Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thaddeus Russell, “Renegade” Historian: Drunkards, Freeloaders, Rioters, and Prostitutes Were the True Pioneers of American Liberty

by Michael Kaplan

Every once in a while an intellectual rebel stirs up controversy in the staid halls of Academe by challenging politically correct interpretations of history. Thaddeus Russell, Columbia University Ph.D., formerly a professor at Barnard College who now teaches Occidental College, is just such a renegade. His, shall we say, unconventional teaching and writing on American history earned him the name “Bad Thad” from his students, as well as the displeasure of the senior faculty at Columbia and Barnard. Russell recently published his controversial ideas about the critical role of social renegades—drunkards, prostitutes, tavern owners, slackers, pirates, rioters, and many others—in advancing American liberty in a book called, naturally enough, A Renegade History of the United States. The Founding Fathers, in Russell’s version of history, were far from the champions of liberty that Americans have always made them out to be. I’ve posted here a video of Russell discussing his ideas with John Stossel on the Fox Business Network.

Russell does have a point, though he pushes it way too far. The Founding Fathers were primarily interested in political liberty and the protection of property rights. Men like George Washington, John Adams, and the rest, were generally conservative in their social outlook. They wanted to preserve the self-governing civil society of independent householders that already existed in British North America, while releasing it from Britain’s shackles of monarchy and aristocracy. So their first priority was to establish viable institutions for an independent, self-governing republic. But the Founders, as Russell rightly points out, were elitists who wanted to maintain an orderly society in which elite men of property and education would serve as fathers of the people, restrain popular passions, and govern the republic on the people’s behalf. Most of the Founders (Jefferson was an exception) were not prepared for the upsurge of populist energy, popular assertiveness, and social mobility unleashed by the Revolution. And they were certainly not countercultural radicals. (Lately, as I told my class, I’ve tried to imagine how George Washington would react to watching a Lady Gaga video.) Christian morality, the Founders firmly believed, was the essential bedrock of a self-governing republic. Securing the liberty of social outcasts to flout the Protestant work ethic and pursue unconventional lifestyles was definitely not on their agenda.

Here is another video of Russell discussing his ideas, this time with Ted Balaker on

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