Thomas Fleming is known for his provocative, politically incorrect, and very accessible histories that challenge many of the clichés of current American history books. Fleming is a revisionist in the best conservative sense of the word. His challenges to accepted wisdom are not with an agenda, but with a relentless hunger for the truth and a passion to present the past as it really was, along with capturing the attitudes and culture of the times.
In The New Dealers’ War Fleming exposed how the radical Left in FDR’s administration almost crippled the war effort with their utopian socialist experimentation, and how Harry Truman led reform efforts in the Senate that kept production in key materials from collapse.
In The Illusion of Victory, Fleming showed that while liberal academics may rate Woodrow Wilson highly, that he may have been the most spectacularly failed President in history. 100,000 American lives were sacrificed to favor one colonial monarchy over another, all so Wilson could have a seat at the peace table and negotiate The League of Nations. Instead, the result of WWI was Nazism and Communism killing millions for the rest of the century.
Fleming’s new book A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War , exposes how inflammatory Abolitionist rhetoric and propaganda were a major cause of the Civil War. Every other civilized nation outlawed slavery, despite economic and financial incentives, without killing a major part of its own population to do so.
While reading the book, I imagined if the pro-life movement was actually dominated by spokesmen who advocated killing abortionists.
Fleming is also a novelist, the mega-best-selling author of Officers’ Wives and Liberty Tavern, among many others. My personal favorite is the all too convincing alternate history novel, The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee which also explores the hatred of the Radical Republicans for all things Southern.
He is best known for his numerous books on the American Revolution, including the gigantic-selling coffee table book, Liberty!, which was the basis for the PBS series. Fleming is a leader in the movement to restore the reputation of the Founders– especially George Washington– in the public square.
Fleming is a recent past President of the Society of American Historians. Recently we sat down for an interview about A Disease in the Public Mind, perhaps his most provocative book yet.
FLEMING: That’s the question that made me write this book. All the countries of South America, even Brazil, which had three million slaves – almost as many as America’s four million – ended the evil institution peacefully. The British freed almost a million slaves in the West Indies without bloodshed. Revolutionary France ended slavery in their colonies with a decree from Paris.
FORSMARK: So why did the United States have to do in in a way that killed a million young men?
FLEMING: Because both North and South suffered from diseases in the public mind. I came upon the phrase while writing an article about John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. At that point, most of my history books had been about the era of the American Revolution. Brown was new historical territory for me. I was startled to discover that this greybearded 59 year old planned to take command of an army of slaves equipped with the 100,000 rifles in the federal arsenal at “the Ferry,” as the town was called. In Brown’s luggage were carefully drawn maps identifying the counties of the South where blacks outnumbered whites. These were his targets.
Equally surprising was the discovery that “Captain Brown,” as he called himself, was defeated and captured by U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, the most famous soldier in the American Army of that time. At Brown’s headquarters in nearby Maryland, Lee found letters that revealed six wealthy northerners had armed Brown and his men with the Sharps rifles that killed innocent citizens in Harpers Ferry, including the town’s mayor and a free black man.
Brown’s subsequent trial and execution stirred violent emotions, North and South. President James Buchanan blamed the uproar on “a disease in the public mind.” I could not get that phrase out of my head. What did it mean?
FORSMARK: What did you find?
FLEMING: The term “public mind” described something much less fluctuating than public opinion. That can change as swiftly as the weather. The public mind involved fixed beliefs that were fundamental to the way people saw the world of their time. A disease in the public mind was –and is — a twisted interpretation of political or economic or spiritual realities that seizes control of thousands and even millions of people.
FORSMARK: Can you give us another example of public hysteria?
FLEMING: Americans first experienced one of these episodes in 1692, when the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony became convinced that witches were threatening their society with evil powers. Over two hundred people were arrested and flung into fetid jails. Twenty one were hanged. One 71 year old man was “pressed to death” beneath heavy stones.
No one has described this frenzy better than the great New England novelist, Nathanael Hawthorne. “That terrible delusion…should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes… are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen – the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day, stood in the inner circle roundabout the gallows, loudest to acclaim the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived.”
FORSMARK: How did John Brown’s raid have a similar impact?
FLEMING: The best people of the North showered praise on a fanatic who believed that “without the emission of blood, there is no forgiveness for sin.” In Kansas a few years earlier, Brown had murdered six unarmed southerners before the horrified eyes of their wives and children, and ordered his sons to hack up their bodies with swords.
After Brown’s execution, America’s best-known writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, declared him the equal of Jesus Christ. Another Massachusetts man told Emerson that compared to John Brown, Christ was a “dead failure.” He had ignored three decades of northern prayers begging him to end slavery. John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, declared the South had to be conquered, “though it cost a million lives.”
FORSMARK: Is there anyone who could have defused these violent emotions? Why didn’t America find a leader like England’s William Wilberforce, who persuaded Parliament to free Britain’s slaves peacefully?
FLEMING: There was one man who might have exerted that kind of leadership– Ex-President John Quincy Adams. After Andrew Jackson defeated his bid for a second term in 1828, Adams won election to Congress. There he clashed with southerners, who attempted to impose a “gag rule” that barred petitions to abolish slavery. At first Adams objected on Constitutional grounds. But he gradually succumbed to the acrimony these petitions stirred in the southern public mind. He abandoned the moderation that had made him a defender of southern presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. He failed to see that southern rage was rooted in another disease in the public mind – fear of a race war. Soon he was sneering on the floor of Congress that mulattoes had a tendency to resemble their owners — and submitting petitions from New Englanders calling on Congress to work out ‘measures peaceably to dissolve the union of these states.’
