In 1940 the British scholar and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was offered a position with the publicly funded City College of New York. But conservative and religious leaders throughout America protested against this appointment as they were shocked by his atheism and writing about free love. At the time the story was a sensation, though it is largely forgotten today. And, oh yes, Russell never got to teach at City College.
In the spring of 1940, the Great Depression was still spreading misery throughout the world, and war in Europe threatened to drag America into the conflict. Amid these global troubles a tempest in a teapot was brewing on the island of Manhattan, where the board of the City College of New York had just appointed the renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell to teach. With the appointment of this most celebrated of philosophers, the board had intended to boost the school's image. Instead, it found itself suddenly embroiled in a controversy involving the city's conservative Episcopal bishop, charges that it was encouraging radical and communist views at the college, and political in-fighting between the popular liberal mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, and corrupt Tammany Hall politicians with a hidden agenda. Journalist Thom Weidlich masterfully reconstructs this major political imbroglio, which not only captured the attention of New Yorkers but very quickly received national coverage. As political theatre, with both farcical and dramatic elements, the denial of Russell's appointment is interesting in and of itself: The sanctimonious and outraged Bishop Manning demands to know how the board could have chosen a man with such radical views on sex, marriage, and religion. Then, amazingly, a seemingly ordinary Brooklyn housewife files a lawsuit to stop Russell's appointment. Journalists begin to wonder, what is her motive? Is she being manipulated by Tammany Hall politicians and their rivalry with the liberal mayor? Before long civil libertarians are holding rallies at City College in defence of the philosopher and academic freedom. And for Russell this trying situation couldn't have come at a worse time with his funds running low and his third marriage falling apart. But beyond its intrinsic interest, this 1940s' clash between an independent thinker and the guardians of public morality is still of the greatest relevance in light of today's cultural debates and arguments over standards of decency. Journalist Thom Weidlich has written an engrossing page-turner that brings recent history to life and makes us rethink the perennial issues of free thought and moral standards at publicly funded institutions.