11 Freedoms That Drunks, Slackers, Prostitutes and Pirates Pioneered—and the Founding Fathers Opposed

Mar 10, 2015 by



What the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, venality and vice, many of us would call freedom.

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.

To the Founding Fathers the culture of personal liberty was a more serious threat to their project of creating an independent republic than the British Army.

“Indeed, there is one enemy, who is more formidable than famine, pestilence and the sword,” John Adams wrote. “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 Founding Fathers hoped that self-rule would cure Americans of their love of frivolities. A government of the people, John Adams argued, would make the people disciplined, stern, hard-working, and joyless — the qualities he most admired. It would “produce Strength, Hardiness Activity, Courage, Fortitude and Enterprise; the manly noble and Sublime Qualities in human Nature, in Abundance.” Adams understood that democracy forced the people to shed their pleasures and surrender their personal freedom, because they alone would shoulder the responsibility of managing society.

“Under a well regulated Commonwealth, the People must be wise, virtuous and cannot be otherwise. Under a Monarchy they may be as vicious and foolish as they please, nay, they cannot but be vicious and foolish. … Virtue and Simplicity of Manners are indispensably necessary in a Republic among all orders and Degrees of Men. But there is so much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to Support a Republic.”

But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, venality, and vice, many of us would call freedom …

Here are “11 Freedoms That Drunks, Slackers, Prostitutes and Pirates Pioneered And The Founding Fathers Opposed,” a sample of the fresh take on American history found in “A Renegade History of the United States.” (You can view a slideshow version at Huffington Post.)

1. Non-Marital Sex

Non-marital sex was remarkably unrestricted and prevalent during the late colonial period, especially in the rapidly expanding cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. European observers often remarked on the “astonishing libertinism” of 18th-century America. Lower-class saloons, which filled the early American cities, were the centers of the first American sexual revolution, and prostitutes, who often plied their trade in drinking establishments, were its vanguard. But the Founding Fathers initiated a crackdown on non-marital sex during the War of Independence. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Continental Congress, authored a series of sexual manuals for the new nation in which he declared that indulgence in bodily pleasures, “when excessive, becomes a disease of both the body and mind.”

2. Homosexuality

Historians have found evidence of rampant sodomy on buccaneer ships during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 18th century. The pirates who settled in American port cities helped create something that, were we to see it now, we would call gay liberation. Anyone walking the streets of early American cities might have seen men exposing their penises, the 18th-century trans-Atlantic code for men seeking partners of the same sex. In 1784, a newspaper in Philadelphia described effeminate “fops,” “resembling men in nothing but their shape,” filling the city’s public spaces. Same-sex intimacy was not exclusive to men. A French visitor was shocked by the number of women in Philadelphia who “are not at all strangers to being willing to seek unnatural pleasures with persons of their own sex.” Though sodomy was often severely punished in the early colonial period (the term “homosexuality” was not invented until the late 19th century), prosecutions for same-sex relations declined sharply in the 18th century. The anti-sex crusade launched by the Founding Fathers drove many of these people underground, as prosecutions for committing “unnatural acts” increased markedly after the Revolution.

3. Divorce

Because marriage was largely unregulated during the colonial period, divorces were frequent and easily obtained. During the era of independence, women fled their husbands in great numbers. Thousands of advertisements were placed in newspapers by men reporting that their wives had left them. But spurred on by the Founding Fathers, during the early national period the states enacted laws that tightly and specifically regulated divorce. This ended the 18th-century trend of self-divorce. No longer could an unhappy wife or husband simply walk away from a marriage. Courts refused to grant a divorce to a woman who did not demonstrate that she had been a faithful and obedient wife and a victim of her husband’s mistreatment.

4. Dancing

Visitors to early American lower-class saloons saw white men fiddling Irish reels and black men pounding out driving African rhythms on hand drums, rattles, and wooden blocks. They saw whites, blacks, Indians, women, and men dancing wildly on wooden floors. The hybrid, flagrantly sexual sound created in saloons was the first American urban party music, and it helped lay the basis for jazz, rock, and hip-hop. The Founders did not approve. “I never knew a good Dancer good for any Thing else,” John Adams said. Of the men who danced well, they gained neither “Sense or Learning, or Virtue for it.” Adams was appalled by the gyrations of a white man he saw dancing in a tavern with a “rabble” and “Negroes with a fiddle. . . . His Air is absurd and wild, desultory, and irregular, as his Countenance is low and ignoble.” Benjamin Latrobe, the “Father of American Architecture” who designed the United States Capitol, saw whites performing the Virginia Jig and called it “the excess of detestability.” John Quincy Adams was “monstrously severe upon the follies of mankind,” most especially dancing. Given the Founders’ feelings on the matter, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Continental Congress’s 1774 declaration to discourage “every species of extravagance and dissipation,” which was widely interpreted as including sensual dancing, formally established the American citizen as rhythmless.

5. Leisure

Typically, workers in the first industrial factories decided when they would show up and when they would go home. Long afternoon periods of eating, drinking, and sleeping were taken for granted. And the three-day weekend was the norm. Workers in many of the first major industries were normally paid for six days of work, but on Saturday they drank beer all day while on the job. The drinking usually continued through Saturday evening and into Sunday, so that on Monday the workers were usually unable and unwilling to work. This created a wonderful but now forgotten American tradition called “Blue Monday” – a workers’ day of rest following the Lord’s day of rest. Most importantly, simply by being lazy, early American workers established the idea of the weekend. Few things bothered the Founding Fathers more than the belief that leisure was a good thing. “Of all the cankers of human happiness, none corrodes it with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence,” Thomas Jefferson told his daughters. “Determine never to be idle.” Benjamin Franklin told Americans that they should work all hours of the day in order to be virtuous. He wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” Benjamin Rush recommended the banning of all activities that led to “habits of idleness and a love of pleasure.”

