[This book review was published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 139-150.]


Book Review


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

Thomas Fleming

Da Capo Press, 2013


          This is an intelligent and easily readable narrative of the passions that led to the American Civil War.  As with Fleming’s earlier book The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, he combines an excellent chronicle with plenty of analysis.  As our review of the earlier book showed,[1] we found his criticisms of the fallacies that preceded and followed the United States’ entry into the First World War full of insightful realism.  In the present book, however, his theme of “illusion” and “disease of the mind” seems to us a mischaracterization of passions that were founded in differing assessments of actual realities. There was little illusion to it, and the “disease” amounted to profoundly felt conviction.  Accordingly, we recommend the book for its considerable and well-told informational content, and for the critique Fleming often makes quite separately from his semantic of “disease” and “illusion.”

          Much of this review will highlight several points in his historical narrative, discussing their implications.  It will help, though, if we first tell why we consider his central theme misplaced and quite unnecessary.  Even as we explain why that theme should be disregarded, we will have occasion to tell a good deal about the passions he discusses.  We will see that the book does not depend upon Fleming’s rhetorical overstatement, and stands on solid footing without it.

          Fleming is the prolific author of more than twenty books – histories, biographies and novels.  The two books we have mentioned show how greatly he appreciates the role ideas play in propelling historical events.  This in itself is a valuable insight, one that is too often subordinated as “realists” of one kind or another look to the many other causative factors that bear on human action.  With regard to World War I, we grasp the essence of it if we think in terms of a mass psychosis, almost none of which made rational sense.  Fleming addressed the American part of that in his The Illusion of Victory.   

          The situation was different, however, with the Civil War.  There was, indeed, a swirl of ideas, most of them highly inflamed.  To Fleming, there was “disease of mind” and “illusion” on the side of both the North and the South.  With full recognition that no attitude was unanimously felt and that there was in fact much division, along with changes of opinion over time, he points to certain salient features.   These include the fact that many New Englanders had long cultivated a feeling of superiority over the other sections of the country and that they saw themselves as “the predestined leaders of an independent America,” resenting what seemed to them a usurpation of that role by Virginians and others; that the other-worldly religious impulse of the “Second Great Awakening”[2] reinforced a belief “in the moral depravity of anyone who disagreed with them”; that slavery was felt, among many, to be an abomination; that there was a belief that the South was “out to injure New England” (through such a thing as President Jefferson’s embargo, which he imposed in an effort to seal off the United States from becoming embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars); that the “Slave Power” thrived on a “lust for power”; and that the South’s culture, far from genteel, was discolored by “four unforgivable sins: violence, drunkenness, laziness, and sexual depravity” – all leading to a “hatred of the South and of Southerners.”  

Fleming shows how this intensity of feeling was matched by Southerners’ ever-growing fear (often nearing panic) of black insurrection and race-war; a fear of miscegenation, which “disturbed southerners almost as much as a slave insurrection”; their insistence that the union had been formed on the basis of an acceptance of the South with its slavery, and that southerners therefore were entitled to a full recognition of their equal right with others in such a thing as the expansion to the west; and their defensiveness toward slavery, a posture that as the attack on slavery grew ever-more heated went from apologizing for slavery to stoutly defending it.

Is it correct to say that these many views were “illusions”?  We think that for the most part this is misplaced rhetoric.  It was no illusion for the Abolitionists to know that slavery existed in the United States and most particularly in the South.  We will see later that they had little knowledge of what southern slavery actually amounted to and an equally flawed perception of the sort of people the white planters were.  Although these misapprehensions might well be called “illusions,” that does not equate to the Abolitionists’ main insight being an illusion.

