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

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  • Posted July 8, 2013

    The so-called new understanding of why we fought the civil war s

    The so-called new understanding of why we fought the civil war seems to be that "extremist"
    abolitionists from New England, racked with jealousy that they didn't rule the US, lacked sufficient
    empathy for Southerners, who mysteriously found themselves owning slaves and fearing slave revolt.  
    Southerners hardened their position in response to this "extremism" and the war happened.  This isn't an
     explanation, it's a disease of the mind, to use Buchanan's, and Fleming's, phrase. 

    Fleming's argument is extremely weakly developed, so weakly developed as to call into question his other work  It has four failings.  
    - First, it fails deal with the fundamental moral issue.  "Extremism" is hardly to be condemned when the
    topic is the legal owning, sale, whipping, and abuse of other human beings. Understanding the difficulties
    faced by those participating in, and profiting from, the slave system, while valuable and important, should
    not cause one to lose one's moral compass. What the abolitionists were saying was right.   
    - Second, while a fear of slave revolt was no doubt present, the notion that abolitionist "extremism" drove
    Southern resistance to ending slavery is absurd.  In the period of Fleming's work, slavery increased by a
    factor of four - from just over 1 million slaves in 1810 to almost 4 million by 1860.  So if Southerners feared
    slave revolts, they must have found some reason to choke down this fear and increase the number of slaves.  
    What was it?  Greed, pure and simple.  Cotton production increased from under 100,000 pounds
    (worth about $12 million)  to over 2 billion pounds, worth over $250 million. While there is no doubt that
    abolitionist rhetoric and a fear of slave revolt may have vexed the "southern mind", it was for the most part
     occupied with the pursuit of profit through slave-powered expansion of the cotton industry. Abolitionist claims
     that the "Slave Power" sought expansion were not fevered conspiracies, they were accurate descriptions of
    what was going on. 
    - Third, uses the (mostly implicit) argument that "diffusion" would end the problem of slavery gradually.
     This ignores the clear desire of Southerners to expand slavery, not to "diffuse" it but to grow it, and to profit
    from that growth.  The lack of any Southern voice offering any serious compromise proposal to end slavery
     is noteworthy in this respect.  There simply wasn't any robust voice in the south for abolition, or change of
     the system in any way, even if some slave owners salved their consciences by claiming they wished it would
     go away.  
    - Finally, Fleming fails to note, yet alone acknowledge, that there were many "less extreme" alternatives
     to ending slavery available in the public discourse.  Northern states had implemented gradual emancipation
     laws in the decades between the American Revolution and the start of the Civil War.  
    Fleming himself documents, and excuses, Southern resistance to any discussion of any means to
     end slavery, not just to full abolition and enfranchisement.  Fleming's brief discussions of the success
    of free blacks, and the role of slaves in the trades, highlights the fact southerners had examples of successful
     possibilities for abolition in front of their eyes. 

    The book has the appearance of history, with citations and the appropriate acknowledgements to other
     historians and works.  And there is a grain of truth buried within it: there is no doubt that fear of slave revolts
     and the dynamics of polarization gave Southerners an excuse to avoid dealing with slavery.  But the notion
    that northern abolitionist rhetoric caused Southern pre-war intransigence fundamentally fails to recognize that
     what was going on in the mind of defenders of slavery was nothing more than self-justificatory rationalizations.
      Fleming seems utterly ignorant of either foundational literatures in psychology, or of the extensive literatures
     on moral panics, the social construction of social problems, or any of the other sociological work that theorizes
     more soundly the notion of the "disease of the public mind."  While the book claims to be a new perspective,
     it's neither new, nor particularly coherent. 

    Slavery persisted, not because of "extremist" abolitionists, but because of slave-holder desires for profit
    from their free labor. Fleming's book isn't history, isn't a genuine re-thinking, it's a thinly disguised excuse.
    Slavery persisted, and the Civil War happened, not because abolitionists failed to empathize with the South,
     but because the roughly 25% of the population that owned ( or directly profited from ownership of) slaves
    wanted it to persist, made money off of the system, and refused to change a morally bankrupt system.  
    These fundamental facts about the growth of the system of slavery during this period are absent from
    Fleming's argument.  Fleming's biography notes that he learned the key to writing is writing four pages a day.  
    I'd suggest that he needs to factor a bit more time for thoughtful reflection into his schedule.

    4 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 14, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This book is upsetting a number of people, looking at the distri

    This book is upsetting a number of people, looking at the distribution of one and five star ratings prove this statement. Spending any time on Civil War sites and you will find people that damn the Confederacy for slavery, comparing the CSA to the Third Reich armed with statics showing how backward the South was/is. This book chronicles the development of this mindset.
    Race based slavery is largely a New World invention changing an economic system from a social base to a racial one. Race created a new set of problems; Blacks are an inferior dangerous subspecies that had to be controlled. The rebellion Saint-Domingue with the attendant killings of whites, Nat Turner and several rumors of slave revolts tend to confirm this idea.
    The founding fathers simply did not know what to do with slavery and the slaves. Slavery existed to a degree in all the states and no one wanted a large population of “free Negros” in their state. The book takes time to establish this and the hope/expectation that slavery would simply fade away in time. Sending “free Negros” back to Africa is the answer to what should happen after slavery ends.
    In about 80 years, slavery goes from an unfortunate thing America is stuck with to a sin. This book chronicles this transformation with a good deal of detail and hard facts. Slavery as a sin originates in New England along with secession. Abolitionists take an increasing hard and bitter stance toward slavery, Southerners and America. Southerners take an increasing hard stance toward slavery, Northerners and America. We follow this vicious cycle from John Quincy Adams to the Civil War.
    This is a history of misunderstanding, fear, bitterness and hate.
    It is not a pretty story but it is an accurate one.
    Neither side is right and neither side is wrong but both are trapped.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2013

    D Patrick review continues the blowing hateful embers of New En

    D Patrick review continues the blowing hateful embers of New England abolitionist's hateful rhetoric. This book can be very helpful in healing the wounds that were never allowed to heal. Read the book with an mind to gain a fresh perspective. Please let start the healing and stop the hate. I will share this book with others who want to go forward and not live in painful past.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2013



    2 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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