Class Society and the Puritan Work Ethic

Review of A Renegade History of the United States

American progressives have struggled, since the rise of the New Left in the 1970s, to recruit blue collar and minority Americans to their organizations. Some middle class organizers are sensitive to the difficulty progressives have in bridging the cultural gap to blue collar and minority communities. Their efforts are informed by sociological and journalistic attempts to identify and describe working class culture. Some of the better known works include Richard Sennett’s Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), Lillian Breslow Rubin’s Worlds of Pain (1992), Jake Ryan’s and Charles Sackrey’s Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class (1995), Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue Collar Roots and White Collar Dreams (2005). In my opinion, no one understood working class culture better than George W Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove. This is obvious from the convincing pseudo-working class persona Rove created for the former president – complete with folksy humor; unpolished delivery style; appeal to concrete black and white reasoning; and blanket rejection of “political correctness,” reading and other intellectual pursuits.

With A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell casts a whole new light on the rejection by America’s lower classes of puritanical middle class notions of responsibility, discipline and self-denial. I think it’s a great pity the book hasn’t received more attention in the progressive and so-called “alternative media. In my view, it’s even more important than Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, because of its examination of social influences that cause the “disadvantaged” to reject middle class rules and convention. I think it’s an absolute must read for all progressive activists who are serious about organizing in and with blue collar and minority communities.

Russell offers a unique perspective on the mechanism by which Americans expanded their personal freedoms after the American Revolution. Unlike Zinn’s People’s History and similar “working class” histories, Russell argues that most of the person freedoms we enjoy originated, not from political movements, but from the refusal of renegades, degenerates and discontents to accept the puritanical work ethic the founding fathers tried to foist on them. In other words, we should thank America’s drunkards, prostitutes, pirates, slackers, “shiftless” slaves and juvenile delinquents for the unprecedented levels of personal freedom Americans enjoy.

I was really surprised by many parts of Russell’s book, especially where he describes the uptight, repressed social conservatives (including Martin Luther King) who led American campaigns for abolition, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. Despite their high profile campaigns for specific legal “rights,” the leaders of these movements worked nearly as hard trying to correct the “inappropriate” behavior of the masses they claimed to represent.

Our Socially Conservative Founding Fathers

Russell sets the stage by reminding us that the Puritans first left England due to the profound corruption in their homeland, as evidenced by liquor consumption, public holidays, communal feasts, sporting events and public festivals such as May Day. Most of the New World colonies they established glorified the ideal of hard work and strict frugality and scorned all forms of pleasure, including music, dancing, “luxuries” and colorful apparel. The founding fathers who laid out the workings of our republican form of government were all steeped in these influences. The writings of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Madison, Benjamin Franklin universally condemn the lower classes for their corrupt, vicious, vile and depraved behavior. As Russell reveals, they are referring to behavior many of us would consider personal freedoms, such as drinking, dancing, non marital sex (especially between different races), prostitution and homosexuality (both were legal in the 18th century).

The major concern, in most cases, was that this behavior interfered with their ability to attend work. Russell’s description of early industrialism is quite fascinating, as factory workers, not their bosses, decided when they would show up for work and when they would go home.

The Internal Restraint of Citizenship

One of the primary aims of the founding fathers, according to Russell, was to stem this libertine way of life by establishing a system of government that replaced the external controls of the monarchy with the internal restraint of citizenship. They were all part of a transatlantic movement, heavily influenced by British philosopher John Locke, which believed that “self rule” was the most effective method of instilling self-discipline. This comes out most clearly in Russell’s description of the Freedman’s Bureau schools the federal government established in the South following the Civil War. The purpose of the schools was to persuade ex-slaves that freedom meant renouncing pleasures such as music, dancing and unrestrained sexuality.

Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves Challenge the Puritan Work Ethic

The unquestioned heroes of A Renegade History of the United States are prostitutes and ex-slaves. In the 19th century any woman who owned property, had sex outside of marriage, performed or received oral sex, used birth control, wore make-up, perfume or stylish clothes could only be a prostitute. It was prostitutes who won these and other rights modern American women take for granted. When women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, prostitutes, especially in the Wild West, became so wealthy that they funded crucial irrigation and road building projects. Likewise when most states banned birth control in the early 1800s, prostitutes continued to provide a market for contraceptives that stimulated production and distribution.

The importance of slaves and their descendents in the expansion of personal freedom relates to the tenacious manner in which they preserved a culture characterized by sensuous music, rhythms and dancing in a culture that condemned these activities as depraved and harmful to the work ethic.

