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

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

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by Thomas Fleming

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By the time John Brown hung from the gallows for his crimes at Harper’s Ferry, Northern abolitionists had made him a “holy martyr” in their campaign against Southern slave owners. This Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution,


By the time John Brown hung from the gallows for his crimes at Harper’s Ferry, Northern abolitionists had made him a “holy martyr” in their campaign against Southern slave owners. This Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leader of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson. This malevolent envy exacerbated the South’s greatest fear: a race war. Jefferson’s cry, “We are truly to be pitied,” summed up their dread. For decades, extremists in both regions flung insults and threats, creating intractable enmities. By 1861, only a civil war that would kill a million men could save the Union.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Always a quirky, contrarian writer-historian, the prolific Fleming (Washington’s Secret War) offers what he deems a fresh take on the causes of the Civil War. But despite its subtitle, his interpretation isn’t new, and it doesn’t hold up. Fleming’s argument—that fanatics in the North and South drove the nation into avoidable conflict in 1861—was also the argument of a few mid-20th-century historians, like James G. Randall, who called the war’s belligerents a “blundering generation.” If only reason had prevailed, they wistfully regretted, slavery would have withered from within, and all would have been well. But this stance—which is Fleming’s—ignores recent scholarship, which has found that slavery likely would have endured. It also requires Fleming to ignore the war’s profound moral issue, viz. that slavery is an evil. Surely there was much fanaticism, and some slaves were raising themselves up by “mastering the technology of the South’s agriculture as well as the psychology of leadership.” Perhaps change was possible—but it would have been a creeping transformation carried out over decades on the backs of over 3 million slaves, and it would’ve deeply scarred the nation’s moral and international standing. This book can serve neither as a reliable guide to the past, nor as authoritative argument and scholarship. Agent: Deborah Grosvenor, Grosvenor Literary Agency. (May)
From the Publisher

Kirkus Reviews, March 2013
“[A] thesis-driven tour.”

Booklist, 4/1
“The prolific Fleming, for decades a fixture among American historians, pinpoints public opinion as the proximate origin of the war…Making a plausible presentation of antebellum attitudes and illusions, Fleming is sure to spark lively discussion about the Civil War.”

Publishers Weekly, 3/18
 “[Fleming is] always a quirky, contrarian writer-historian.”

What Would the Founders Think?, 4/10/13
“An interesting and readable book. In the course of Fleming’s narrative he casts light on some little discussed related events.”

Roanoke Times, 4/26/13
“A thoughtful examination of the root cause of that costly conflagration that interrupted the lives of the entire nation…Fleming’s trademark as an historian is his ability to tell a story without interjecting his bias or his own opinions, unless they are supported by facts. In this book, Fleming continues that tradition of professional observation…Fleming’s story about our ‘disease in the public mind’ is the very essence of good history.”

Library Journal, 5/1/13

New York Journal of Books, 5/7/13 “Do we really need another book about the Civil War? Mr. Fleming makes a solid, compelling case in the affirmative. His narrative weaves new threads through this seminal event in American history. Through his exposition of largely ignored events he affords us a clearer, much more succinct picture of antebellum America…Fleming’s scholarship digs further into the prevailing Southern and Northern attitudes and mores of the period to draw into sharper relief the more widespread concerns, political and public, behind the Civil War…Certainly this book will provoke controversy of some manner, but we can ill afford to take as gospel truth what has typically been passed off as general history…A Disease in the Public Mind is not simply a thoughtful read, it is another call never to forget our sordid past, to face and conquer our fears.”

Wall Street Journal, 5/25/13
“A great deal of fine scholarship…Mr. Fleming more than supports his arguments…Well-researched and well-written…[A] superbly revisionist book.”

American History, August 2013
“Thoughtful and provocative…The prewar arc of divisive national self-destruction he describes looks eerily, unhappily familiar today.”

ForeWard, Summer 2013
“Extremely captivating…Ties together disparate people and events in revealing ways…Fascinating and entertaining.”

Philadelphia Tribune, 5/23/13
“Makes a convincing case that the polarization that divided the North and South and led to the Civil War began decades earlier than most historians are willing to admit…A Disease in the Public Mind is an attempt to offer understanding and forgiveness for both sides of a war the continues to challenge the country’s founding principles of liberty and equality.”

Garden Grove Journal, 5/23/13
“[Fleming’s] research is excellent…This book presents an interesting perspective on the Civil War and its causes that is a clear departure from most of the literature on that subject.”

Bookviews, June 2013
“Though it is early in the year, I am inclined to believe that one of the best new books about U.S. history will be Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind…[It] provides an insight that few others about the Civil War have done…I heartily recommend reading this book to understand what led to the Civil War—a long process—and the failed compromises that could not deter it.”

InfoDad, 5/30/13
“Thomas Fleming has done a genuine service in writing A Disease in the Public Mind…Consistently fascinating in the new dimensions it brings to historical figures whom readers may think they know but in fact understand only imperfectly…Americans who read A Disease in the Public Mind will see their country and what was, for many, its defining conflict, in a very different way from the typical one, and will understand that the book’s title refers to an illness that neither the Civil War, nor the peace afterwards, nor the intervening century and a half, has completely cured.”

Milwaukee Shepherd-Express, 6/10/13   
“[Fleming’s] fast-moving, erudite, yet accessible account will keep most readers turning the pages…Fleming adeptly shows the inexorable buildup of mutual hatred and paranoia between North and South, primarily over slavery. He illustrates potential turning points along the sad road to national catastrophe, the ‘what ifs’ that make history so interesting.”

Reference & Research Book News, June 2013
“Written in plain language for general readers, the book describes the roles and personalities of key figures, some almost forgotten by posterity and others well known.”

