A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, by Thomas Fleming (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2013)

image72The title of this engaging analysis of the cause of the American Civil War comes from James Buchanan’s reaction to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which the president claimed stemmed from “an incurable disease in the public mind.” Historian Thomas Fleming agrees with Buchanan that it was hysteria over the issue of slavery, generated by wild-eyed, intolerant, and impractical Yankee abolitionists, that sparked the tragic conflict between North and South. Pointing to the peaceful end of slavery in the British West Indies, Cuba, and Brazil, Mr. Fleming seeks to explain why America did not find a more reasonable way to put an end to the “peculiar institution.”

Mr. Fleming denounces the mingling of religion and politics that was intrinsic to the abolitionist cause. The separation of church and state, he claims, was the central idea of America’s Founding, and thus the abolitionists’ religious view of slavery as an unpardonable sin, rather than a regrettable reality, amounted to an overturning of the Founding itself. If slavery was a sin, then Southern slaveowners were sinners, who deserved scorn and indeed punishment.

The abolitionist dream of a slave-less society in turn sparked Southern nightmares of a race war. Nightly slave patrols in the South by armed men were a constant reminder of how easily the power relationship between whites and blacks might be turned on its head. Abolitionist agitation, Southerners feared, might inspire servile revolts, or worse, culminate in the realization of the abolitionist dream of immediatism, the total and immediate freeing of all slaves through the mechanism of government power.  Slave revolts like Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the Stono Rebellion, coupled with the slaughter inflicted by ex-slaves upon whites in Santo Domingo (Haiti), showed that Southerners had good reason to fear uprisings among their enslaved populations.

John Brown’s raid of 1859, an account of which opens Mr. Fleming’s book, was the realization of the worst nightmare of Southerners: the indiscriminate murder of those “guilty” of participating in the “sin” of slavery, prompted by the religious fanaticism of abolitionism and financed by sympathetic, wealthy Northern philanthropists (Brown brought letters signed by Northern backers with him on his raid). Mr. Fleming pointedly notes that the first victim of John Brown’s raid was a black man, and that Brown’s band also killed Harper’s Ferry’s unarmed mayor, who was known in the town for his sympathy towards blacks. The author delights in recounting Brown’s hypocrisy in appealing to the Bible during his trial as justification for his murderous actions and then dismissing it as worthless after his conviction when it was pointed out to him that St. Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters.

Warning that “a passionate minority seized by the noble desire to achieve some great moral goal may be abysmally wrong” (xiii), Mr. Fleming’s harshest characterizations are indeed reserved for anti-slavery radicals like Brown, who took direct action to end the institution. Mr. Fleming mocks the fanaticism of Brown’s supporters, particularly the Transcendentalist authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who declared Brown to be a saint, perhaps even Jesus Himself. Another villain in this tale is William Lloyd Garrison, founder of The Liberator. In Mr. Fleming’s view, Garrison displayed “an almost total lack of empathy” for Southern slaveholders, which encouraged violence on the part of his fellow antislavery agitators. Garrison’s attitude of moral superiority, Mr. Fleming charges, reflected a hubris common among New Englanders, who considered themselves, in the words of a Boston editorialist, to “excel every other people that existed in the world.” (103).

A program of compensated emancipation–under which slaveowners would receive fair value for the freeing of their slaves–was anathema to radicals like Garrison, who derided the Constitution itself, in its tacit approval of slavery, as “a covenant with death, and agreement with Hell.” Though it is Southerners who are most often remembered for placing their cause above that of Union, Mr. Fleming shows that Northern antislavery radicals like Garrison were willing, even eager, to sacrifice the Union on the altar of abolition. Mr. Fleming laments that the moderate plans of compensated emancipation advocated by such men as Colonel John Laurens of the Continental Army and  Thomas Jefferson Randolph (the grandson of the third president) were not adopted as the first steps  of a comprehensive solution to the problem of slavery.


John Quincy Adams

The supreme tragic figure of Mr. Fleming’s story is, quite unexpectedly, John Quincy Adams. After losing his bid for a second term as president, Adams became a back-benching Congressman who seized upon the slavery issue as a hobby-horse to ride to renewed fame and political influence. “Of all the victims of this disease of the public mind that distorted the noble cause of antislavery,” Mr. Fleming laments, “John Quincy Adams is the saddest, most regrettable story.” Eschewing the more reasonable course of compensated, gradual emancipation, the son of the second President of the United States instead chose to become “another snarling Southerner-hating New England voice of disunity” (175).

Dovetailing with the abolitionists’ desire to cleanse the land of slavery were the racist sympathies of most Northerners, who wished to cleanse the country of blacks altogether. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which proposed prohibiting slavery in territory gained from Mexico in the war that began that year, was called by its author, Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, “the White Man’s Proviso.” “I want to have nothing to do either with the free Negro or the slave Negro,” Wilmot proclaimed. “We wish to settle the territories with free white men” (172). Mr. Fleming shows that the ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s new Republican party in the 1850s reflected Wilmot’s view; the Republicans were dedicated to providing free soil out West for free white men. Freed slaves were to be deported back to Africa or to the Caribbean; indeed, Lincoln himself held out hope for the colonization of black Americans until his dying day.

