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.
Thaddeus Russell teaches history and cultural studies at Occidental College and has taught at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Russell graduated from Antioch College and received a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. Russell's first book, Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Re-Making of the American Working Class, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2001. He has published opinion articles in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Salon, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as scholarly essays in American Quarterly and The Columbia History of Post-World War II America. Russell has also appeared on the History Channel and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
"Raucous, profane, and thrillingly original, Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States turns the myths of the 'American character' on their heads with a rare mix of wit, scholarship, and storytelling flair." - Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You and The Invention of Air
“Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History of The United States is a work of history like no other—a bold, controversial, original view of American history that will amuse, inspire, outrage, and most of all instruct readers. Russell strips away conventional wisdom and explodes many myths. In the process, he sheds new light on ideas, institutions, and people.”
- Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History, Columbia University, and author of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century and American History: A Survey
“Thaddeus Russell is a trouble-maker for sure. Whether you call his book courageous or outrageous, his helter-skelter tour through the American past will make you gasp and make you question—as he does—the writing of ‘history as usual.’”
- Nancy Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Harvard University, and author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation and The Grounding of Modern Feminism
“Thaddeus Russell has broken free of the ideological prisons of Left and Right to give us a real, flesh-and-blood history of America, filled with untold stories and unlikely heroes. No waving incense before the sacred personages of Washington, D.C. here. This wonderful book follows the best American traditions of iconoclasm and—what is the same thing—truth-telling.”
- Thomas E. Woods, Jr., author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
“Howard Zinn wrote the ‘People's History’ of the United States. But Thaddeus Russell has written the history of the American People Whom Historians Would Rather Forget: the whores, delinquents, roustabouts—the so-called bums and immoral minority who did more for our civil rights and personal freedoms than anyone could count—until now. There is no understanding of American feminism, sexual liberation, civil rights, or dancing in the streets without this careful analysis that Russell has put before us.”
-Susie Bright, syndicated columnist, author of The Sexual State of the Union, and series editor, Best American Erotica
“A Renegade History of the United States takes us on a tour of backstreet America, introducing us to the rebels and prostitutes, the hipsters and hippies. The book tells good stories, all in the cause of illuminating larger historical struggles between social control and freedom, repression and letting go. Author Thaddeus Russell gives us a new pantheon of American heroes, and argues that those who expanded the realm of desire—for sex, for drugs, for illicit experiences—were the very ones who created our liberties. This is a controversial book, but certainly not a dull one.”
-Elliott Gorn, Professor of American Civilization and History, Brown University, and author of Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One
"This lively, contrarian work [is]... A sharp, lucid, entertaining view of the “bad” American past." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review
This is a fun read that makes a serious point. Even drunkards, whores, black pleasure-seekers, gangsters, and drag queens have contributed to American culture, and sometimes in surprising ways. --W. J. Rorabaugh, professor of history, University of Washington and author of The Alcoholic Republic
"It's always fascinating spending time with a devil's advocate, and Russell is one of the best. You'll shout at this book endlessly, but you won't be able to put it down, for it's chock full of startling, upsetting, and entertaining anecdotes" --The Scotsman
"[A] rollicking and sure-to-be-controversial history of our great nation..." --Metro-Boston