Certainly it was not an illusion for southerners to fear slave insurrection, especially as the slave population grew in density.  As Fleming tells us, southerners were keenly aware of the 1804 race war on the island of St. Domingue, where “enraged Haitians killed almost every white man, woman, and child on the island.”  He says that “in 1822, inspired by the example of Haiti, Denmark Vesey proposed to kill all the whites in Charleston, South Carolina” – a plot which when revealed led to the hanging of “Vesey and many of his followers.”  Then in 1831 there was the Nat Turner uprising: “In Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831, a black preacher named Nat Turner launched a race war that killed more than sixty white men, women, and children.”  On the eve of the Civil War, John Brown, after committing his atrocities in Kansas, led his raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Fleming writes that “Brown’s maps and correspondence proved [that] he had planned a huge slave insurrection.”  Since “only a small minority of southerners owned slaves,” one might wonder why non-slave-owning whites fought so desperately for the South in the Civil War.  Fleming’s explanation bears on the fear we have been discussing: “Very few understood why the southern poor men were fighting so ferociously: their fear that black emancipation would be a prelude to race war.” 

Although it was not a matter of illusion, the question of whether it all amounted to “diseases of the mind” is more difficult to answer.  That turns on whether burning passion, anger and even hatred are mental illness when they are in response to realities that might arguably be considered intolerable.  Was slavery intolerable?  If it was, as men such as Emerson and Thoreau thought it to be, what is the appropriate emotional response to it?  If, too, a realistic prospect of racial slaughter existed, what is the boundary that we, who are not under the threat, can justifiably place on the fear?  It may well be that the hatred of slavery and the fear of race war were both normal emotional responses to non-illusory realities.

It is unfortunate to need to knock down Fleming’s rhetorical overkill as a preliminary to reviewing his book, because he would have escaped the entire problem if he had just talked in terms of “inflamed passions.”  Those certainly did exist, and led to a fratricidal war.  Fleming sees those passions as inappropriate because instead of embracing either pole he would have much preferred a conciliatory middle position.  During the years before the Civil War, there were a great many proposals for what their advocates considered compromise (although the proposals were often unworkable or, in light of the passions of others, unacceptable to one side or the other).  One of these was the attempt to colonize blacks in Africa through the efforts of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816.  This was supported by a number of prominent men, as we see from former president James Madison’s having been president of the Society in the 1830s.  The colonization effort failed, however, for a number of reasons.  Fleming tells us many free blacks didn’t want to go to Africa, and that by 1858 almost all blacks, including even those in slavery, opposed it.  Prominent Britons, including the leading British anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce, denounced it.  And as the black population ballooned, colonization became impracticable.  For his part, Fleming considers a program of compensated emancipation, as favored by Lincoln, to have been the best approach when augmented by “ways to reduce [the fear of race war] that might have been acceptable to both sections.”  (What he has in mind is that troops could have been stationed “in parts of southern states where the density of the black population made a revolt a possibility.”)  There were problems with this, however.  Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin had “multiplied the productivity – and profits – of raising cotton fifty times.”  This had revivified the economic foundation for slavery, and thus rekindled enthusiasm for it.  Just as with colonization, the time for buying and freeing all the slaves had passed. 

By no means were all northerners passionate on the slavery question.  What drove the country to eventual frenzy and war was the tidal wave of moral fervor by an articulate and well-positioned minority. The great volume of agitation came from the Abolitionists, who were imbued with a holy sense of mission.  White southerners were primarily on the defensive.  They had pride in their culture and region, as well as stout loyalty to their respective states, and saw benefit in their cotton-centered (and hence slave-centered) economy, but it is also true that they were caught in a massive demographic trap built up over the centuries by the slave trade and by the burgeoning of the black population.   

What compromise would have required would have been for moral fervor to give way to a perception that the American Republic was itself a matter of the highest value, the continuity of which was of even greater importance than the end of slavery (or, on the South’s part, than its insistence that the original compact be adhered to).  A great many prominent Americans gave the Republic this value.  In his Farewell Address in 1837, President Andrew Jackson stated his reverence for what George Washington had called “the American experiment,” and warned of the destruction that would come from divisive passions.[3]  Fleming’s critique of the agitation, anger and hatred is premised upon this value-preference.  We could call it a “moderate” preference, but that would miss the point that it, too, was a deeply held sensibility.  From the point of view of men like Andrew Jackson then and Fleming now, the inflamed passions driving the country toward civil war were indeed perverse.  It is this perspective that leads Fleming to speak of illusion and disease of mind.   He is wrong only in adopting a semantic that goes overboard in characterizing the value-preferences he finds so destructive.

