Russell received his PhD in history from Columbia University and now teaches history and American studies at Occidental College. In the spirit of Howard Zinn and Ray Raphael, Russell contends that it was the people on the fringes of society, not the landmark figures remembered in statues, who made America "the land of the free." Russell, however, puts an interesting twist on the "power to the people" ideology found in the Howard Zinn school of thought. Russell focuses not simply on the poor and downtrodden, but on those whose lifestyles were considered sinful or "wretched" by the elites and even by mainstream Americans of their day. Describing colonial America, Russell writes:
"During the War of Independence a culture of pleasure and freedom blossomed in American cities. Non-marital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was ubiquitous and rarely punished. Because divorce was unregulated, it was easily and frequently obtained, often by women. Brothels were legal and abundant and prostitutes were rarely prosecuted. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes commingled extensively in saloons and in the streets. Pirates who settled in the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced both general revelry and homosexuality. On nearly every block in every 18th-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America's leaders been less pleased by it."
Russell amusingly quotes John Adams, who (not in an amusing mindset) wrote to a friend: "Indeed, there is one enemy, who is more formidable than famine, pestilence and the sword. I mean the corruption which is prevalent in so many American hearts, a depravity that is more inconsistent with our republican governments than light is with darkness."
The state of affairs described by Russell sheds light on Adams's quote, often paraded by those on the conservative side in today's culture wars, in which the second President said:
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
It also sets in context George Washington's seemingly haughty criticisms of "dirty" New Englanders. To twenty-first century readers, Washington comes off as rather elitist at times (and, at times, he was), but Russell's description of city-dwelling New Englanders certainly explains why the cultured, conscientiously moral Washington would be uncomfortable in the presence of at least some of the men who flocked to the Continental Army in 1775 and 1776.
I'm not prepared to give a full, comprehensive review of Russell's book yet, as I'm still wading my through its 400 pages. But it's definitely interesting - dare I say provocative. I think Russell certainly goes too far with some of his points (something that's to be expected by anyone writing from the Howard Zinn perspective). Indeed, some of Russell's claims could be characterized as preposterous. But the book is interesting nevertheless, and some of his research can't be contested.