Monday, November 8, 2010

Were Most Early American City Dwellers Corrupt and Depraved?

"Many, and probably most, inhabitants of early American cities were corrupt and depraved, and the Founding Fathers knew it." So writes Thaddeus Russell, in his controversial new book A Renegade History of the United States. I recently was sent a copy of Russell's book for review, and am in the process of working my way through it. One of the things that struck me about Russell's research is that it puts many of the Founders' quotes concerning the need for religion and morality in context.

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.


Jason Pappas said...

From the pamphlets leading up to the revolution, the writers describe Europe as corrupted. I remember Franklin, in his autobiography, describing London as shockingly corrupt, when he was sent to learn the printing trade as a young man.

Our nation was 95% farmers, if I remember correctly. There was a bias against city life coupled with an idealization of the agricultural ethos. The cities were larger and more numerous in Europe. If corruption is greatest in the cities, it would follow that it was greatest elsewhere. This writer thesis is suspect since the kind of corruption he describes was greater there but the revolution occurred here.

By the way, given that one of the 18th century virtues was industry, how could the colonists afford to be corrupt? No one was going to bail them out.

Daniel said...

Is "corruption" limited to moral corruption or does it also include bribery and financial misconduct. If it is limited to (or primarily) "moral corruption", then it is not inconsistent with a mercantilist society.

Ours was a Whiggish revolution, so it should be no suprise that many of its leaders disapproved of the more open attitudes of sailors and traders and other urban folk. I do have to wonder, though, whether Franklin wrote of being scandalized by London primarily because such scandal helps sell the wares of a printer.