May 30, 2013


A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. By Thomas Fleming. Da Capo. $26.99.

     If there is one bit of history that Americans, who are notoriously ahistorical people, believe they truly know and understand, it is the Civil War. It was freedom vs. slavery, union vs. division, federal rights vs. states’ rights. Correct? Yet although it was all of those things, it was also a great deal more – and a great deal more complicated than most people know or are ever taught in school.

     Thomas Fleming has done a genuine service in writing A Disease in the Public Mind, even though the book is unlikely to be widely enough read or widely enough adopted by academics to have a significant impact on widespread misperceptions about the Civil War or, as it is still called in much of the South, the War Between the States. Entrenched beliefs about the conflict, the bloodiest in American history because all its casualties were, at least retrospectively, American (rather than deemed Union and Confederate and kept separate), are too deeply held to be amenable to change, even by a book as thoroughly researched and well-written as this one. And the unlikelihood of changing attitudes actually makes sense in its own peculiar way, since by the time of the Civil War, beliefs of Northerners about Southerners, and vice versa, were already so deeply held that conflict was well-nigh inevitable.

     Take, for example, the seemingly innocent point of pride of the state of Virginia, which calls itself the “mother of presidents.” Eight U.S. chief executives were born in the state, but with the exception of Woodrow Wilson, all were president before the Civil War: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor. Far from being the rather innocuous distinction that it is today, this preponderance of Virginian presidents in the first half of the 19th century was a significant contributor to the bad blood between North and South, with New Englanders believing that their Puritan approach to government had been hijacked by Southerners hostile to their entire way of life.

     Conflicts like this one, perceptions like this one, became so deeply embedded in government and civic dialogue in the 19th century that they had become insuperable barriers to mutual understanding by the time of the Civil War itself. This is the sort of exploration and analysis that Fleming does so very well in A Disease in the Public Mind. He also does a superb job of putting figures, well-known and less-known, in proper context, turning them into fuller human beings than the cardboard characters that they, even when their names are known to all, generally become in history books. Thus, Fleming points out that the slave Dred Scott, whose case led to the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court (the ruling said Scott, as a slave, was not a citizen and could not bring a case in federal court), was freed by his owners – together with his entire family – three months after the decision. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley, often identified as a major source calling for war in his virulently anti-slavery New York Tribune, was in fact horrified at the prospect of war but was outmaneuvered by his firebrand managing editor, Charles Dana. Southern fears of a murderous slave revolt, dismissed as nonsense by Northerners, were not only real but also justified in light of events in Santo Domingo (Haiti) and the 1831 Nat Turner uprising that was overtly based on events there. Former President John Tyler tried hard to help avoid civil war by attempting to arrange a peace conference in 1861 – but when President Lincoln said no, Tyler called for Virginia’s secession.

     A Disease in the Public Mind is filled with information like this, in small matters and large, and is consistently fascinating in the new dimensions it brings to historical figures whom readers may think they know but in fact understand only imperfectly. The discussion of the Louisiana Purchase, with its insights into the motivations of both Napoleon and President Jefferson, is all by itself an extraordinary exploration by Fleming, especially in connection with his discussion of Jefferson’s supposed favoritism toward France in the early-19th-century conflicts between France and England – events that led to an embargo that in turn caused tremendous hardship in New England and further convinced residents of the area that Southerners did not have the North’s best interests in mind. And this was 50-plus years before Fort Sumter.

     One of the most remarkable effects of Fleming’s book, although it is scarcely the book’s primary intent, is to show that the North-South conflicts, great and small, that persist to this day, are not caused by a small band of recidivists wishing vainly for a return to a glorious Southern past that was in fact built on a culture of abuse and brutality. Fleming, indeed, exposes the venality and serious shortcomings of many abolitionists – problems of which Lincoln himself was well aware. The Civil War was a climactic event in a multigenerational saga of conflict, misunderstanding and outright hatred between different parts of the country, areas settled by very different people under very different circumstances. The war actually exacerbated many underlying issues rather than settling them; and while it did lead to the end of slavery through the 13th Amendment, it did not do so through the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to slaves within the Confederacy – where Lincoln at the time had no power and his proclamation no legal authority. Americans who read A Disease in the Public Mind will see their country and what was, for many, its defining conflict, in a very different way from the typical one, and will understand that the book’s title refers to an illness that neither the Civil War, nor the peace afterwards, nor the intervening century and a half, has completely cured.

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