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A Renegade History of the United States

November 1st, 2010

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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.


Book Review

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History Books 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.
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  1. John Mellon
    November 5th, 2010 at 09:24 | #1

    Rating

    What if the author of this book came back some day to apply his analytic methods and writing style to the history of the last 20 years? It might read something like this …

    The internet, originally a project of the U.S. Defence Department, had by 1995 become the notorious home of hackers, flamers and trolls. Individualists and non-conformists ruled the day. In fact, the internet had become the last, best home of fun in a repressive American society. Because of its apparent cloak of anonymity, everyone could dare to be provocative, profane, and uninhibited on the internet. They could be drunk, or at least act drunk, even while at work. They could be a girl, or at least pretend to be a girl. On the internet, Americans could live out their fantasies in public from the privacy of their keyboards. In short, they could be “black” whenever and wherever they wished, without giving up their day job.

    During these years, the leading names of the internet (at least the ones the history books record) were doing everything they could to dampen animal spirits and enforce sobriety. Flame wars were banned from many Usenet groups, and flamers and trolls were often banished. Even Al Gore declaimed in an obscure Senate speech “I did not invent the internets in order to promote the greater dissemination of pornography and mindless discourse. If there is not some self-imposed restraint, I may need to consider regulation.”

    As it turned out, neither restraint nor regulation were needed. The internet’s renegade renaissance lasted only ten years before it was squashed by a complete corporate takeover between 1998 and 2001. After that, when the RIAA began tracking down Napster “pirates”, and ISP’s started naming names, addresses and phone numbers of their not-so-anonymous-any-more internet subscribers, the jig was up.

    But before you settle back into the comfort of your safe, corporate-controlled internet with its ubiquitous spell checking and massive NSA supercomputers endlessly sifting every phrase you write (or perhaps auto-completing your phrases so it can analyze them before you’ve even finished writing or thinking them), spare a thought for the renegades, the pirates, and yes even the whores of the early internet. They’re the ones who expanded our freedoms. Without their pluck, our goose would already be cooked.

  2. Willy Wailer
    November 5th, 2010 at 15:10 | #2

    Rating

    I read a lot and I read a lot of history. This book is very strange as it starts off discussing the interesting darker side of early life in the US but then gets `quagmired’ in slavery, prostitution and every combination of the two. Finally gave up half way through which I rarely do. This book borders on racists in my opinion. And, if not racist, at least repetitive and boring as it drags on and on.

  3. Book Worm
    November 7th, 2010 at 01:32 | #3

    Rating

    Thaddeus Russell explores US social history in an engaging and straightforward way. What we recognize today as American culture was shaped by disenfranchised groups such as African-Americans, Gays, Jews, Irish, and prostitutes. Although “respectable” people often looked down on the lower classes and the disenfranchised, these renegades gave us freedoms such as jazz, contraception, women baring their ankles, and interracial relationships.

  4. Joshua
    November 8th, 2010 at 14:12 | #4

    Rating

    Thaddeus Russell’s ‘A Renegade History of the United States’ succeeds on every level. It is a comical, rigorous, and incisive social and cultural history of the United States, spanning the early colonial era all the way to the Obama Administration. Skillfully utilizing a plethora of primary documents while astutely navigating and critiquing the secondary literature (Russell is a Columbia-trained historian), Russell takes us on a colorful, edifying, and enormously enjoyable tour of the underside of US history. Indeed, taking off from Zinn’s people’s history, Russell emphasizes that the “people” are neither homogeneous nor pure at heart. Russell in particular shows that, contrary to standard liberal accounts, history’s drunkards, prostitutes, and general misfits have a lot more to do with advancing conceptual and material freedoms than has ever been acknowledged. ‘A Renegade History’ evokes Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ insofar as it can either please — or infuriate — just about everyone. Conservatives will delight in Russell’s demolition of politically correct — but historically dubious — truisms, but just when they’re convinced they’ve found an ally, they’ll be scandalized by Russell’s celebration of radical anti-authoritarianism. Liberals will similarly be horrified by Russell’s compelling and iconoclastic treatment of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, ideologues might fear this book. But those who value history, cultural analysis, and an amazing and brilliantly-told story will be elated.

  5. Zachary H. Bissonnette
    November 11th, 2010 at 09:53 | #5

    Rating

    This is a book that will shake the foundations of anyone’s world view.

    Thaddeus Russell has written that rare book that is absolutely guaranteed to annoy right-wingers and left-wingers alike — but centrists will probably find it the most disconcerting.

