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Friday, December 30, 2016


Published in 2013 by Blackstone Audio.
Read by William Hughes
Duration: 11 hours, 42 minutes.

Thomas Fleming readily admits that he mostly writes about the era of the American Revolution (such as his excellent book Liberty! The American Revolution) but he felt compelled to make a long commentary on the origins of the Civil War by writing this book - a lengthy commentary that is interesting

Fleming's take on the causes of the war are based on a comment from James Buchanan's that the furor over slavery was a "disease in the public mind."

Fleming is quite confident that this disease was mostly caused the North. Shelby Foote alludes to this, in a way, in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary when he notes that there was a war "because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise...our whole government's founded on it and it failed."

An exhibit at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Photo by DWD
Foote meant that both sides had to give in to make an agreement. Fleming clearly identifies the North as the side that refuses to compromise and causes the crisis. He compares the North to the Puritans that prosecuted the Salem Witch Trials and Joseph McCarthy. The difference between the Salem Witch Trials and the Abolitionist attacks on slavery is that witchcraft and magic are not real so there were no witches but slavery, slaves and slave masters were all very, very real. 

Fleming excuses the fact that slave families were broken apart on a regular basis through estate sales by pointing out that Washington did not do this sort of thing. He goes on to use Washington as an archetype of what could have been if the Abolitionists had not started pressing the South. If you had to be a slave, being George Washington's slave was about as good as you could hope for. Washington refused to break up families or dump older slaves who couldn't really work. He also freed his slaves when he died.  Fleming writes at length about how Washington was pressed by his own personal abolitionist - his Revolutionary War comrade the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette's efforts were worthy and good but, somehow, the efforts of American abolitionists were the equivalent of the Salem Witch Trial.

Fleming tries to defend slave owners against the charge of taking sexual advantage of their female slaves, saying it was very rare. But, as his narrative continues he points out any number of slaves and former slaves who were mixed race. If it was so rare, how did these people exist? He also completely ignores the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. This "look at this Founding Father as a great example, but not at that one because he doesn't make my argument" type of cherry-picking is pretty typical throughout the book. 

What Fleming does best is point out that there was a genuine paranoia among Southern Whites about the possibility of a race war like Haiti experienced when its African slaves overthrew the French government. When you look at the political cartoons of the era, like this one that decries the evils of the Emancipation Proclamation, you see evil influences upon Lincoln: multiple representations of the devil, a picture of a sainted John Brown and a large painting glorifying the violence in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Clearly, this was a worry and not without some justification. There were slave revolts from time to time and this was the stated goal of John Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry.

But, Fleming uses this fear to justify every action the South made to defend slavery, such as refusing to let people petition the Congress concerning slavery - a right established in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The First Amendment - not one of those pesky rights with the bigger numbers that get lost in the jumble. Plus, the governments of the South searched the mail for newspapers that they did not like and destroyed them. Clearly, another violation of the First Amendment. But, he excuses it because the White Southerners were scared of the power of the Abolitionist press on its slave population.

Fleming never really formulates a thesis beyond that the Abolitionists were pushing the Southerners too hard. Many historians try to argue that slavery was on the way out in the South and that slave owners were searching for a way to safely end slavery. Fleming does not even make this argument. He acknowledges that there was an attempt to expand slavery to the territories and to new states, but he denies it was organized. He completely ignores the fact that Southern politicians (and even John Quincy Adams, for a while) openly proposed conquering Cuba for the express reason of making it a slave state to keep the balance of free state/slave state power in the Congress. James Buchanan himself authored a proposal to take over Cuba before he became President and had it as a goal when he became President in 1857. There were also proposals to take parts of Mexico and Central America and make them slave states. William Walker invaded both Mexico and Nicaragua with that goal. The pre-Civil War pro-slavery group Knights of the Golden Circle advocated making more than 25 slave states out of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean islands.

There is more, but this is enough to demonstrate that this is a deeply flawed book, albeit an interesting one. Fleming's reminder of the deep-seated fear of a race war like the one in Haiti is an important one. Fleming's argument ends up leaving the American slave population in the untenable position of being involved in a never-ending, ever-expanding slave economy that was, as Fleming himself points out, evolving from a plantation-based system to a factory-based system in some areas and showed little sign of ending. But, if you protested this system from the outside you were in the wrong and most certainly caused the Civil War. These are the reasons that I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook was read by William Hughes. He did a great job of reading at a brisk, easy-to-understand pace. 

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Disease in the Public Mind.

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