Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War

By Thomas Fleming

Did you ever wonder what caused the American Civil War?  Thomas Fleming has the answer; as it turns out it really was all about slavery.  The distinguished historian and author, Thomas Fleming’s book, “A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War,” discusses how and why slavery became the wedge issue that split the United States apart and drove its opposing factions to war.

Fleming’s narrative opens with John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and immediately shows blood being spilled over the question of slavery.  Leaving the taste blood in his reader’s mouths, Fleming pulls back, way back, to the establishment of slavery in America, and from that point forward his narrative is a chronological history of slavery not only in America but in the Western Hemisphere.

The roots of American slavery are traced, as well as that of its opponents. From the American Revolution to the Constitutional Convention, the debate over the status of slaves and their emancipation was always in question.  Gradually slavery was abolished in the States of the North, but the institution remained stubbornly entrenched in the South.

Of slavery former President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820 “we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”  This understanding of the inherent danger of slavery issue lies at the heart of long debate about the future of slavery in the United States.  How long could the growing enslaved population be controlled?  And what would happen if the slaves rebelled?  The fears slave rebellions and followed by a resulting race war and the possibility of genocide is Fleming’s hypothesis of why Southern states resisted emancipation, seceded from the United States and went to war to preserve slavery.

The author does provide compelling evidence of slave rebellions, and Southerner’s hysteria about them.  The bloody revolution in Haiti is prominently featured in Fleming’s narrative as well as many other smaller slave uprisings in the United States.

The Compromise of 1850 coupled with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, pushed New England radical abolitionists to increase the volume of their dissent, combined with steadfastness of the Southern slave owners in support of their “peculiar institution” made the United States a powder keg, and John Brown the spark that lit the fuse.

Concluding with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of colored troops, Fleming does not miss a beat in proclaiming the Southerner’s worst nightmare had come to fruition: their former slaves had taken up arms against them.

“A Disease in the Public Mind” is well written and engaging read, though its central premise that a fear of slave revolts is what prevented Southerners from adopting a more friendly attitude towards emancipation is a bit flawed.  Scanning through Mr. Flemings end notes it is apparent that he relied heavily on secondary sources for most of his research, and a bibliography is not included.  All in all it is a solid book, with a new angle and a fresh look at the cause of the Civil War.

ISBN 978-0306821264, Da Capo Press, © 2013, Hardcover, 384 Pages, Photographs & Illustrations, End Notes & Index. $26.99.  To Purchase the book click HERE.

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