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A Renegade History of the United States

February 18, 2011

Tags U.S. History

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "A Renegade History of the United States"]

A Renegade History of the United States

I admit it: I was looking forward to the release of Thaddeus Russell's new book, A Renegade History of the United States. After all, Russell came pretty highly recommended by no less an authority than our own Tom Woods, who wrote in a column for LewRockwell.com back in March of last year that "Thaddeus Russell is a progressive historian who is friendly with libertarians, and with whom I myself have had some valuable correspondence." When Russell's Renegade History of the United States came out in late September, Tom provided him with a blurb, which now appears both on Russell's website and on the Amazon.com page for his book:

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, DC, here. This wonderful book follows the best American traditions of iconoclasm and — what is the same thing — truth-telling.

This is pretty high praise, as I say. Little wonder, then, that I looked forward to getting my hands on a copy of Russell's Renegade History. And when I finally did, I found that, by and large, it justified Tom Woods's encomium. It does seem, for example, that Thaddeus Russell is "friendly with libertarians." Actually, this much became evident to me even before I had managed to lay my hands on a copy of his new book. In mid October, in an article in the Huffington Post, Russell acknowledged that the people who had helped him reach the conclusions he expresses in the book were

an unlikely mix of influences, including the hippies and other cultural radicals I had encountered in my early life, black and gay cultures that showed me a way out of the self-imposed limitations of being white and straight, and libertarians who caused me to question the commitment to freedom among the left that I had been born into.

Russell also says such kind things about the market that it fairly takes your breath away to remember (with a start) that this is a "progressive" historian putting these words on the page. He writes, for example, that

today, many on the conservative side of the political spectrum like to make the founders into champions of a free-market economy, while many on the left claim that they were simply the tools of the rising merchant class. Neither of these sides understands that the market economy has always been a friend of renegades and an enemy of moral guardians.

In Russell's revisionist view of American history, you see, there is "an enduring civil war" between these two factions — the "renegades" and the "moral guardians," whom he also calls the "disciplinarians." But it seems to me that to properly understand what these two factions represent and where they came from — how they came to be as they are — you need to understand some basic facts about the settlement of the British colonies in North America. Russell doesn't go into these facts, so I'll take the lead here and sketch the essential points myself, then return to talking about the uses Russell makes of this background material.

Two main kinds of people fled Europe to live in North America in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries: individualists who sought freedom from the political interference they were accustomed to dealing with in Europe; and religious zealots who sought to create and maintain a puritan theocracy on these shores without interference from the selfsame European political authorities who were interfering with the individualists. Some colonists wanted a society in which no one could impose his or her creed on anyone else; other colonists wanted a society in which they could impose their own creed on everyone else.

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Both the individualists and the puritans can legitimately lay claim to an authentic American pedigree for their creeds. Individualism and puritanism originated in Europe, true, but they were never welcome there. They were exiled early on, and they caught on in their adopted country as they have never caught on anywhere else in the world. America proved remarkably hospitable to both creeds. Both creeds have thrived here, and both richly deserve to be called "American."

They are, however, fundamentally incompatible. In the sort of society an individualist would create, a society based on free choice, the puritan would have no way to impose his religious and moral views on others. In the sort of society a puritan would create, a society based on duty, the individualist would be reined in, prescribed, proscribed, told what to do, and told what not to do at every turn. From time to time, the puritans and the individualists do see eye to eye on a particular political issue — abolition of slavery in the years just prior to the US Civil War, for example — but, by and large, they are political antagonists.

As the sociologist Herbert J. Gans put it in his 1988 study of "middle American individualism," individualism is "inherently, if selectively, anti-government." In a word, individualists are libertarians: they believe in small, severely limited government. Puritans are authoritarians: they believe in strong government, government powerful enough to make sure all their fellow citizens are leading lives of rectitude whether they want to or not.

