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A Disease in the Public Mind - Book Reviews

Review: A Disease in the Public Mind -

By Andrew Roberts

A Disease in the Public Mind By Thomas Fleming Da Capo, 354 pages, $26.99

May 24, 2013, 3:39 p.m. ET
BOOKSHELF The War Both Sides Wanted No account of the Civil War's causes should omit a pertinent fact: The North and South could hardly wait to tear each other's guts out.
Noting that all the Western great powers indulged in slavery or the slave trade at some point, the historian Thomas Fleming asks why the United States "is the only country in the world that fought such a horrific war to end slavery." Britain had 850,000 slaves when it abolished the practice in 1833, and Spain had far more, but the question of slavery was dealt with constitutionally by both countries, and indeed everywhere else, without recourse to domestic bloodshed. So why not in a nation founded upon the concept of democracy? Mr. Fleming's explanation for why America fought against itself is simple and disquieting: because it wanted to.

The Granger Collection, NYC Looking Southward 'Our Peculiar Domestic Institutions,' a polemical abolitionist cartoon from 1840 that depicts the South as a pit of vice infested with drunkenness, violence, cockfighting, gambling, dueling and lynching.
The great debate over the outbreak of the Civil War has so far centered on whether states' rights, or slavery, or the extension of slavery to the new territories and states of the Union was the war's primary cause. Mr. Fleming's answer, backed up with a great deal of fine scholarship, is so obvious that it seems inconceivable that no one has posited it earlier: that Northerners and Southerners had loathed each other for decades—indeed since the dawn of the Republic—and could hardly wait to tear each other's guts out.
Mr. Fleming almost implies that the mutual antipathy felt by one half of the U.S. for the other was so deep that even if the slavery issue had somehow been resolved, fighting might have broken out over something else. Between North and South there were differences in folkways and religious affiliation, in dialect and philosophical outlook, and most notably in economic activity. But slavery, which was abolished in the North soon after the Revolution, was the great dividing fact between the two regions. It defined a way of life, and of course it raised moral questions of the most profound and troubling sort.
As the 19th century proceeded and regional conflict sharpened, Mr. Fleming shows, the Northern abolitionists turned down any number of sensible compromises, but the South's loathing of the North also set the tinder box aflame. Far from feeling horror, regret and trepidation—rational
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Book Review: A Disease in the Public Mind -
emotions when civil war looms—too many Americans felt a sense of relief that they could finally fall on their hated neighbors across the Mason-Dixon Line.
Mr. Fleming squarely blames abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison for describing Southerners as "evil barbarians," thereby intensifying the antebellum political struggle, and when in 1863 Abraham Lincoln suggested a compensated, phased emancipation process to Congress, Mr. Fleming describes how "the abolitionists exploded in almost insane fury. . . . As hatred-inflamed as ever, the abolitionists were blind to the way their rage poisoned Lincoln's peace proposals for the South."
Mr. Fleming more than supports his arguments with contemporaneous examples of this fury, quoting Garrison's declarations that "the president is demented" and that his proposal "borders upon hopeless lunacy." In our own age, when abolitionists are generally lauded as clearsighted moral gods—Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" contains hardly a word of criticism of them—Mr. Fleming's well-researched and well-written book bravely portrays some of their leaders as militant extremists who harmed their cause.
With only 6% of white Southerners owning slaves in 1861, and fewer than 50,000 (out of a population of 5.58 million) owning more than 50, might not it have been possible with smart politics to split ordinary Southern electors from their plantation-owning aristocracy? "Why did they sacrifice over 300,000 of their sons," asks Mr. Fleming of ordinary white Southerners, "to preserve an institution in which they apparently had no personal stake?" Meanwhile, many Northern workers feared the effect of four million newly emancipated ex-slaves swamping the job market of the urban North.
Mr. Fleming's explanation for the extremism and self-maiming impulses of both sides of the conflict is captured in a phrase uttered by President James Buchanan when he spoke about John Brown's attempt to ignite a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., in 1859—that there was "an incurable disease in the public mind." Mr. Fleming instances the "unbalanced brain" of John Brown and his fellow anti-slavery "fanatics" as examples of this disease, but by the mid-19th century, if not before, the disease had clearly spread beyond any particular boundary or cause.
For comparison, Mr. Fleming adduces the fevered mental state behind the Salem witch hunts, Prohibition, the McCarthy era and our own era of Islamist terrorism. He quotes Brown's view that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin" and portrays him as "ready to commit mass murder in pursuit of his blood-drenched dream." When Brown's son Oliver died of wounds sustained in the Harpers Ferry attack—after having been berated by Brown to stop complaining about them—all the father said was: "I guess he's dead."
There is irony in the fact that the abolition of slavery—a cause that became militant and fanned the flames of war—was originally a concept promoted by the pacifist Quakers. Mr. Fleming argues that if George Washington's desire, expressed in 1786, to abolish slavery "by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees" had been implemented soon and vigorously, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved.
Compensating British slave owners cost Parliament the equivalent of $2 billion in today's money and was cheap at the price. The American Colonization Society, which raised funds to buy slaves and then free them, was denounced by the ultra-abolitionists, including Garrison, whom Mr. Fleming describes as "locked in his religious fervor, unaware that his New England-induced hatred of the South was distorting his crusade." By the end of this superbly revisionist book, readers are more likely to conclude that Garrison was defining his crusade by such fanaticism rather than distorting it.
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