Magazine article The American Conservative

View from the Gutter

Magazine article The American Conservative

View from the Gutter

Article excerpt

View From the Gutter [A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell, Free Press, 400 pages]

THE CITIES OF COLONIAL and early republican America teemed with whores, homosexual pirates, and illegitimate children; slaves frequently labored less and enjoyed leisure more than free whites in the antebellum era; and the mob is responsible for far more of the freedoms that modern Americans enjoy than are the prudish leaders of the civil rights movement. All that is according to the provocative and revelatory Renegade History of the United States, which Thaddeus Russell describes in the preface as "history from the gutter up."

Russell, a professor of American Studies at Occidental College, defends the bad people of our history - prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, drunks, etc. - by showing how their refusal to conform to the expectations of mainstream citizens has enhanced the sphere of personal liberty over the years. This idea has made Russell something of a renegade himself - he was fired from a position at Barnard College because some of his fellow historians found his conclusions unpalatable. Russell makes a convincing case that these bad people are much underrated, but he never fully grapples with the deepest criticisms of their behavior made by good Americans.

Social conservatives who look to the origins of the United States as a moral and political Eden will be shocked by the happily libertine portrait of colonial America that Russell paints. Workers drank on the job and set their own hours, as evidenced by their common refusal to report for work on "Saint Monday," which they instead whiled away in one of the numerous taverns that filled the country. Prostitutes not only advertised their services openly in the streets, but often they performed them "in full view to any passersby." Their customers were by no means limited to disreputable men. The greatgrandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn married a Philadelphia prostitute and retained his social status. In port cities, homosexual sailors exposed themselves to male passersby in hopes of rousing the interest of their fellow man, yet prosecutions for sodomy were rare.

The bad people of early America knew how to have a riotously good time. "But," according to Russell in one of his many lines of wry humor, "the Founding Fathers invented a way to make Americans think fun was bad. We call it democracy." The Founders supported independence in part because they believed it would force Americans to control their vices. Leading revolutionaries welcomed war not only as the path to independence but also as a means of ridding the country of extravagances. John Adams was so disgusted by the degenerate behavior of many of his fellow Americans that when the British army prepared to attack Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, he longed for the redcoats to conquer the city and "cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and effeminate Appetites, Passions and Habits."

Nor were the Founders early freemarketeers. Trade allowed people to gain wealth and indulge bad habits. South Carolina delegate and president of the Second Continental Congress Henry Laurens pined for the British to institute the harsh discipline of penury upon America "Reduce us all to poverty and cut off or wisely restrict that bane of patriotism, Commerce, and we shall soon become Patriots. . ."

After the Revolution, American politicians attacked their countrymen's licentious freedoms, not, Russell insists, "because the revolutionaries were puritans but because democracy is puritanical." Partially in an attempt to stem drunkenness, the federal government passed an excise tax on alcohol, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. State and local governments also took a more active interest in citizens' sexual behavior. Prosecutions for prostitution increased more than 60 percent over the next 20 years. Women were also arrested for interracial sexual relations in the early republican era - behavior that had been tacitly tolerated by colonial governments. …

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