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Monday, February 21, 2011

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 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."

...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.

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."

Read the rest of this article by Jeff Riggenbach here at

Eric Sharp,
Regular Columnist, THL
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