A third group of individuals left Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries to take up residence in North America, but these colonists were not fleeing anything or anyone. They had no reason to do so. They were neither individualists nor puritans. Nor did they harbor any other fringe ideas that would make them unpopular in the home country. They were in the European mainstream. They sought, first, to establish a beachhead on this new continent on behalf of European civilization, and then to keep it that way — keep it European, that is.

They had little or no interest in American ideas, American traditions, a distinctively American culture. They thought of themselves as Englishmen, not Americans. Their descendants today (not their literal descendants, necessarily, but those who continue their Eurocentric way of thinking) call themselves Americans. But they give away their true orientation when discussing particular cultural and political issues. What to do about healthcare or "global warming"? What "other industrial democracies" (code for Germany, France, England, Sweden, etc.) do about these things — that should be our guide.

Interested in reading some fiction? Seeing a movie? Listening to some music? Discussing some ideas? The only fiction worth reading, the only films worth seeing, the only music worth listening to, the only ideas worth discussing, are all from European writers, directors, composers, etc. — except, of course, for the almost equally worthy contributions of homegrown imitators of European styles and European schools of thought.

These Eurocentrics have no use for either individualism or puritanism. As has been noted, these are American ideas, not European ones. In Europe they never won the support of more than a despised minority. But the Eurocentrics tend overall to side politically with the puritans. After all, a large, powerful government — a government large enough and powerful enough to follow a man from cradle to grave, feeding him, schooling him, employing him, taking care of him in old age — is very much a European idea.

American culture as we know it today is an amalgam of these three influences. Or so, at least, it seems from where I sit. American culture as Thaddeus Russell sees it is a little bit different. He leaves the Eurocentrics out of the picture entirely and focuses on the long struggle between the puritans and the individualists. He's particularly interested in those among the individualists who are mostly or completely nonideological — the individualists whose "individualism" is not based in their commitment to any particular ideas or principles, but is based instead in their self-serving behavior.

Particularly interesting in this regard is Russell's chapter on slavery. It is centered around his report that "a majority of [the 2,300] ex-slaves who offered an evaluation of slavery [to interviewers from the Federal Writers' Project in the mid-1930s] — field hands and house slaves, men and women — had a positive view of the institution, and many unabashedly wished to return to their slave days."

As Russell sees it, the ex-slaves looked back on their days as chattels so nostalgically because they felt they had greater "freedom" as slaves than they later enjoyed after slavery had been abolished. He quotes the testimony of one former slave who told a Federal Writers' Project interviewer in 1937 that he had worked harder since the abolition of slavery than he had ever worked on the plantation and that on the plantation he knew that Master would take care of him and provide him with food and warm clothing and warm housing in the winter months, even if, along with all or most of the other slaves, he shirked his work and played sick and devoted whatever resources he did have to pleasure — chiefly gambling, liquor, and sex.

As Russell himself puts it, "many and possibly most of the ex-slaves did not … restrain their personal freedoms, did not devote their lives to work, monogamy, frugality, and discipline." Instead they "created a uniquely liberated culture that valued pleasure over work and freedom over conformity."

It is, generally speaking, a good thing, Russell asserts, that this "uniquely liberated culture" began spreading from the descendants of the former slaves to white blue collar workers in the 1960s, so that "absenteeism … workplace sabotage, insubordination toward managers and union stewards, and other forms of industrial disobedience" became steadily more common in American industry during those years. Russell also writes approvingly of "the workers at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, who in 1972 staged a walkout in rebellion against their employer and their union, the UAW." These strikers "spoke publicly about committing acts of sabotage on the assembly line, spontaneous slowdowns and shutdowns, showing up late to work or not at all, [and] general 'goofing off'."

Well, as Steve Martin used to say, excuuuuuuse me. But I don't consider unilateral violations of contractual obligations you voluntarily agreed to earlier as expressions of "individualism." I don't think that endangering the lives of unwitting and innocent consumers because I don't like my job is acceptable, much less conscionable.