6. Children’s Play

The pleasure culture of early American cities extended to children, who enjoyed a rapid growth in the manufacturing of toys in the 18th century. Following on the pro-work, anti-leisure ideology of the Founding Fathers, the authors of children’s textbooks pummeled their young readers with injunctions to work hard and avoid play. On the first page of a standard, early-19th century school primer was a poem warning, “Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do.” And Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book, which was the best-selling textbook of the 19th century, instructed its young readers that “[a] wise child loves to learn his books, but the fool would choose to play with toys.”

7. Gambling

America’s love of gaming was born in saloons, where wagers were made on every conceivable contest of chance or skill. Benjamin Rush recommended the elimination of horse racing, cockfighting, and Sunday amusements, which led to “gaming – drunkenness – and uncleanness,” as well as general debauchery. John Adams blamed the sensual, aimless culture of a monarchy for “so much Cards and Backgammon; so much Horse Racing and Cockfighting.”

8. Sports

Henry Laurens, a president of the Continental Congress, at one point hoped for defeat in the War of Independence, which he thought would bring an end to the love of sporting amusements among Americans. To Lauren, sport was a prime indicator of a doomed society. He believed that the Olympic Games “and other fooleries” had “brought on the desolation of Greece.”

9. Drinking

During the War of Independence there was more than one tavern for every 100 residents of Philadelphia, the rebels’ capital (by contrast, there is now one alcohol serving business for every 1,000 residents in Philadelphia). In New York there were enough taverns to allow every resident of the city to be drinking in a bar at the same time. In Boston, liquor was sold at one of every eight residential houses. Though the Founders did their share of the drinking in early America, in public they attacked the practice during and after the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, and Robert Morris were among many of the Founding Fathers who supported excise taxes on alcohol after the Revolution as a means to curb drinking. In 1784, Benjamin Rush published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors, which became one of the most important of the Founding Fathers’ many anti-pleasure manifestoes during the early national period. Rush argued that drink and democracy could not mix. He also invented the idea that chronic drunkenness is a biological disease and that the only cure is life-long abstinence. “‘Taste not, handle not, touch not’ should be inscribed upon every vessel that contains spirits in the house of a man, who wishes to be cured by habits of intemperance,” Rush wrote. These claims became the basis not only for the temperance movement in the 19th century but also for the prohibition movement in the early 20th century, and the “science” of addiction treatment in the late 20th century. The idea of the modern-day rehabilitation center was also invented by Rush, who called for drunkards to be taken off the streets and locked up in a special asylum in Philadelphia called the “Sober House.” Not all Americans agreed with the Founding Fathers. The government’s attempt in 1794 to enforce the national whiskey tax in western Pennsylvania resulted in what came to be called the Whiskey Rebellion, when renegades all over the region not only refused to pay up but also tarred and feathered tax collectors.

10. Racial Integration

Lower-class taverns — the ones most frequently attacked by leaders of the new nation — were the first racially integrated public spaces in America. Black, white, and brown Americans came together through mutual desire centuries before the federal government brought them together by force. Although the law in all the colonies barred blacks from public houses, the law was more often than not ignored by tavern keepers, white patrons, and by free blacks and even slaves. Early court records tell of drinking establishments across the colonies that disregarded the color line. Typical was a Burlington, New Jersey grand jury’s charge in 1707 that a laborer named William Cale kept a “common house of drinking . . . and there received harbored and supported diverse vagabond and other idle and suspected persons of evil conversation as well as diverse servants and Negroes of the inhabitants of the town.” Occasional attacks by law enforcers did little to stem the inflow of various colors into American taverns. Again, the less “respectable” a public house was, the more likely it was to facilitate the mixing of races.

11. Fashion

Prostitutes pioneered many of the styles that became “respectable.” They were the first women to wear cosmetics, color their hair, and wear clothing that was considered fashionable. Slaves and free blacks — who were generally welcomed in lower-class taverns and brothels — were also known to dress “above their station.” But the men who created the “good” American citizen dressed him in homely clothing. “He appear’d in the plainest Country Garb,” said Benjamin Franklin. “His Great Coat was coarse and looked old and thread-bare; his Linnen was homespun; his Beard perhaps of Seven Days Growth, his Shoes thick and heavy, and every Part of his Dress corresponding.” The revolutionary scribe Joel Barlow warned in 1787 that “[w]henever democratic states degenerate from those noble republican virtues which constitute the chief excellency, spring, and even basis of their government, and instead of industry, frugality, and economy, encourage luxury, dissipation and extravagence, we may justly conclude that ruin is near at hand. . . . No virtue, no Commonwealth.” In 1843, Cornelius Mathews, the poet of “Young America,” described the “Man in the Republic” as living “With plainness in thy daily pathway walk/ And disencumbered of excess.” Women were instructed to wear dresses of “surpassing neatness and simplicity,” and respectable urban men were expected to become what a business directory in the 1850s called “the unknown knight, with his plain unostentatious black armor.”

Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).

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