A century and a half after the Civil War, the debate continues to rage over the true causes of the war. The menace of slavery is an obvious answer, but it wasn’t the sole cause. Many scholars argue that the fight over states’ rights led to the war, while at the war’s outset, Abraham Lincoln waged war to preserve the Union. And Shelby Foote tells the story of a Confederate soldier who, when an invading Union soldier asked him why he was fighting, replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here!”
Historian and author Thomas Fleming recently published A Disease In The Public Mind: A New Understanding Of Why We Fought The Civil War, and the book details two compelling reasons for the war: New England’s disdain for the Southern states – along with the ensuing all-or-nothing attitude of militant abolitionists, and Southern whites’ fear of a race war were the nation to emancipate the slaves. Last month here at PJ Lifestyle, David Forsmark interviewed Fleming about his theories, and that interview compelled me to read the book.
The founding fathers left the question of slavery unsettled at the nation’s outset. After the Revolutionary War, politicians from New England believed that they had inherited the mantle of leadership, since New England’s native sons had first called for independence. However, Southerners like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rose to greater prominence in national politics, which infuriated the New Englanders, who resented the “slavocracy” they felt came about from Southern leadership.
This hatred for the South continued to fester, and as the abolitionist movement gained prominence, its leadership brimmed with seething hatred for Southerners in general. Fleming presents William Lloyd Garrison’s reaction to a bloody slave revolt as a prime example of this attitude.
On October 19, 1831, he told one correspondent that he was pleased the “disturbances at the South still continue. The slaveholders are given over to destruction…”
Here was a signal revelation of the fundamental flaw in William Lloyd Garrison’s character, a flaw that permeated the New England view of the rest of America: an almost total lack of empathy. Fellow Americans had just been exposed to an awful experience – a tragedy that dramatized in horrendous terms the problem of Southern slavery… The only emotion Garrison permitted himself was a thinly disguised gloating – and a call for sympathy for the slaves. No matter how much they deserved this emotion, was this the time to demand it?
On the other hand, many prominent Southerners wrestled with the issue of slavery. They knew the institution was evil, yet it was intertwined with the entire economy of the South. Leaders like Jefferson and Robert E. Lee considered options like government-funded emancipation, colonization of freed slaves to Africa, and gradual forms of emancipation. Yet no one seemed to settle on the proper way to put an end to slavery.
Meanwhile, gruesome stories of slave rebellions both in the United States and in places like Haiti steeled the fears of many Southerners. If the slaves gained their freedom, would a race war follow? Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was keenly aware of the dangerous nature of slavery and emancipation.
Without any hope of abolition for themselves or their children, Virginia’s slaves were certain to revolt on a scale far larger than Nat Turner’s berserk band. That would almost inevitably lead to another tragedy that his grandfather had predicted to him and to the public: the disillusion of the federal Union.
That would mean civil war, Randolph predicted, and an invasion of Virginia by a northern army. In their ranks would be black troops, determined to achieve “the liberation of their race.” There would be no place for white Virginians to hide when that happened. Nothing would save “your wives and your children from destruction.”
Fleming demonstrates how both fears came together in the brief, infamous reign of terror of John Brown and his band of fanatical abolitionists. He shows how slavery, despite its inherent evil had begun to morph into something markedly different by the 1850s. He also writes vividly of key moments in the war, and he relates Abraham Lincoln’s anguish over writing and signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
With A Disease Of The Public Mind, Thomas Fleming has brought us an intelligent yet accessible account of part of this country’s early history. He posits compelling new reasons to add to the debate over the causes of the Civil War, and I suspect we’ll still be talking about these ideas years from now.
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