WomanAroundTown.com, 6/2/13          
“One of the most engaging authors of our time…Fleming deftly explains the passions and polarization that led to the horrific conflict.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/16/13
“Counterintuitive…One of those books where you wish you had the author in the room with you to defend and discuss his positions.”

Morristown Green, 6/27/13
“If they had a Hall of Fame for historians, Thomas Fleming would be a shoo-in.”

The Weekly Standard, 7/22/13
“It comes…as a welcome relief when a historian of the stature of Thomas Fleming takes it upon himself to set the record straight about the complex, irresistible causes of the Civil War…Well-researched and well-documented…[A] splendid story.”

Washington Times, 7/9/13
“For a different take on the Civil War and for those of us with a contrarian mindset, Thomas Fleming is a delightful and provocative historian.”
PJmedia.com, 7/5/13
“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…A Disease in the Public Mind [is] perhaps his most provocative book yet.”
Politics & Patriotism (blog), 7/10/13
A Disease in the Public Mind is just what we need in this era of growing frustrations over government intrusion and fears of domestic and international terrorism…It is my sincere hope that thoughtful examinations of our past like this can help us avoid such extreme socio-political upheavals in the future.”

Bloomington Pantagraph, 7/30/13
“[Fleming] digs deep into why there was a War Between the States, starting years before anyone picked up a gun at Fort Sumter . This isn’t a book one would want to browse—it’s detailed down to the smallest item—but scholars of the Civil War will find it very interesting and, perhaps, thought-provoking.”

TrulyArts.com, 7/31/13
“A new take of the origins and background of the Civil War by one of the pre-eminent scholars and writers on the era…There are plenty of anecdotes in here to surprise you regardless of your stance or political leanings.”

The Waterline, 8/1/13
“Fleming is a regular staple among those who wish to understand America’s Revolutionary history…Those with a true passion for American history will enjoy this new book.”

Veterans Reporter, August 2013
“This book is a breath of fresh air concerning the ever-growing library of work regarding the Civil War.”

PJmedia.com, 8/16/13
“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.”

America, October 2013
“A highly recommended narrative history that is dominated by this provocative theme: the public mind of the United States, ever since the nation’s colonial beginnings, has been infected by a damaging disease. Fleming, by diagnosing the causes, symptoms and spread of that disease, serves up controversial conclusions about why Americans fought the Civil War…Fleming’s richly detailed and eminently readable account of events leading up to the Civil War is like a complex melodrama, populated by an intriguing assortment of heroes, villains, victims and plenty of surprises—some of which are very disturbing. Loaded with provocative insights, this book is a well-argued answer to that persistent question: Why did Americans fight the Civil War?”

Civil War Book Review, Fall 2013
“A sweeping work…The author traces the rise of the slavery issue from the American Revolution through the Civil War in a number of fast-paced chapters which are generally quite well-executed in a literary sense, and are based on secondary sources that will be familiar to historians of the era. He provides brief but lively summaries of the evolving views on slavery of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.”

Library Journal
With the premise that the United States was the only nation to fight a large-scale war to end slavery, prolific popular historian Fleming (The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers) attempts to explain why we went about abolishing slavery in that way. Behind his approach is the idea that it need not have taken a war. He locates radical abolition in the North, stirring up hatred for Southern white men, and Southerners' irrational fear of race wars owing to what happened in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) as "diseases in the public mind" that were morally culpable for the tragedy of the Civil War. Many readers will find Fleming's criticism of abolitionist heroes such as William Lloyd Garrison, along with his nuanced position on Southern slavery, controversial. They may also locate factual errors (e.g., references to West Virginia in the 1820s long before it existed as a separate state). The author's distinction between "pilgrims" and "puritans" when describing New England culture is muddied. Finally, he ignores one of the most obvious reasons for why it took a civil war to end slavery in the United States: geography. Slavery was a sectional issue here; it did not exist as such in other nations. VERDICT Not recommended.—Michael Farrell, Reformed Theol. Seminary, Orlando, FL
Kirkus Reviews
A prolific popular historian casts a harsh light on the abolitionists, insisting that their vitriolic rhetoric deserves more blame for the Civil War. In a preface, Fleming (The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, 2009, etc.) establishes his thesis and defines his terms--diseased public minds have made possible everything from the Salem witch trials to 9/11--then writes that he would like to have been an observer at John Brown's 1859 Harpers Ferry raid. Not many sentences unspool before readers realize that Fleming is no fan of Brown. In the author's view (expanded in later chapters), Brown was a lying, murdering madman, a failure at most everything he attempted. After the Harpers Ferry moments, Fleming returns to the arrival of the first slaves to America in the 17th century, then guides us slowly forward to the outbreak of the Civil War, then to Appomattox and its aftermath. Along the way, he says things that won't endear him to more liberal readers. He defends the slave-owning founders, emphasizing their ambivalence (without any commentary about, say, Sally Hemings), and alludes to research that shows there wasn't as much rape of slave women as the abolitionists averred--and that most slave owners weren't really into whipping and other fierce punishments. (He does condemn slavery, calling it "deplorable.") But John Quincy Adams, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and others--they were so intent on demonizing the South (where many did not own slaves, Fleming reminds us) that they contributed substantially to the regional polarization that eventually led to war. If only people had been more willing to talk, negotiate and compromise, writes the author. All fine, of course, unless you and yours have been enslaved for more than two centuries. At times, this thesis-driven tour employs a curious moral compass.

Product Details

Da Capo Press
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First Trade Paper Edition
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5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Fleming is a distinguished historian and the author of more than fifty books. A frequent guest on PBS, A&E, and the History Channel, Fleming has contributed articles to American Heritage, MHQ, and other magazines. He lives in New York.

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A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
James_Durney More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
floridacrackercow More than 1 year ago
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.
D_Patrick_ More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago