America's "Founding Fathers" Detested the Paradise of Delightful Debauchery and Freedom That Was 18th Century America
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The following is an excerpt from Thaddeus Russell's book, " A Renegade History of the United States" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). One of AlterNet's favorite books in recent years, we thought we'd resurface the book at year's end for a thought-provoking holiday read.
In the spring of 1777, the great men of America came to Philadelphia for the fourth meeting of the Continental Congress, the de facto government of the rebel republic. When they stepped from their carriages onto the cobblestone streets, they could see that they were in for a very long war. New York had already been lost to the British, armies of redcoats and Hessian mercenaries were poised to cut o! New England, and British plans were afoot to conquer Philadelphia and crush the rebellion. "Thousands of troops in the Continental army had been lost to typhus, dysentery, smallpox, starvation, and desertion. They were outnumbered and outgunned. But it was not just the military power of the kingdom that worried the leaders of the American War of Independence. There was a far more sinister and enduring enemy on the streets they walked. “Indeed, there is one enemy, who is more formidable than famine, pestilence, and the sword,” John Adams wrote to a friend from Philadelphia in April. “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.”
Adams was right. Many, and probably most, inhabitants of early American cities were corrupt and depraved, and the Founding Fathers knew it. Alexander Hamilton called the behaviors of Americans “vicious” and “vile.” Samuel Adams saw a “torrent of vice” running through the new country. John Jay wrote of his fear that “our conduct should confirm the Tory maxim ‘that men are incapable of governing themselves.’” James Warren, the president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts and a Paymaster General of the Continental army, declared during the Revolution that Americans lived “degenerate days.” As the war with the British thundered on, John Adams grew so disgusted at what he saw on the streets that at times he believed Americans deserved death more than freedom. "Their dissolute character “is enough to induce every Man of Sense and Virtue to abandon such an execrable Race, to their own Perdition, and if they could be ruined alone it would be just.” Adams feared that after winning independence, Americans “will become a Spectacle of Contempt and Derision to the foolish and wicked, and of Grief and shame to the wise among Mankind, and all this in the Space of a few Years.” In September of 1777, with the British army under the command of General William Howe on the verge of conquering Philadelphia, Adams told his wife of his secret wish for America to be conquered. “[I]f it should be the Will of Heaven that our Army should be defeated, our Artillery lost, our best Generals kill’d, and Philadelphia fall into Mr. Howes Hands, ... It may be for what I know be the Design of Providence that this should be the Case. Because it would only lay the Foundations of American Independence deeper, and cement them stronger. It would cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and e!eminate Appetites, Passions and Habits, a more dangerous Army to American Liberty than Mr. Howes.”
But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom. During the War of Independence, deference to authority was shattered, a new urban culture offered previously forbidden pleasures, and sexuality was loosened from its Puritan restraints. Nonmarital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was rampant and unpunished. Divorces were frequent and easily obtained. Prostitutes plied their trade free of legal or moral proscriptions. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes danced together in the streets. Pirates who frequented the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced wild dances, nightlong parties, racial integration, and homosexuality. European visitors frequently commented on the “astonishing libertinism” of early American cities. Renegades held the upper hand in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Charleston, and made them into the first centers of the American pleasure culture. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America’s leaders been less pleased by it.