Thaddeus Russell's premise for Renegade History is to look at the people and things in American history have always been left out: particularly how "vices" and those who pursued them have done as much to shape American history - and American freedom - than many political movements and acts. And the results are thrilling! This, folks, is the REAL People's History.
We start at the beginning. Part 1 goes from Colonial America and the omnipresent saloon to the Civil War. About colonial and early American history, we learn that saloons and alcohol consumption were not only common, but many saloons were owned (very successfully) by women, and catered to white, black, slave, and free. Despite efforts of states during and after America's independence to shut them down in the name of patriotism, they kept going.
The Civil War chapters may be the most controversial as they mount an impressive array of evidence to show that slaves may have had more freedom under slavery than as free men and women. Using interviews with former slaves, speeches and textbooks during reconstruction, and references to many secondary sources, Russell illustrates the difficulties in creating a new work ethic among a people who were quite unaccustomed to "fending for themselves." Russell IS NOT saying that slavery was better than freedom, but is pointing out that slavery often elicited less responsibility than freedom and, as such, slavery was often easier than freedom. Of particular importance to Russell's thesis is the idea that many vices flourished under slavery that had to be given up for freedom: serial monogamy, for instance, was the norm during slavery where freemen were expected to marry and stay married.
"Whore and the Origin of Women's Liberation" is another chapter that has the potential for controversy. The claim here is that "women of the night" are the best models the United States has for early independent women. Many not only owned their own businesses, but were the richest people in their towns or cities. Many did not get married until they were older, wore flamboyant clothing (that we now accept as normal), and pushed many other boundaries. All of this because they simply did not care about the "proper" mores. Lo and behold, more of their mores became "acceptable" to future generations than the then-"proper" ones.
Part II is called "How White People Lost Their Rhythm" and deals with four marginalized groups - African-Americans, Irish, Jews, and Italians - and their contradictory struggle to have their own identity in a U.S. that often didn't want them. All of them found ways to be renegades - to live a bit outside the "proper" model that was often both expected of them and told they could never meet. The Irish largely developed the minstrel show not out of disdain, but admiration, for African-Americans' culture as a group "at the bottom" who had adjusted to that life and was less worried and hurried as a result. African-Americans, of course, developed Jazz (along with Jews and Italians), Jews and Italians are largely responsible for organized crime, etc. When being forced to live outside the bounds of "respectability" there is a lot more freedom in what one can do.
The third section - "Fighting for Bad Freedom" - has largely to do with the early and mid-1900's and the overall message that the "progressives" were every bit as morally repressive as anyone on the "right." The temperance movement, eugenics, a longing for fascism and its top-down planning schemes - all of these are found in plenty in the writings of "progressives" of the day.
Lastly, we come to the final section - "Which Side are You On." It starts with the Cold War and how it was, in effect, won by the young people who, at every turn, refused to obey the orders and dictates of the Soviet bloc. No jazz, rock and roll, zoot suits, "loud" hair, etc? Yeah right! This section also contains an interesting chapter on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 70's where Russell notes, ironically, that icons such as King and Malcolm X exhibited a moral conservatism that often gets overlooked when discussing their contribution to history.
In short, this book was eye-opening and challenging from start to finish. One could dismiss Russell as simply a contrarian "revisionist" were it not for his bevy of evidence including ample primary quotes. Two small complaints about the book though: first, the notes are not organized in a footnote or endnote structure. The sources are listed at the end of the book, but are not linked by markings to individual quotes or facts given in the book. Footnotes or endnotes would have been nice (but would likely have made the book about 100 pages longer).
Secondly, Russell says throughout the book that he is not advocating for his subjects' immoralities - not recommending or condoning drunkness, prostitution, organized crime, profligacy, etc. I confess, though, that it is really hard to come away believing him on that. Quite often - when the talk was over lack of work ethic, desire for material goods, disdain for saving, etc - I found myself concerned that maybe Russell was not seeing (or was choosing to ignore) the fact that many of those traits that he seems to celebrate may be directly tied to our current recession and overall financial difficulties. I understand that he SAYS he is not advocating these traits, but he sure seems to revel in them.
Anyhow, those are small grievances for such an interesting book. This is a history that everyone (except for grandma, the local chaplain, and those prone to conventionality) should read.