The Perils of a Revisionist Historian

Historical novelists are often taken to task for straying from history—as if there exists an accessible equivalent to the akashic records, the one true account of all that has ever transpired.

Imagine the outcry, then, when a historian, not a mere writer of fiction, has the temerity to challenge the sacred mythology of a nation’s past.

Thaddeus Russell’s account of his tribulations at Barnard College, where he taught American history, provides a cautionary and sobering tale. Five years ago, Russell was denied tenure and asked to leave the institution, he says, after some colleagues and others in high places objected to his iconoclastic interpretations.

Russell taught, and continues to argue, that the low elements of society in the United States—including drunkards, prostitutes, and pirates—played a crucial role in championing the freedoms we now take for granted. And they did so, in some instances, confronted by opposition from the Founding Fathers.

Russell received support from students and fellow professors, but  the reaction from those who disagreed with his teaching he describes in a Huffington Post article as follows:

. . . [E]mails came into the hiring committee from “important places,” I was told, calling my ideas “improper,” “frightening,” and “dangerous.” They said my ideas had no place in the academy and insisted that I be terminated. It was simply not okay for me to describe the “oppressed” in the terms used by their oppressors — “shiftless,” “sexually unrestrained,” “primitive,” “uncivilized” — even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.

In the end, Russell found an audience beyond the classroom by writing a book titled A Renegade History of the United States.