FORSMARK: Who was Theodore Dwight Weld? His book attacking southern slavery is still an important source of information. Why did he abruptly abandon the crusade to abolish human bondage in America?
FLEMING: Weld was – and still is – an important figure in the study of the causes of the Civil War. Born in Connecticut, he became a fiery critic of the South and slavery who converted tens of thousands of Midwesterners to the abolitionist cause. But in the early 1840s, he asked himself how he, a professed Christian, could preach hatred of southerners for owning slaves. He thus bore witness to the fatal flaw in the abolitionist crusade – and chose silence as a kind of penance.
FORSMARK: Tom, in modern history books, or in popular culture, the Abolitionist movement is portrayed with nearly a halo around it. Obviously, their stated cause was just. But you expose a dark side to the movement that very few — other than overt Confederate apologists — have even touched on. It even caused Theodore Weld, one of its most important advocates, to leave the movement. In your novel, The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee, you touch on the hatred of the South by the Radical Republicans and other New Englanders. Were you surprised by the level of venom when you researched this book?
FLEMING: There are fashions in history. For the first half of the 20th Century, the abolitionists were recognized as one of the prime causes of the Civil War. Their current popularity is the result of the civil rights movement, which ignored their dark side. I was amazed — and distressed – when I encountered the virulence of their hatred. By the time the 1850s began, they preached a paranoid detestation of “The Slave Power.” They compared the South to Anti-Christ. Others said it was the apocalyptic dragon of the Book of Reveleations, rising to strangle freedom in the North as it had extinguished it in the South. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts summed up this fanaticism in a single sentence. “Are you for freedom or slavery?” he shouted to a Boston audience. “Are you for God or the devil?”
FORSMARK: Some of the Abolitionists openly expressed contempt for the blacks their crusade was supposed to be designed to help. Was slavery really the whole story in the full out hatred of the South, or was something else at work in a particular corner of the Yankee mind?
FLEMING: Here we get into the peculiarities of the New England mind. They had a natural tendency to look down on the rest of the country. They saw themselves as the real founders, and were infuriated that the leadership had passed to Jefferson and other southern president. Jefferson’s embargo, which was an economic disaster for New England, was the trigger that made them see the South as enemies. Then they focused on the South’s moral flaw — the continuance — and the growth — of slavery, and the two arguments fused into Abolitionism, a creed proclaimed in their souls by God.
In Britain, one of the ways the situation was diffused was to compensate the slaveholders. Reasonable voices—Abraham Lincoln for example—proposed that here, but the Abolitionists in Congress never backed his bill. The abolitionists’ goal was not persuasion of southerners. It was to shame them into submission, confess their guilt and free the slaves. It was essentially a fanatical religious crusade.
FORSMARK: What about this disease as far as the South’s public mind goes?
FLEMING: I call it Thomas Jefferson’s Nightmare. It has its roots in an appalling mistake Jefferson made when he became president in1801. He approved and supported a French invasion of Santo Domingo. They wanted to regain control of their half of the island, which we now call Haiti. Everything went wrong. The French army collapsed from yellow fever after a year and a half of bloody warfare. The victorious Hatiian army killed every French man, woman and child on their part of the island. A shaken Jefferson persuaded Congress to withdraw all political contact with Haiti. But this fear of a race war permeated the Southern public mind. When the news of John Brown and his northern backers swirled through the South’s newspapers, many of their spokesmen said: “They want to make another Santo Domingo of us.” More than fifty years later, the memory of the slaughter on Haiti still haunted them. When Lincoln was elected on an anti-slavery ticket, it was not difficult to persuade the seven states of the Deep South to secede.
FORSMARK: Were there other factors that deepened paranoia about a race war?
FLEMING: One of the things that deepened it was Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831. He was a part time preacher who convinced his followers God wanted them to imitate Santo Domingo and kill every white person they met on their rampage. After that outbreak, on almost every main road in the South, armed men on horseback patrolled the roads every night, challenging every black man they met. If they could not produce a note from a master explaining why they were travelling, the patrollers were authorized to give them several dozen lashes. Even more disturbing was the news that John Brown had maps, identifying all the counties in the south where blacks outnumbered whites. There were many of them. Southerners feared there were tipping points in these numbers that would encourage slaves to revolt. Brown was planning to head for these counties, hoping it would be easier to persuade these slaves to revolt—and he was cheered on by far too many prominent voices in the North.
FORSMARK: The attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on April 11, 1861, marks the moment when the Civil War began in earnest. President Lincoln called for an army of 75,000 men to suppress a rebellion. Was that when America passed the point of no return?
FLEMING: No. That came a few days later, on April 17, 1861, when President Lincoln offered command of the Union Army that he had summoned to Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia. This is the climax of my book. It one of the most important — and least known – turning points in American history.
FORSMARK: Why do you say that?
FLEMING: Virginia had not seceded. Nor had her satellite state, North Carolina. Winfield Scott, the commander of the U.S. Army, who had seen Lee in action in the Mexican War, was in complete agreement with the president’s offer. He said Lee was worth 50,000 men.
Like other southern states, Virginia had summoned a convention to decide whether to secede. Many people felt that their decision depended on what Colonel Lee would do. He had curtly rejected an earlier offer to join the rebellion. No one can deny the potentially huge impact of Lee’s response to the president’s offer.
In the most agonizing decision of his life, Robert E. Lee said no. The abolitionist campaign of slander and insult against Southern white men – and his discovery of John Brown’s six secret backers — had ravaged his loyalty to the Union. He did not see how he could command an army full of men who hated southerners.
After two more tormented days and nights, Colonel Lee resigned from the U.S. Army. Virginia soon seceded and he became commander of her forces. His battle plan won the South’s crucial victory at Bull Run. The war began its harvest of death on both sides.