    Thoroughly-researched, well-written, and persuasively argued, this one is a classic. If you only read one history book this year, make it A Renegade History of the United States.

  6. 40 Something Pop Pundit
    November 14th, 2010 at 16:42 | #6

    Rating

    That this is the screed of a rebellious academic from Berkeley is sure to enlighten and amuse those of us free thinkers who refuse to accept historical truth written by corrupt elitists or establishment blue eyed devils. Nevertheless, while it reveals the untold impetus behind many progressive US events, it leaves out vital information and snubbed sources. For instance, in tracing cultural contributions of organized crime, from jazz to Hollywood to Broadway to gay rights, he uses the word mafia and yet gives more credit to PC non Italian gangsters than voweled surnames who suffer media stereotypes.

    Also lost in translation are the paisans who were among the first jazz musicians and the impact of a certain New Jersey saloon singer who singlehandedly helped integrate Las Vegas if not America itself. This is a worthy real people history lesson, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still a major rewrite, footnote and index away from telling the whole complete story. As is, this reads like an abridged version of what might have been a more thorough inclusive effort. Like a good franchise movie serial, it begs for a sequel with a longer list of supporting cast stars curiously missing from the renegade debut.

  7. wogan
    November 15th, 2010 at 17:06 | #7

    Rating

    This is an astounding collection of historical facts, contradictory and with some pretty inflammatory quotes and statements. The author does not seem to have anything `good’ to say about anyone, with the exception that the `bad’ classes and their behavior gave Americans their freedom – pitted against the always repressive authoritarian classes. It is true as he claims, that ordinary people do not make the history books, and it is true that many of the customs and freedoms of those classes gradually move up the social strata. I can agree with that premise, but with that said as one reads further into this book there are continued statements that, for many can be viewed as extremely insulting: That slaves were happier and had more freedom as slaves, the first ladies have taken up the color red (a symbol of prostitutes) and made it respectable, “‘good ` Americans have never been able to dance”, “racial purity was a prominent theme in New Deal culture”. Chapter titles give a hint of their content: “from white chimps to Yankee doodles: the Irish”, “The Jew was a Negro”, “Italian Americans: out of Africa.

    Many of the statements and ideas are contradictory and there is often no depth in the historical facts given, for example the amount of alcohol consumed in revolutionary times – there was often no other safe drink and in a hotter climate than Europe, workers drank to assuage their thirst and their continued dehydration from drinking alcohol. Premarital pregnancies and behavior was really no different than in Europe, as were concerns about the lower classes’ alcohol consumption.

    There was a good theory to start this book, but the way it is proved leaves a questionable taste.

  8. S. Gustafson
    November 16th, 2010 at 08:14 | #8

    Rating

    Since I was small, I’ve always regarded hippies, along with civil rights and anti-war protesters, as the real founders of freedom in the United States. Most of the good things in our culture, from rock and R&B music to sexual freedom to marijuana, seemed to come from folks such as these, rather than from the peruqued heads of the Revolutionary War. This book points out that this view of things has deeper roots than the 1960s.

    That said, many passages are likely to make you uncomfortable. Not with the tales of factory workers pushing back against industrial discipline, of whores and gay pirates: they’re still safe to cheer for.

    But the book’s treatment of issues involving African-Americans and slavery may well cause some discomfort. For I’m still enough of a product of a Puritan culture that frequent examination of conscience is an indelible part of my background; and what is white guilt but the fruit of examination of conscience brought to racial issues?

    Now, the tale the book tells is convincing, and likely true. The author tells us that many former slaves found that the movement from being valuable livestock to hired hands was no improvement. As livestock, they knew they would be fed and taken care of. Giving this up for the “liberty” of being able to switch employers and move on was a bargain many would not have chosen. As slaves, being property, their sexual relationships were unregistered, and could be changed as was convenient. Nobody expected different. “Liberty” brought with it the tyranny of nineteenth century marriage law.

    The author argues that blackface minstrelsy, which we assume was pure stereotype, in fact was popular because it portrayed a people relatively free from work ethic, sexual repression, and able to engage in public merriment without fear of shame. Some White people in the nineteenth century liked it for some of the same reasons that some White people in the twenty-first century like gangsta rap. This rouses a perhaps unwholesome curiosity about what the performances were actually like. An entire genre of Americana has vanished leaving only the slightest traces; it made previous generations that uncomfortable.

    The author, despite his disclaimer that the “renegades” are not really heroes, seems to take a pleasantly subversive delight in making these arguments. He likes to make his readers squirm a little. You might have preferred to have these themes broached first in a stuffily scholarly and less readable text than this.

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