By Thomas Fleming. DaCapo Press. 368 pages. $26.99
Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL L. RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is a time for reflection. Thomas Fleming’s “A Disease in the Public Mind” is a thoughtful examination of the root cause of that costly conflagration that interrupted the lives of the entire nation.
Fleming is an honored historian and a prolific writer. He has narrated or provided commentary for documentaries on the War of American Independence for PBS, A&E and The History Channel.
Fleming’s on-air storytelling projects his passion for history — especially the story of the beginning of America as a nation. His passion translates to the written word so well that if you have ever heard him speak, you will hear his voice as you read his books.
Fleming follows “that peculiar institution,” slavery, from its appearance in North America to its demise at the end of the Civil War (both occurring on Virginia soil). It is important to note that Fleming illustrates it was not slavery itself that caused the war. It was turning away from the sense of brotherhood generated by the framers and their masterpiece, the U.S. Constitution.
The war was caused by the unbridled passions of radicals in the North and the South. Northern abolitionists who wanted an immediate end of slavery argued openly and vehemently with Southern slave owners who wanted to expand slavery into new states being formed from the Louisiana Purchase.
Slavery and the arguments that surrounded it were still just a manifestation of other issues that had plagued the United States, beginning with its transition from a confederation of sovereign states into a federal republic.
The root of sectional and political differences can be found in the struggle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton during George Washington’s presidency. That is why Fleming, who specializes in that period of American history, is the best person to tell this story about the cause of the Civil War.
The “disease in the public mind” was a birth pang of the new republic which ultimately had to be purged when no other nostrum would assuage the pain it caused the body politic.
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 by examining how that pain developed, how many provided possible remedies and how the fear of more devastating pain prevented the use of some prescribed cures.
The book’s prologue introduces the flamboyant John Brown and his raid on a U.S. Army arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Va. After having been given an image of the carnage and the political fallout of that raid, Fleming takes the reader back to the introduction of slavery in the Americas.
As the story develops, we learn how slaves were used in all parts of what would become the United States, and in the telling we meet people who struggled with the perpetuation of enslavement. Some manumitted their bondsmen, others often said they wished they could do so, but didn’t know how.
One of the latter was Thomas Jefferson, whose passionate first draught of the Declaration of Independence showed vehement opposition to slavery. In the book, we read several times (cited by Jeffersonian politicians) Jefferson’s fear that freeing the slaves would incite a race war, and thousands of white Southerners would be slaughtered.
It was also Jefferson who disliked the new form of government crafted while he was in Paris — he had preferred keeping the confederation. He had written to political leaders in Kentucky that anytime they didn’t agree with a decision of the federal government, they could nullify that decision.
Northern abolitionists continued to publicly fear the “Slave Power” which was to them symbolized by a succession of Virginians serving as President. Many of the leaders of the abolition movement thought slavery might end violently but seemed too unconcerned about that. And then came the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
After the John Brown raid, documents were found in Brown’s personal effects that linked him to the most virulent New England abolitionists. The pains of a nation could no longer be eased with calmer cures, and in the mournful words of Abraham Lincoln, “War came.”
In the continuing conflict over slavery, the inability for either side to compromise was itself a product of the Colonial societies that formed the foundation of our nation. The Northern states had economies based on manufacture and trade; the Southern states had economies based on agriculture. An embargo that may have aided the economy of Virginia did not help the businesses in Massachusetts.
So the very essence of American government — compromise among parties with vastly different agendas — was tested over several decades and resolved (at least on this once issue) by war. It was in the act of surrender at Appomattox Court House that Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee re-established the sense of brotherhood that was and is the essence of this country.
Thomas Fleming’s story about our “disease in the public mind” is the very essence of good history. It is a story that illuminates our collective past, identifies an issue with which our country dealt and shows the way to healing once the canker that had caused the pain had been removed.
It was not a war to end slavery, or to keep slavery. To paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. (a captain in the 20th Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War), “the central truth about the war was that he had been fighting for the United States — the Union. He thought he had been fighting for Boston.”