Fleming’s account is a flowing narrative and certainly doesn’t seem fragmented.  In this review, however, we will find it useful to separate a number of points for discussion:

·                  One thing that has been evident from the time of the Abolitionists through to the present day is that there has been virtually no historical perspective on the subject of slavery.  What has hardly been realized is that it was something that had existed from time immemorial, touching in one form or another almost all peoples, and that had been accepted as a normal feature of life.  The speed of transition is apparent when we consider what Fleming tells us: “By 1750, there were a half million slaves in the American colonies.  Most of these bondsmen were in the South, but some northern colonies had substantial numbers.  At least 14 percent of New York’s population was slaves; for New Jersey the figure was 12 percent, and for Massachusetts 8 percent.  Like the rest of the New World’s settlers, few Americans criticized the institution.  ‘The great majority,’ John Jay of New York wrote in 1788, accepted slavery as a matter of course.  ‘Very few… even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.’” 

To those who have lacked perspective, however, slavery has been perceived since the late eighteenth century as though it were something that popped up rather unexpectedly out of a perverse, unworthy culture.  Slavery came to be seen almost overnight as an intolerable abuse, and those who accepted it were considered moral lepers.  (We rightly consider it, of course, an enormous evil, and are justified in believing the world is a better place because of Britain’s long drive to eradicate the slave trade and to cause one country after another to abolish slavery itself.)  The lack of historical perspective that accompanied this sudden revelation has led to at least two noteworthy effects (among many others):

It fed an irascible impatience marked by a lack of empathy toward those who had not yet seen the light or who assigned a higher value to other institutions or principles.  We have already noted this in our discussion of the differing hierarchies of value held by the contending factions before the Civil War. The impatience caused a devaluation of everything except the one desired objective.  An impatience of that sort continues to this day, finding it worthwhile simply to absorb and move rapidly past any of the society’s quite massive efforts to address the wrongs that are seen to exist. 

Another effect has been that in the alienated literature of our time much of American history is pictured as depraved.  If a longer historical view were taken, American society might well be celebrated (as it once was, and to some extent still is, outside the alienated literature) as one propelled largely by the ideals of the Enlightenment.  But this reviewer has found that it is rather futile to attempt to convince a class of college merit scholars of that today.  They are angry, and intolerant toward any effort to place historical events in context. 

·                 Since 1965, the United States has experienced a massive influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, who are not of European origin.  This has caused, and continues to cause, a radical transformation of the composition of the American people.  Rather than being a response to a democratic consensus favoring the change, this “demographic revolution” has been fostered by two forces that combine to form the “opinion elite” that actually governs the United States on virtually every issue of importance to it.  The first of these forces is the academic, professional, literary consensus whose “opinions count” when compared to the thoughts of what has been called “the silent majority.”  The other force is found in business and agriculture, where the desire for cheap labor promotes the immigration.

Fleming does not himself comment on this, but we see a similar lack of concern over the long-term effects of demographic change in the pre-Civil War history of the United States.  Speaking of 1739 (which was well before the American Revolution), he tells us that “by this time the colony [South Carolina] had been importing slaves so rapidly that in some districts blacks outnumbered whites by large majorities.  In the West Indies, the ratio was often 10 to 1.”  If slavery eventually became the “bone in the throat” of American society, it is easy to identify the cause in the insouciance shown by the settlers from Europe, who took a short-term view based on what was profitable and convenient rather than asking themselves “what sort of future are we building?”

