Book Review: A Disease in the Public Mind

(March 28, 2020)
Thomas Fleming (1927-2017)
Da Capo Press (2013)
Hardcover, $27 (370pp) 

This book investigates the origins of the Civil War by tracing its roots to the republic’s earliest days when two factors quickly became evident: secession and slavery. George Washington addressed both frankly. During his presidential farewell address he urged future leaders to avoid all political posturing that would endanger the Union and upon his death he freed his slaves. His actions were not enough. 

Ironically, New England threatened secession as early as did Westerners and Southerners. Three months before the convention that wrote our present constitution convened, the Boston Independent Chronicle urged that its region create “a new nation . . . of New England.” As America’s maritime leader, the Bay State was responding to an offer from Spain—then controlling Louisiana—to open key ports to New England shipping if they would oppose Westerners and Southerners who objected to Spain’s restrictions on Mississippi Valley trade.After President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803, partly to gain control of the Mississippi, New Englanders again threatened secession because they feared losing national influence as new Western states joined the Union. New England gradually ignored an 1807 Federal trade embargo designed to avoid a second war with Great Britain thereby requiring President James Madison to declare war in 1812 as a reluctantly-adopted way of fulfilling America’s aims. The region again threatened secession.


When President John Adams pushed through the 1798 alien and sedition acts that made it situationally a crime to speak ill of the Federal government, many Americans felt that governmental power was getting too centralized. Among them was Thomas Jefferson who promoted States Rights. Thereafter, the matter of secession increasingly split between the followers of Adams, on one hand, and Jefferson on the other.

Although when writing the constitution some Northerners preferred a Union without slave states, they compromised by accepting some in order to create a viable country. Their preference never vanished. To the contrary, it grew stronger. Jefferson initially favored abolition and pushed through a Continental Congress bill that outlawed slavery in the states north of the Ohio River. He also tried to get his home state of Virginia to abolish it. Ultimately, however, he concluded that the states of the Deep South were too worried about a massacre of whites—as had happened in Haiti during Jefferson’s presidency—if blacks were given freedom.

Thus, emerged two Diseases in the Public Mind, which was a phrase originated by President Buchanan in response to John Brown’s raid. First, was abolitionism that increasingly demonized white Southerners and steadily became more intolerant of other viewpoints. Abolitionists went beyond arguing that slavery was morally wrong, they argued that white Southerners were uniquely depraved, as if New Englanders had never profited from slave trade and the molasses/rum trade tied to it. Second, was the Southerners’ fear of slave uprisings. Although they were rare, Southerners increasingly believed such uprising were the abolitionists’ true objective as John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry attempt seemed to confirm. Although Brown was a murderer and ne’er-do-well, evidence found in his possession suggested that he was backed by at least six abolitionists including the wealthy William Garrett. Although Frederick Douglass declined to join the adventure, Douglass kept it secret.

Initially false perceptions between Northerners and Southerners grew to become realities. Generally, abolitionists did not seek Southern slave rebellions. They just wanted slavery to end—after they had profitably divested themselves of their own slaves. Conversely, Southerners did not seek to dominate America. In fact, Madison urged from the start that the infant industries of the North be insulated from foreign competition with protective tariffs, even at the expense of the South’s wealthier export economy. Exaggerated fear of slave uprisings coupled with resentment over the Northern hatred directed at them motivated Southerners. Conversely, exaggerated fears about Southern objectives—such as those implied in Lincoln’s “all-slave-or-all-free” House Divided speech—motivated Northerners.

Fleming suggests that Congressman and ex-President John Quincy Adams might have prevented the war. During the 1830s and 1840s he was a powerful abolition advocate. He might have been an effective mediator. Instead he spread paranoia about Southerners, labeling their region “The Slave Power.” He might, for example, have originated a bill—like one submitted shortly after his death by Congressman Abraham Lincoln—that offered slaveowners compensation for abolition. According to Fleming, “Adams had the potential to alter the debate and remind Americans of the 1830s and 1840s of the heritage they were endangering. . . Among the might-have-beens on the twisted road to Civil War . . . the hidden failure of [Adams] was one in which a change in [his] mind might have made a huge difference.” By 1860 it was too late


Buy and sample my books at my Amazon Author Page

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

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