I was enticed into reading A Renegade History of the United States by a few mentions in Reason, including Nick Gillespie's pick of the book as one of the best of last year. I've just about always wanted to be as cool as Nick Gillespie, and (as it turned out) the library at the University Near Here had just procured a copy, so…
Russell's thesis is that many of the social liberties we take for granted today were originally demanded and fought for by "renegades." Or as Russell puts it: "drunkards, prostitutes, 'shiftless' slaves and white slackards, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society." And (obviously) they were opposed by just about all decent folks.
If you suspend all your moral judgment, the book is immensely entertaining, and completely politically incorrect. Sorry to use that cliché, but it's pretty much on target. Russell shows no concern or respect for liberal sensibilities, middle-class values, or bourgeois morality. There's something to offend everyone.
Some of Russell's story I'd heard before (although I'm not much of a history buff.) His take on how various ethnic groups (Irish, Italians, and Jews) climbed out from under prejudice to gain general respectability echoed a lot of Thomas Sowell's work, for example, Ethnic America. (The difference being that Sowell sees "respectability" as a pretty good thing, and Russell views it as a sad sellout.) And there's a chapter on Fascism and the New Deal that reads pretty close to Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. (And I would guess it would make your typical liberal's head explode.)
Russell's book invites a healthy amount of skepticism. I'm kind of a fan of bourgeois values myself, and I'm dubious that the renegades' struggle against them was as simple as Russell portrays. The Bellesiles story tells us to be skeptical of history written to support a thesis, so caveat lector, friends.
Russell blogs at the Huffington Post, where you can find an overview of the book's take on history, and his (self-promotional) story of how his unconventional style and substance got him denied tenure at Barnard College. (He's nowadays an adjunct at Occidental College.)