“A Disease in the Public Mind” Book Review

The popularity of the recent “Lincoln” film has focused a lot of attention on the American Civil War and the issue of slavery. Indeed, there are many books and articles written, but it’s rare to find one with a rare perspective.

“A Disease in the Public Mind,” by Thomas Fleming is just such a book. Subtitled “A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War,” it posits not only a different view of the events leading up to the great catastrophe of 1861-65, but suggests how it might have been avoided.

His argument is this: that the South fought not so much to preserve slavery but in a deep fear of a violent slave revolt.  That if abolitionist rhetoric hadn’t demonized Southerners as evil, it might have been possible to work out a compromise that would wind down slavery without the war that killed over 600,000 Americans.

Fleming makes particular reference to the fears of Southerners after the events in Haiti in the early 19th century. Haiti was a black slave colony of the French.  In a burst of humanitarianism, the French government freed the slaves there. However, a decade later, Napoleon came to power and tried to reconquer and re-enslave the population.

The French invasion failed, but the natives grew so angry they went on a bloody rampage that spared no white person: man, woman or child.

Fear of such an uprising led even the non-slave-owning whites in the South to support the Confederacy, Thomas suggests.

His research is excellent, and some of the material he presents about the role of blacks in running plantations seems to suggest what slavery was not monolithic and not as horrific as commonly depicted.

But it also seems that Fleming overlooks a bit the almost universal desire to be free.  Despite whatever relatively mild conditions might have existed in a few places, slavery remained an abomination, especially in America, the “land of the free.”

Still, this book presents an interesting perspective on the Civil War and its causes that is clear departure from most of the literature on that subject.

  “A Disease In the Public Mind,” by Thomas Fleming. Da Capo Press, $26.99 in hardcover.

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