During his long, distinguished life as historian and novelist, Thomas Fleming has focused for the most part upon 18th-century America and the Revolution. That sustained focus, however, in some surprising ways, has now led to his newest book, 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.
Before defining and discussing the disease, Fleming opens with a detailed description of the dramatic events at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in late 1859. A small group of fanatics, led by the notorious abolitionist John Brown, raided the U.S. Armory and Arsenal in hopes of seizing rifles and ammunition with which Brown hoped to equip his imagined army of Southern slaves and sympathetic Northerners. The self-anointed crusader Brown badly botched the poorly planned attack, and U.S. military authorities wasted no time in capturing or killing the inept raiders.
Not long after the Harper’s Ferry incident, though, as Fleming explains, the Unived States found itself confronting the tragedies and triumphs of a grotesque four-year civil war, a bitter conflict that remains further tainted by some irksome questions. Here is one: With the first slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619 and more than 200 years of unabated slave trade after that, in which both Southerners and Northerners were shamefully implicated, why did it take America so long to end the horrors of slavery? And here is another: What caused the Civil War?
As an answer to both questions, Fleming makes an interesting argument by borrowing and building upon a phrase first uttered by President James Buchanan. Using the phrase twice—in 1859 and 1860—Buchanan spoke of “an incurable disease in the public mind.” But what does that mean? And how could that phrase be relevant to our improved understanding of the Civil War?
Fleming points out that the “public mind” refers not to public opinion, which can so often be illusory because of its fluctuations, but instead—as argued by Claggett and Shafer in The Public American Mind (2010)—“public mind” refers to fixed, fundamental beliefs in four key public policy areas: social welfare, international relations, cultural values and civil rights. Fleming then goes on to argue—not in the abstract but through real life examples taken from history—the “disease in the public mind” occurs when twisted, subjective interpretations of political, economic or social realities seize control of large numbers of minds in the population. An early, extreme example of this “disease” would be the witch trials hysteria of 1692 in Massachusetts; other examples include attitudes that led to prohibition and McCarthyism.
Continuing, and more to the point of his thesis, Fleming argues that “the seeds of a primary disease of the public mind, [including New England’s perceived sense of political, economic and social isolation] would soon fuse with antislavery [sentiments] to create hatred of the South and Southerners with tragic consequences for America’s future.” Furthermore, starting with the American Revolution and continuing with the War of 1812 and beyond, a secondary disease involved an early, foolish and persistent belief in the United States that wars can be won easily.
Now, by pointing back to the years preceding and following the John Brown fiasco, Fleming would have us understand that many Americans other than Brown had also vigorously campaigned against the cruelties of slavery, but many others—particularly Southern slave-owners—objected to any move toward emancipation and abolition. Even some prominent founding fathers (hypocritical slave owners among them) had begun at least to question slavery’s morality, but the paradox and cruelty of slavery continued. Then, however, with western expansion after the American Revolution, and especially with the Louisiana Purchase, slavery became an even more virulent and pernicious wedge issue.
So, by the early 19th century, the “disease”—because of polarized, intractable opinions regarding the settlement of the slavery issue, especially as that issue had been exacerbated by regional resentments and jealousies—had firmly entrenched itself in the “public mind” of American culture, making the American Civil War inevitable.
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?