But Lincoln is far from a villain in Mr. Fleming’s story. Though he opposed slavery, Lincoln was no abolitionist; though inflexible in his resolve to enforce the Constitution throughout the country by force (even rebuffing, in a face-to-face meeting, the efforts of former President John Tyler to seek an eleventh-hour compromise to the secession crisis), he pursued a policy of leniency towards the South as the war came to an end. As to this latter point, Mr. Fleming has a rather unique view about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (though scholar Lerone Bennett has made a similar point), seeing it as a conservative measure in its placing control over the end of slavery in the executive’s hands, at the expense of radicals in and out of Congress: “Lincoln had rescued the noble side of the abolitionists’ crusade, their hatred of slavery, and separated it from its ruinous side, their hatred of southern white men. That left him free to deal with the defeated South on his own terms” (300).

In many ways, despite its subtitle, Mr. Fleming’s interpretation is not new at all: In assigning blame for the war to the abolitionists, Fleming echoes not only the arguments of contemporary Southerners but also those of later historians of the South, like Avery Craven and Frank L. Owlsey. In proposing that compensated emancipation was the great road not taken by Americans, Mr. Fleming echoes the analysis of other writers, including Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. Unlike Mr. Hummel, however, Mr. Fleming is more accurate in suggesting that compensated emancipation was already a dead letter by the time that John Quincy Adams began challenging “the Slave Power” on the floor of Congress in 1836. The abolitionists had already won. There would be no compromise with evil. The South would have to be destroyed in the fires of war in order for the country to be purified.

Mr. Fleming concludes that the Civil War was both a triumph and tragedy. Though it brought an end to slavery, it did so at the expense of some of 850,000 American lives–an unnecessary and regrettable sacrifice for which a small band of religious fanatics was ultimately responsible.

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11 replies to this post
  1. No, the responsibility for the Civil War rests not in the hands of religious fanatics but with political fanatics who will champion any evil to remain in political office. In short, it was the Democratic party that, zealously defending slavery, ensuring that we had to fight the bloodiest of our wars to end it.

    What is there with historians that makes so many of them utterly incapable of condemning the many evils of the Democratic party and sends them off looking for other causes no matter how remote? It’s taken a century for the fact that Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton and the darling of American progressives, was a rabid bigot who hated immigrants and segregated the federal government.

    How long will it take them to realize that the primary goal of legalized abortion is, as Justice Blackmun hinted when he remarked about “eugenics” and “racial overtones” in the opening paragraph of Roe v. Wade, lowering the birth rate of the nation’s black underclass.

    I suggest not holding your breath waiting for that one.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan, an adaptation of Albion Tourgee’s bestselling 1879 A Fool’s Errand about life in Reconstruction North Carolina.

  2. As for slavery itself, this probably says it better than anything else:

    “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

    Abraham Lincoln

  3. Interesting.

    The justifiable fears of those who have been holding others in involuntary servitude is cause to anathematize the abolitionists?

    I would submit the slavery practiced in the South was nastier than that of the British Caribbean possessions.

    I further submit the Southerners would refuse any attempt at “compensation” if it allowed a substantial population of blacks roaming free in the South. I submit it took, necessarily four bloody years to convince the South that slavery was unacceptable to the rest of the country. Even then, Reconstruction was botched and the KKK and ilk terrorized Southerners black and white for too long.

    I further submit it is no coincidence the overlap of Southern “Red States” and Slave States is near perfect.

    I have an ancestor, one of the near-million casualties of that war, who was born a peasant in Germany. He ever thought slavery, serfdom, or the inordinate privilege of a Junker class was an evil, and that without a religious basis — he had simply experienced first hand what it was like to be on the receiving end .of a society where some men were entitled to whip others.

    To say “it should have been handled differently” is the same as “Truman should not have dropped The Bomb” arguments. It is no better than the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” of using “law-and-order” as code for “keep the darkies in their place.”

  4. Fleming’s entire premise is undercut by the unimpeachable fact that the Southern slave owners had no interest whatsoever in compensated abolition. Rather than looking at slavery as a necessary evil, they were viewing it as a positive good. In fact, even during the war, Lincoln floated the idea of compensated abolition for the border states that remained in the Union. None of the states wanted anything to do with it. It was only in the District of Columbia that a very limited program of compensated abolition was enacted. And the only reason it went into effect was because the federal government had previously outlawed slavery in the District.

  5. Thanks for a fasinating review that I shall share amongst friends. In “Flashman & the Redskins,” G MacDonald Fraser has an Apache chief ask the hero what makes white men demand that everyone be just like them. Apaches did no such thing, made war when needed, and otherwise knew the others for what they were. Possibly once unique among Yankees, and the British Empire and the Nazis, it is now the American fabric’s warp and weft worldwide.