We find another example that “demography is destiny” in what Fleming tells us about Mexico’s loss of Texas, first to become an independent republic and then to be annexed to the United States.  “The mantra of Manifest Destiny lured thousands of Americans, often with the encouragement of the erratic Mexican government.  By 1835 these pioneers numbered fifty thousand. .. When a one-legged dictator named General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana seized power… the Texans revolted… Within a year, an army led by an Andrew Jackson disciple, General Sam Houston, smashed the dictator’s battalions in the 1836 battle of San Jacinto… Texas declared her independence.”

Americans are now told, of course, that a multicultural future is the ideal to which they should aspire.  It is likely that future generations, consisting precisely of the multicultural population. will agree with that, regardless of whether they experience a Balkanization with dire effects.  We can well imagine that the once-proud European population would be displeased by the passing of the society for which they saw themselves as patriots.  But those folks will be long dead.

·                  As part of the information given in Fleming’s narrative, he tells us something many Americans  hardly realize: the extent of black participation in the American Revolution’s war for independence.  He says that “in Massachusetts, General George Washington was startled by how many blacks were in the impromptu army that besieged the British regiments in Boston.  Most of the blacks were free men….”  At first, Washington was against their participation, but “later in 1775 the general began to change his mind.  None of the white New Englanders objected to blacks in their ranks.”  Then “by 1781, one in every seven soldiers in the American army was black.”  In 1779, Congress “voted to urge South Carolina and Georgia to raise ‘three thousand able-bodied Negroes,’” who would be freed if they served the duration of the war.  This was rejected by those colonies, with one southern official writing that “it was received with great resentment as a very impolitic and dangerous step.”

·                 In a fascinating chapter that starts with a review of the life of Josiah Henson, upon whom Harriet Beecher Stowe roughly fashioned her character “Uncle Tom,” we see that Henson was actually a very accomplished man.  This leads Fleming into relating a number of “startling facts [that] have come to light in the last three or four decades, thanks to in-depth research by a new generation of historians.”  These are facts that show a slave population that was engaged in many skilled and high-level activities.  A large percentage of plantations were run by black overseers.  “Twenty-seven percent of the adult male slaves in the city of Charleston were skilled artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers.  They operated as virtually free men,” so that “his slave status was in many ways more an artificial legality than a daily reality.”  Fleming reports that “the idea that all slaves were menial workers is false.”  The conclusion from all this is that “slavery was evolving.”  Fleming says even the image of southern white men as “pleasure-wallowing wastrels” was false, since “most southern planters were hardworking businessmen who studied the latest techniques in scientific farming and did their best to keep their slaves contented….”  Although Fleming brings these things to light, it would be a mistake to think of it as some sort of apologia for slavery.  He intends no such thing.  His honesty in reporting facts as he sees them need not run him afoul of the political-correctness police. 

·                 Thomas Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit from those who charge him and other American Founding Fathers with hypocrisy on the subject of slavery.  This makes it especially worth noting what Fleming has to tell about Jefferson.  We are told that “at the age of twenty-one, Jefferson had inherited 5,000 fertile acres and 52 slaves.”  While he was writing the Declaration of Independence, he wished he were able to be present in Virginia to “argue for the gradual abolition of slavery.  He had even drafted his own version of a [Virginia] constitution, with an explicit provision for such a measure.”  In his draft of the Declaration, he fulminated against King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people…, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere….”   In the Continental Congress, however, “the delegates felt free to eliminate major passages.  One of the first to go was the denunciation of slavery.”  Fleming says that since “Jefferson doubted that the freed blacks could live peacefully in the same country with their former masters,” he supported the colonization movement to “resettle freed blacks in a foreign country.”  Fleming sees wisdom in the observation by historian Christopher L. Brown that “the American Revolution presents the first example of slaveholders themselves not just questioning slavery’s morality but considering doing something to end the system.  It is a defining moment in the world history of slavery.”

