’s an interesting idea for atheists, since conventional religion is part of what makes a “good” citizen.

I recommend the book, with reservations. It’s easy to read, but uncomfortable reading. I don’t think most of us will react badly to seeing the mafia or pirates viewed in a positive light. His arguments that prostitution was sometimes a positive force for woman’s rights seem harder to swallow. And his chapters on slavery, showing how slaves made the institution work for them, come a little too close to the “slavery wasn’t that bad” arguments of the southern apologists.

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