  6. Mr. Fleming has done an outstanding job of scrutinizing and explaining the bizarre thinking of abolitionists. Obviously, his evaluation is out of step with today’s fashionable opinions – as evidenced by some of the replies to this article – too many people today try to explain that troubled era in the past using today’s sanctioned interpretations. We now that the ending of slavery proposed by abolitionists was a disaster – you don’t arbitrarily free slaves overnight – it has to be done gradually to allowed them to develop survival skills – but abolitionists ignored that crucial point.

  7. So it’s “bizarre thinking” to see slavery as a moral wrong? I’m as traditionalist conservative as the vast majority of folks who read this website and a Southerner by blood, but this is a lousy argument if I’ve ever heard one. And I’ve come to my own bloody conclusions, thanks. I don’t need “sanctioned thinking” to make up my mind.

    Fleming’s assumptions are based on a view of all abolitionists as zealots. I sincerely doubt this was the case. He’s also dead wrong when it comes to religion and politics. Social order is undergirded by moral order, and a moral order has its basis in faith and religious prerogatives. If we say that all men are created in the Image of God, then shouldn’t we treat them with the same dignity as we do ourselves? Is that not Christ’s penultimate commandment regarding our neighbors?

    Yes, there will be hierarchies in any well-ordered society, but the embittering effect this creates will be lessened through reciprocal duties, “outdated” notions like noblesse oblige, honest work-honest reward, commutative and distributive justice, etc. There was no real culture of reciprocity in the South, barring some exceptions. Perhaps Mr. Fleming is correct, and that slavery would have eventually died out, but how long would that have taken? Brazil had slavery until the 1880s, almost the 1890s.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t buy his snake oil. It goes against every moral doctrine I hold dear, and it isn’t in-line with what America is meant to represent. It wasn’t religious fanaticism that started the war, it was ideological obstinacy and zealotry.

  8. States rights vs a Republic was more in play for my Mississippi relatives in the Civil War.
    However, I am terribly disappointed in the lack of true “religious fervor” in the South for any sound undergirding of God’s Word these 60 years I have been a pilgrim on this earth.
    Treating others with the dignity that God has accorded humankind was lacking during the slavery years and continues with the American Government outsourcing murder through Planned Parenthood.
    The evil of both slavery and abortion has taken us to a depth of spiritual poverty that cannot be measured.

  9. Fleming has hit the nail on the head by laying the blood of a million American deaths at the feet of the swivel-eyed lunatics in New England who deliberately chose to poison sectional relations in the US in the 1830 – 50’s. I only disagree with him in his characterization of abo’s as “religious fanatics”. Abo’s had rejected orthodox, biblical Christianity because it is antithetical to their methods and “means justifies the end” agitprop campaigns. Abo’s are more accurately described as secular fanatics, New Agers and apostates, analogous to those on the left today who campaign for “transgender rights” and such causes by vilifying anyone who holds to traditional values.

    It is very disappointing to see so many comments regurgitate the same old govt approved shibboleths like “It-was-all-about-slavery” or “slavery-was-evil”. Jonathan Edwards was a slaveholder; so was George Whitfield. If the most renowned theologian and most famous evangelist, respectively, of the 18th century were able to accommodate themselves to having slaves, by just what standard of righteousness do you condemn the other million or so slaveholders of the 18th and 19th centuries as “evil”? The abo’s tried to debate the issue of moral evil of slavery and were shown to be wrong by those who pointed out the biblical stance on the issue. At this point, some abo’s responded by declaring they no longer held the bible to be the guiding standard on right and wrong. These were fanatics, but NOT religious ones.

    Some of the other comments in this thread are simply cringe-worthy. Someone stated that Southern slavery was worse than British Caribbean slavery. It is hard to imagine a more asinine remark. In Barbados, slaves were quickly worked to death on sugar plantations and new ones constantly brought over from Africa to compensate for the high mortality. Meanwhile, slaves in America were encouraged to marry and have families.

    As far as the the “what-if” argument whether Southerners would have accepted British style compensated manumission, they certainly would not have if it meant millions of emancipated blacks loafing around causing mischief and chaos. That was the experience after a wave of voluntary manumissions in VA in the early 1800’s and it had to be outlawed to keep the peace. Southerners, like Thos. Jefferson and later, Jefferson Davis, advocated relocating the black population to northern and western territories to spread out the concentration and make it easier to absorb black freemen into white society. Of course Lincoln and many Republicans wanted free blacks to be deported en masse, preserving America as the exclusive land of the white man.

    A better question to ask might be,

    “What is there with historians that makes so many of them utterly incapable of condemning the many evils of the Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans and sends them off looking for other causes no matter how remote?

  10. I have finally read the book. Even accepting it as a metaphor, disease is not an adequate word to explain the Civil War. Understanding it, after a fashion, is not difficult, but explaining it, even to one’s own satisfaction, is something else. But Fleming’s book, like so many of his other works, is certainly worth reading, and goes a long way towards explaining the war. I don’t know if anyone can spell it all out.

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