On the other hand, I remember the furor over Walter Block's now classic libertarian work, Defending the Undefendable, when it first came out back in the 1970s. More than a few libertarians back then said, in effect, "Well, of course, Walter is correct that these people aren't violating anybody's rights and they shouldn't be scapegoated, but that doesn't really make them 'heroes,' does it? The litterer as 'hero'? Give me a break!"

I remember thinking at the time what I still think now, more than 30 years later — that Walter's book was written with a light touch, with a consistently light tone; it was illustrated by humorous drawings contributed by a political cartoonist of the time. The reader was frankly invited to consider Walter's references to people like litterers and pimps as "heroes" as open and unapologetic exercises in hyperbole — the deliberate use of exaggeration, even exaggeration to the point of absurdity, to emphasize an idea, a point, an argument. You know all along that Walter is only half-serious in calling these people "heroes."

With Thaddeus Russell, you know no such thing. For all you know, this guy is perfectly serious in using terms like "individualism" and "freedom" to describe the life of sponges who are supported by someone else and who deliberately render the very least and most slipshod service they can possibly get away with in return for that support.

On the other hand, there is far more to Thaddeus Russell's new book than just this. He makes a good case that most — at times, perhaps all — of the Founders were disciplinarians, looking for ways to regulate and control the lives of ordinary people in the new Republic, lest they devote their time and money to things like wine, women, song, and gambling — things of which the Founders did not approve. He provides what may be the best short summary of the major ideas and events of the American Revolution that I've ever seen — six pages packed with relevant, eye-opening information.

He also includes a remarkable chapter on the New Deal as the American version of fascism, in which he writes that

the Second World War appeared to many contemporary observers, and still appears to many historians, as proof of a fundamental antagonism between fascism and the American way of life. Many have seen the war as evidence that, in particular, the New Deal-liberal way of life was hostile to fascism. After all, while many Republicans and other enemies of the New Deal were opposed to fighting fascism abroad, Roosevelt led the nation to war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. More than four hundred thousand Americans died in the fight, and the Roosevelt administration made sure to not just defeat the fascist regimes but to obliterate them. But the evidence of their similarities suggests that the New Deal and fascism went to war not over ideas or values or a way of life. Rather, it seems, the war was a struggle between brothers for control of the world family.

Then there's Russell's excellent chapter on the widespread lack of support for American involvement in World War II by those who were expected to do the fighting. And there's his series of informative chapters on American minority groups — the Irish, the Jews, the Italians — and the ways each of these groups gradually advanced from having a reputation as little better than subhuman to being accepted as fully human white Americans. It had a lot to do, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, with convincing the public that group members had given up their hedonism and libertinism and fallen into line behind the puritan leadership.

Now don't get me wrong here. I have no use for puritans. I agree with H.L. Mencken that puritans are people bedeviled by "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy." But I also agree with Gustave Flaubert, that great hater of the puritanical bourgeoisie, the man who said, "What a horrible invention, the bourgeois, don't you think?"

Flaubert considered it axiomatic that "hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of wisdom." He believed that "the whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of bourgeois stupidity." But he also counseled a young Bohemian of his acquaintance to "be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Flaubert knew in the 1870s that what Thaddeus Russell calls the "renegade" subculture was inimical to the long-term success of those who practiced it.

Thomas Sowell, in his valuable essay "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," published just six years ago, calls it a "counterproductive, dangerous, and self-destructive subculture." Even Thaddeus Russell acknowledges that

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 argument here is not that "bad" people should replace the disciplinarians but that in American history the struggles between the two have determined the breadth of personal liberty. I make no claims for other parts of the world, where at times renegades have overwhelmed the guardians of order, but in this country the more "bad" people existed, resisted, and won, the more freedom was expanded.

Thaddeus Russell's new book is A Renegade History of the United States. I recommend it highly.


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