The Unique Culture of Slavery

Russell presents a very different view of slavery that than is commonly depicted in public schools and the mainstream media. Sociologists have long recognized that the institution of slavery is incompatible with high quality work. Russell cites letters and diaries from 19th century slave masters expressing frustration about their slaves being “shiftless” and skillful in avoiding work. Plantation owners complained that harsh punishments, such as beatings, made slaves even more recalcitrant. George Washington (a prominent slave owner) wrote about the problem in a farming instruction manual he authored: “When an overlooker’s back is turned, the most of them will slight their work, or be idle altogether, in which case correction cannot retrieve either but often produces evils that are worse than the disease.”

Most landowners seemed resigned to providing other inducements to work, such as allowing slaves free time for drinking, gambling, dancing and sexual adventures. Slave women weren’t bound by laws against fornication, adultery and promiscuity that white women were forced to live by. This meant they weren’t expected to be virgins at the time of marriage, nor were they scorned for engaging in extramarital sex.

Teaching Ex-Slaves to Practice Self-Denial

Following the Civil War, there was a strong expectation that slaves would renounce these pleasurable pastimes and embrace the work ethic as good American citizens. Many eagerly embraced the discipline and self-denial emancipation demanded of them. Many didn’t. Many relished the “freedom” from responsibility they enjoyed when a slave master looked after all their basic needs.

In 1865 Congress confronted this dilemma by creating the Freedman’s Bureau to train ex-slaves how to become “good citizens.” Most enrolled eagerly, thinking they would be taught to read and write. Instead the classes focused on the ideals the founding fathers had promoted – frugality, self-denial and most importantly a love of work, even poorly paid work, as a source of virtue. Russell cites letters and interviews with ex-slaves who saw no point in being free if it meant they had to work harder than a slave did. Many northerners, who acquired southern plantations cheaply during Reconstruction, complained that ex-slaves made terrible workers. Not only did they come and go as they pleased, but they demanded days off and refused to work in inclement weather. Many ex-slaves also resisted pressure to adopt legal norms of marriage.

By 1872, the Republican-controlled Congress became so frustrated by their inability to teach ex-slaves to practice self-denial and commit themselves to hard work, monogamy and discipline that they abolished the Freedman’s Bureau.

King’s Campaign Against Un-Christian and Un-American Blacks

For me, the most interesting section of A Renegade History of the United States is the chapter about Martin Luther King and his little known campaign to persuade so-called “bad niggers” to embrace the strict work ethic and cult of responsibility and sexless self-sacrifice that characterized the predominant culture. In 1957 Reverend King launched three projects simultaneously: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to coordinate a nonviolent campaign to desegregate buses across the South, the Campaign for Citizenship to campaign for voting rights and a church-based campaign to rid African Americans of what King referred to as “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits. In 1957 he delivered a series of sermons condemning black people who led “tragic lives of pleasure and riotous living” (Problems of Personality Integration). In 1958 he wrote articles in Ebony and published his first book, Stride Towards Freedom, in which he claimed black poverty was as much due to laziness and lack of discipline and morality, as institutional racism. He also condemned rock and roll.

The Role of Violence vs Nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement

Russell also weighs in on what has become a hot issue in the Occupy movement’s “diversity of tactics” debate. He lays out compelling evidence that 1) only a tiny minority of southern blacks participated in King’s nonviolent movement and 2) it was “bad niggers” and violence, rather than King’s nonviolent campaign, that won the first major civil rights victories in 1963. According to Russell’s careful review of Birmingham police records, the years between 1958 and 1963 saw a dramatic escalation of incidents in which black residents of both sexes punched, kicked, bit, stabbed and shot white residents who infringed on their freedoms, even in minor ways. He describes a number of these incidents in the book.

He also points out that the most famous image of the civil rights movement – of Bull Connor spraying protestors with a fire hose – culminated a week of rioting during the first week of May 1963. These weren’t nonviolent protestors being hosed but black rioters who, over a week, injured nearly a dozen cops with rocks and bottles and who were starting to arm themselves with knives and guns. The official history books quibble over the identity of the black people Bull Connor attacked with fire hoses, describing them as “bystanders,” “onlookers,” “spectators,” or “people along the fringes.” Yet police records make it really clear that Connor was dealing with a full blown race riot his officers were unable to quell.

Why the Chamber of Commerce Negotiated with King

According to Russell, this record of increasing black violence in Birmingham and other southern cities casts King’s famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” in a totally new light. In it he gives the Birmingham city fathers a clear choice: they can negotiate with him or face growing civil unrest. Russell also quotes a fascinating Wall Street Journal interview with Sidney Smyer, the president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Smyer brokered the deal with King and the SCLC. The Chamber of Commerce president talks of the desperation of the Montgomery business community to end the racial violence, owing to its extremely negative economic impact

Stuart Jeanne Bramhall is a retired American-trained psychiatrist and long time citizen activist living in New Zealand. Substack page Email her at: Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne.