In a first for The Abraham Lincoln Blog, this post departs from the usual subject matter in order to review a new, controversial book about general American history. While Abraham Lincoln obviously holds a particular fascination for me, I am also deeply interested in nearly all eras which make up the American story.
I was recently contacted by a publicist from Free Press (a division of publisher Simon & Schuster, Inc.) to gauge my interest in reviewing A Renegade History Of The United States authored by Thaddeus Russell. The title alone intrigued me and when I received the press release, I knew I had to read this book.
Russell teaches American history at Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA) and has previously taught at Columbia University and Barnard College. He was raised in Berkeley, California. After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he achieved his PhD in History from Columbia.
According to Russell, “college students are normally taught a history that is the story of struggles between capitalists and workers, whites and blacks, men and women.” Text books and traditional professors teach that our “freedoms” were achieved by the Founding Fathers, handed down by the U.S. Constitution, further fought for in the Civil War, and finally guaranteed by WWII and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.
A Renegade History turns this traditional story on its ear. In this book, Russell claims that most of our true freedoms come from the “renegades,” the people who lived on the fringes of American society. He states that slaves, immigrants, gangsters, prostitutes, pirates, drunks and “flamboyant gays” (or “drag queens”) challenged the conventions of their day with the way they lived. They were the ones, claims this compelling book, that implemented real change in America and created the country that we know today. If it weren’t for them, we’d have no jazz, legal alcohol, weekends, birth control, Hollywood, and civil rights. In short, the struggle for freedom really occurs between these “renegades” and those who try to control society through laws, unwritten rules, social norms, and “polite behavior.”
I wrote earlier that this book is controversial. For example, Russell claims in this book that white Americans envied enslaved blacks. He presents statistics which show that white farmers worked longer and harder hours than slaves. Whereas white Americans wore simple “homespun” clothing which reflected “sensibility,” it was the slaves who wore bright colors. White America was told through societal pressures that dancing was evil and even a mortal sin, while slaves performed their traditional dances, while singing joyously. In Russell’s view, this “freedom” that slaves had was the main reason why minstrel shows were immensely popular during the days of slavery. The minstrel shows allowed whites to experience, even briefly, the “freedom” that slaves had to “let go.” And yes, Lincoln supposedly enjoyed the shows at times, too.
According to Russell, many of our sexual freedoms, including birth control, come directly from prostitutes from the earliest days of America. I won’t delve into most of the facts concerning this topic he presents in that chapter of the book since this is a site used by many students. But a family-friendly example I will use is the fact that more than 100 years ago, only prostitutes wore red dresses. Now, even First Ladies such as Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama were that color as a fashion statement.
Still another section of A Renegade History which is controversial points how out closely related the New Deal era under the (Franklin) Roosevelt administrations was to the Nazi and fascist regimes in Europe. He points out that even posters urging Americans to work for the collective good of society were very similar to those used in Nazi Germany. Russell writes that its absurd to fail to recognize the similarities between America and socialist/fascist Europe in the 1930’s, but is also careful to point out that it’s equally ridiculous to state that they were identical. After all, the United States did not round up millions of people in death camps in order to exterminate them. Of course, the U.S. did round up thousands of Japanese-Americans for fear that they supported Japan, and put them into “relocation camps.”
Closer to our own era, Russell has yet another contentious point of view about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. In his view, it wasn’t the non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which achieved most of the rights eventually granted to African-Americans. Russell uses ample evidence to show that it was the more violent actions, such as riots, which achieved the freedoms.
Russell is quick to point out that he is not advocating a “renegade revolution.” In the foreword to the book, he writes “Were the heroes of this book to take control of society, it would be a living hell. No one would be safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected. The social guardians are enemies of freedom, but there is no claim here that they are morally wrong.”
Not only is A Renegade History controversial, Thaddeus Russell himself is as well. In a recent article on the Huffington Post internet site, Russell tells the story of why he was fired by Barnard College, a sister institution of Columbia University. Apparently, his very ideas challenged the “status quo” of the history department, and he was let go. His students call him “Bad Thad” due to his demeanor, use of language, and indeed, his “radical” approach to American history.
I loved this book. It is absorbing, well written, and thought-provoking. Above all, it is never boring, as far too many books about American history can be. The reader may not agree completely with some of Russell’s points, but he presents them in a manner which forces the reader to rethink all he or she has learned about American history. That is the hallmark of an excellent, intelligent book. Very highly recommended.
“Bad Thad”? The history field needs more like him. And the history book genre desperately needs more works ike A Renegade History Of The United States.