A Disease In The Public Mind: A New Understanding Of Why We Fought The Civil War, by Thomas Fleming, read by William Hughes
When I read the reviews that other people had written for this book, I really wanted to listen to this book and tear into it. From the reviews I read, over and over again, it seemed as if the author was going to blame the Civil War simply on mean people in New England, and being extremely sensitive to pro-Southern propaganda and no mean student of the causes of the Civil War , I thought that this book was going to be an easy one to tear apart. The truth is far more nuanced. To be sure, the author, over and over again, negatively characterizes the hatred for Southern white men found in abolitionist discourse, something the author finds particularly troublesome. In addition, the author harps over and over again on the paranoid fears of the South about a slave rebellion and race war such as that which birthed the troubled nation of Haiti. Rather than being a book easy to tear into, it ended up being a far more nuanced work, and if still worthy of criticism, it was not exactly a book that was easy to hate. Thomas Fleming is no propagandist on the level of say, Thomas DiLorenzo, but rather a historian seeking to avoid the extremes of pro-abolitionist and neo-Confederate historiography, no easy task, speaking as a scion of Appalachian Pennsylvania myself.
The contents of this book focus mostly on the period before the Civil War and consist of a dialectic between rising abolitionist hostility to slavery in the North that became increasingly negative in its view of Southerners, and between a rising insecurity and defensiveness on the part of Southerners who were afraid that Northerners viewed their potential extirpation in a race war with equanimity and even glee. It is the author’s contention that moderate attempts by people on both sides like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln to put slavery on the course for ultimate extinction but leave the South as a society intact fell prey to the upper and nether millstone of extremists in both sections. The author has particular hostility against abolitionists, far more than he appears to show for southerners like Calhoun and Lee, who the author views with a great deal of respect, far more than he gives to “Old Man Eloquent,” John Quincy Adams, or William Lloyd Garrison or John Brown, who the author over and over again criticizes as a homicidal maniac in need of his own theme song by Michael Sembello. The author’s knowledge of the historical context of the American Revolution, including attempts by an idealist South Carolinian, young Henry Laurens, to encourage the enlistment of blacks with an aim to their freedom, makes this book of interest even to readers who dislike the author’s tone.
That said, even for readers who agree that a dialectic of mutual hostility made it impossible to solve peacefully in the antebellum American Republic, and who place some blame for that rising mutual hostility on both sides, this book is worthy of considerable criticism. For one, the author appears to think it a worse evil that abolitionists showed a hatred for the culture of the South, which was and is admittedly still an evil that many people have, and one I have to struggle against myself, than that Southern culture itself ruthlessly exploited so many of its slaves. The author considers it a libel that abolitionists pointed out the connection between the coercion of slavery and the coercion of rape, while the considerable portion of mulattoes in the antebellum south, about 10% of the total black population, and roughly equal to the number of free blacks in Abraham Lincoln’s own measure, indicates that there was considerable miscegenation thanks to slaveholders themselves, if not enough to make every plantation a sordid bordello. It is the author’s attempts, ultimately, to view the southerners as large free of blame for the plantation slavery they immensely profited from personally and politically, that are most worthy of blame. Abolitionists and their contemporary descendants are to be taken to task for excessive idealism on the one hand that disparages the practical actions that lead to harmony and the survival of institutions in the face of conflict, and on their extreme hostility and hatred of others, but surely Southern slaveowners deserve at least some blame for not making any progress in increasing the spread of liberty between the American Revolution and the end of slavery at the barrel of a gun and with the destruction of their way of life in the horrors of a civil war that they brought on themselves through their own folly and intransigence, do they not? If the author agrees with this obvious truth, he does not make it clear enough in the course of this book, even as he makes his contempt for abolitionists in the same hostile language as they would have shown hostility to the people of the South. This book is a missed opportunity at providing a middle road between pro-Confederate and pro-abolitionist viewpoints.
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