'A Disease in the Public Mind': How anti-slavery caused the Civil War

Say what? Thomas Fleming stakes out a touchy position

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Thomas Fleming asks an important question in "A Disease in the Public Mind": Why was the United States the only major nation to fight a terrible war to end slavery? His counterintuitive answer puts much of the blame on unyielding New England abolitionists who tried to do away with the "peculiar institution" too quickly. Their original sin was to praise John Brown.


By Thomas Fleming
Da Capo Press ($26.99).

Brown was a homicidal fanatic who managed to fail at every task to which he set his hand, including parenting. His ill-conceived effort in 1859 to start a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry began with the murder of a free black man, shot by accident, and ended with the death of two of his sons and his own hanging for treason.

His actions were, with a few notable exceptions, condemned north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Brown's many critics included an Illinois politician named Abraham Lincoln. The intemperate words of philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and publisher William Lloyd Garrison in support of Brown's bloody deeds were, nevertheless, enough to drive Southerners out of the Union, Fleming concludes. Southern men, including the majority who did not own slaves, were convinced that the Browns, Emersons and Garrisons in the North wanted to ignite a race war like the one that convulsed Haiti in 1804.

Mr. Fleming, 85, has written more than 50 histories and historical novels since 1960. His subjects have ranged from the American Revolution to World War II. He has never been one to shy away from a controversial position in print. Anyone writing that much on so many topics is likely to write an occasional clunker of a sentence. It would be difficult, however, to match this doozy in his otherwise well-crafted description of the urban slave experience in Charleston, S.C., in the 1850s.

Mr. Fleming starts with the excellent point that many slaves were skilled workers who toiled, not as field hands, but as compensated carpenters, blacksmiths, dressmakers and even plantation overseers. Some slaves, he writes, earned enough money to cover their living expenses, pay their owners a portion of their wages and save sufficient funds to buy their own freedom. Then it's on to his mind-boggling conclusion. For a black artisan in South Carolina, "slave status was in many ways more an artificial legality than a daily reality." Well, yes, except for the reality of having no civil or human rights and the omnipresent danger that you or your family members could be sold.

As Mr. Fleming writes elsewhere, that "artificial legality" also meant risking corporal punishment or even death for crimes such as teaching yourself to read or meeting with other slaves for religious services. Mr. Fleming borrows the phrase "an incurable disease in the public mind" from the writings of James Buchanan, the only native Pennsylvanian to be elected president.

Brown's 1859 attack resulted from a "twisted interpretation of political or economic or spiritual realities that seized control of thousands of and even millions of minds," Mr. Fleming writes. A similar, short-lived "incurable disease" first infected life in America during the Salem Witch Trials, he writes. The "anything-goes" atmosphere during Prohibition and the McCarthy-era Red Scares provided more recent examples of the same disorder.

Mr. Fleming is honest in describing the proximate cause for the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ignored the counsel of one of his closest advisers, his Secretary of State Robert Toombs, in ordering the shelling of Fort Sumter. Whatever disease might have infected New Englanders, they did not fire on the Stars and Stripes in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861.

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Mr. Fleming has written one of those books where you wish you had the author in the room with you to defend and discuss his positions. "A Disease in the Public Mind" encouraged me to scribble multiple notes in the book's margins.

In terms of his broader themes, he argues that were it not for fanatics like John Brown, slavery soon would have died out on its own in the United States, as it shortly did in the rest of the world.

In making his case, I think he places too much blame on what Northern extremists said and not enough responsibility on what Southern secessionists did. Despite Mr. Fleming's best efforts, I finished reading "A Disease in the Public Mind" still believing that slavery was corrupt to its core and conditions for slaves much worse than the author believes them to have been. Put me down as one of those radical Yankee abolitionists.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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