A Disease of the Public Mind by Thomas Fleming

I am dabbling again in one of my favorite time periods in history – the Civil War. I recently read Thomas Fleming‘s Disease of the Public Mind, which is a fascinating look at the causes of the Civil War. It is 339 pages with footnotes.

Here is a description of the book from its publisher Da Capo Press:

a-disease-in-the-public-mind_originalBy the time John Brown hung from the gallows for his crimes at Harper’s Ferry, Northern abolitionists had made him a “holy martyr” in their campaign against Southern slave owners. This Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leader of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson. This malevolent envy exacerbated the South’s greatest fear: a race war. Jefferson’s cry, “We are truly to be pitied,” summed up their dread. For decades, extremists in both regions flung insults and threats, creating intractable enmities. By 1861, only a civil war that would kill a million men could save the Union.

I always have felt that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery, but I did not realize how ingrained the animosity was between the North and the South over this issue. Fleming makes a convincing argument that the fringe elements (fanatics in his words) in both regions pushed the country toward a civil war. He also argues that the animosity began decades before the Civil War. He supports this argument by giving examples of the fear that many of the Founding Fathers had about slavery – among them Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Many slave owners feared a slave revolt that would kill many of the white Southerners.

Fleming also discusses the early abolitionist activities in the North and the South. For example, many Quakers in the North pressed for an early end of slavery. Fleming recounts how one Quaker, John Woolman, in the mid 1700s tried to convince (to no avail) not only the colonists, but the British Parliament that slavery was evil and a sin.

One particular piece that I find intriguing is Fleming’s take on the abolitionist movement. He was not critical of the movement in general, but of particular individuals who fanned the flames of hate to the point where war was the only option. According to Fleming, William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, was to blame for creating a disease in the public mind of hatred in the North toward “The Slave Power.” Garrison accused “The Slave Power” of manipulating the American presidency by ensuring that pro-Southern presidents were elected.

Although not as detailed, Fleming criticizes the South and its leaders in poisoning the public mind. For example, Senator John C. Calhoun argued that American slaves, as “employees,” were better off than factory workers in England and New England. He continued by stating that slavery was a vital part of the South’s economy and that if it was taken away, the South would perish. Many slave owners also tried to support the continuance of slavery by comparing American slaves to their counterparts in the Caribbean and South America – Southern slave owners were far more humane than these other areas where working the slaves to death was a policy.

Any fan of Civil War history would enjoy this engaging and enlightening take on the causes of the Civil War.


1 Comment

  1. Do you think, from what you’ve read, that slave owners in the South were generally humane? Did they see black people are human beings? That’s the essence of the charge in Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved, that even under the best masters, slaves were treated like animals. People can be humane to animals, but that isn’t the same thing as understanding their equal humanity.

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