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

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In this riveting, character-driven history, one of our most respected historians traces the diseases in the public mind—the distortions of reality—that destroyed George Washington's vision of a united America and inflicted the tragedy that still divide's the nation's soul.
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A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War

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In this riveting, character-driven history, one of our most respected historians traces the diseases in the public mind—the distortions of reality—that destroyed George Washington's vision of a united America and inflicted the tragedy that still divide's the nation's soul.
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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)
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.
From the Publisher

Praise for A Disease in the Public Mind

"Lincoln would have liked this brilliant book. It lights a path through history to his great goal: an America united by understanding and forgiveness."—Charles Bracelen Flood, author of 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History

"For a different take on the Civil War...Thomas Fleming is a delightful and provocative historian."Washington Times

"A sweeping work"Civil War Book Review

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.”

Huffington Post, 8/27/2013
“With myth destroying zeal and careful research Fleming contends that a fanatical sense of moral superiority on the part of the abolitionists, an irrational fear of a race war by Southerners abetted by sinister political posturing, and a deeply biased media were the prime motivating factors in a war that by far surpassed the casualties of all wars combined since America was founded…Fleming delves deeply into the hate and alarm engendered by both sides.”

Collected Miscellany, 2/17/2014
“A fascinating look at the causes of the Civil War…Fleming makes a convincing argument that the fringe elements (fanatics in his words) in both regions pushed the country toward a civil war…Any fan of Civil War history would enjoy this engaging and enlightening take on the causes of the Civil War.”

The Colonial Dames of America Annual Book Award Winner

Roanoke Times (Va), 3/23/14
“Fleming’s emphasis on slavery politics, rather than military operations, presents a book that will stir lively debate.”

Villadom Times (NJ), 3/19/14
“Read this book if you want to understand America as a reality and not as a collection of myths.”

Harvard Bookstore, Best Sellers List, 9/5/14

Sturbridge Times Magazine, December 2014
“An exploration of how we got from slavery’s introduction to the fratricidal conflict. It is also somewhat of a history of the nation up to that point, as the two are not separable…It is detailed in its exploration of slavery and the impact of the peculiar institution on the development of the United States and is a wonderful resource.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306821264
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 5/7/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Fleming is a distinguished historian and 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: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and many other magazines. He lives in New York City.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • 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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • 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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • 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

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