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“A Renegade History of the United States” by Thaddeus Russell is written by an academic trouble maker.  His is a history of those Americans whom most Americans would rather forget, or hide, like unacknowledged relatives, the whores in the family, the bums, drunks and half castes who never get an invite to Christmas or asked to the weddings.

Thaddeus Russell takes the status quo of modern histories of America and gives it a  damn good kicking.

He has the view that those personal freedoms that are taken for granted today, the ones we like to think mark us as “western” and “modern” people, were never there from the beginning in the United States. The ruling elite, the Founding Fathers, found the common man’s early colonial lifestyle a sink of depravity, venality, vice and freedoms so repulsive and sin ridden that they imposed an order of hard work and town hall democracy as a way to stop them having fun.

However, the common man won through and in a series of challenging chapters he seeks to show how these were won back.

Russell is one of life’s little provocateurs and a true Devil’s Advocate. There is much here to enjoy and he writes beautifully, ‘The Freedom of Slavery’ is one such chapter which, judging by the tenor of the comments sections of other blogs, is one where he has succeeded in riling a very large number of readers and even more people who do not seem to have actually read the book! Far from saying that slavery is a good thing, he argues that whilst trapped within this odious system the black slave found ways to maximise his comforts and take such pleasures as he might. In this manner the slave became a revolutionary challenge, a sullen reproach to the whole “Protestant Work Ethic” and “American Way”. Russell argues that in fact, in many cases, the slaves lived as well or indeed better than their white share-cropper contemporaries. This is a view which meets as much hostility today as when I first met it back in the eighties in “Out of Our Time” by Degler.

People’s reactions to this book only confirm that America’s ongoing cultural obsessions are old and deep seated. Black slave history, drink, sex, sex with black people, gambling, sex with people of your own sex.  All are as current today, it seems, as when the union was founded.

Which is odd, because the most controversial chapter for me, and the most interesting, was his comparing the regeneration programs of Nazi Germany and The New Deal, which most readers let slide by them in their happy rants about Jim Crowe and Minstrels.

Russell is not hot on footnotes which, in my geeky way, I adore, but he does have an extensive and very up to date Bibliography for each chapter. This is most certainly not a People’s History of America or even a History of the People of America. It’s way too polemical for that, but what it is, is a perfect companion piece to compare and to read along with the more sanitised and more official histories of the United States.

Copyright David Macadam 2011

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