·                 The centuries-long influx of peoples from Europe and their ultimate spread across the continent is another subject that suffers from a lack of historical perspective today, in this case by people who find moral rectitude in asserting how wrong it was for the Native Americans to have been dispossessed.   This reviewer has written a long analysis of the history of the displacement of the Indians,[4]  and we won’t repeat that here.   It is worth noting, though, that one of the points made in that study is confirmed by what Fleming reports.  This is that the settlers landing at Plymouth and ultimately traveling west by covered wagon along such things as the Oregon Trail hardly saw themselves as “conquerors.”  To them, they were moving into a largely unpeopled and virtually endless land.  True, there were “savages” to be contended with, but these were more a nuisance and a danger, not a rightful prior claimant whose presence the settlers were morally obliged to respect.  When Thomas Jefferson negotiated acquiring the gigantic territory included in the Louisiana Purchase, a Federalist in Boston declared it “a great waste, unpeopled with any beings besides wolves and wandering Indians.”  Notice what Fleming himself says about “California,” acquired by the United States in the war with Mexico: “California was another vast territory, with only six thousand Mexicans and a few Indian tribes inhabiting a natural wonderland of unspoiled forests and primeval valleys.  The territory included the future states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, all virtually unpeopled.”

·                 An interesting thing about studying almost any historical period is that one can see forerunners of later events, with history repeating itself.  Those who have studied World War I know how virulent the atrocity propaganda was, painting the Germans in the most bestial light.  The descriptions were highly influential in causing the United States’ entry into the war, backed by a widespread fervor to “stop the Huns.”  Fleming tells us of a similar thing at the time of the American Civil War: One of the New York Herald’s correspondents “described how rebel artillery had taken special pleasure in blasting groups of Union wounded, and ‘rebel fiends in human shape’ bayoneted helpless dying men.  Other rampaging rebels had amputated heads from human corpses and kicked them around the battlefield like footballs.”   Fleming says the correspondent “was faking it, of course, hoping hatred would restore the North’s shattered morale.”

·                 Fleming’s discussion of “unconditional surrender” in the context of the Civil War brings to mind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s controversial demand for unconditional surrender  in World War II.  We find that such a demand has not been usual in the annals of warfare.  Here is Fleming’s passage: “Unconditional surrender was the merciless terms that the abolitionists in Congress were recommending.  Although it was sometimes invoked when demanding the surrender of a fort or a city – Grant had used it twice in his victories over Confederate armies in the West – it had not been invoked in negotiating peace between warring nations since Rome had demanded it of Carthage in 126 B.C.  ‘General Grant will not demand unconditional surrender,’ Lee assured Alexander [one of his younger officers].  ‘He will grant us as honorable terms as we have a right to expect.’”


A Disease in the Public Mind includes a great deal more that is informative and thought-provoking.  Fleming has added another distinguished book.  His books are easy to read and intriguing to history buffs, while bringing to the literature an open mind and refreshing honesty.


Dwight D. Murphey

[1]   See our review in the Winter 2003 issue of this Journal, pp. 497-501.  The review may be found on the Web at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Book Review 83 (i.e., BR83).

[2]  The “Second Great Awakening” was a resurgence of Protestant evangelism that flourished, especially among American Baptists and Methodists, between 1790 and the late 1840s.  The “First Great Awakening” had occurred about a century earlier.

[3]   Jackson didn’t foresee that a civil war might lead to a forcible reuniting of the country.  His message shows that he anticipated instead that continued agitation would cause the country to splinter into a variety of warring divisions.  In their desire to eradicate slavery, Abolitionists were willing to risk this possibility, which was much more to be expected than emancipation coming from a Northern conquest of the South.

[4]   See Dwight D. Murphey, The Dispossession of the American Indian – and Other Key Issues in American History (Washington, D.C.: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1995).  This study may also be found on the Web at www.dwight-murphey-collectedwritings.info as Book 7 (i.e., B7) and as Article 38 (i.e., A38).