Thomas Fleming’s book A Disease of the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War is specifically about why America fought the Civil War. But it also provides invaluable insights into public policy debates in general. When opposing sides of a policy argument end up hating their adversaries more than they love those who would benefit from their cherished policy, beware. Battle, of some sort, looms.
In this page-turning book, Fleming attempts to answer a very specific question: Why did America, of all the civilized countries with histories of slavery, engage in a civil war to end the horrible practice of slavery? Great Britain, Brazil, Cuba, all ended slavery without resorting to the ghastly bloodshed that occurred in the United States of America, where brother sometimes fought brother over the right to own slaves or not.
The simple answer to Fleming’s question can be found in two passionate emotions: hatred and fear. But when you finish the book, you’ll be surprised at who seemed filled with the most hatred. Hint: it wasn’t the South.
Fleming poses his question after presenting some intriguing facts in the book’s preface: Only 6 percent of Southerners owned slaves. And of that 6 percent, a much, much smaller percentage owned 50 or more slaves, qualifying them for the title of “planter.” Yet Southerners who didn’t own slaves fought shoulder-to-shoulder with those who did. Did they love slavery that much? Did they disdain the African-American so fiercely that they were willing to die for such hateful beliefs?
Many admirable northerners didn’t think much of African-Americans at that time, either. They might have abhorred slavery, but that doesn’t mean they loved the slave. Southerners’ attitudes, therefore, weren’t out of sync with those of the times throughout the country.
The South, however, was motivated by a fundamental survivalist emotion: fear. They feared a race rebellion that would leave their wives, sons and daughters dead and/or mutilated, killed perhaps with ghastly spikes or machetes after watching their menfolk dispatched in the same way.
These weren’t unreasonable fears, Fleming points out. News of the 1804 race rebellion in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) carried gruesome accounts of whites being “hacked to death,” killed by amputation and beheadings, even after they paid ransoms to leave unharmed.
Not too long after this was the 1831 Nat Turner uprising in Virginia where slaves slaughtered “whole families, father, mother, daughters, sons, sucking babes and school children…”
But maybe most influential was the story of the ferocious abolitionist John Brown. Brown was bankrolled by wealthy northern abolitionists. He used some of the money to create a cache of spikes (found among Brown’s weaponry at the failed 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid) specifically to give to slaves to kill southern whites. The message many southerners absorbed from this was unambiguous: It wasn’t merely that northerners didn’t understand them. Northerners, in fact, wished them dead at the hands of slaves. There wasn’t much negotiating room there.
Brown himself was a maniacal terrorist who killed indiscriminately; among his victims was a Kansas family, people who never owned nor intended to own slaves. The surviving mother of that slaughtered clan wrote Brown a devastating note before his death in which she wished her surviving son could be at Brown’s hanging. The first man to die in the Harper’s Ferry raid, by the way, had been a freed black man killed by Brown’s marauders.
When northerners—including the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson—made John Brown into a hero and martyr, Southerners felt their concerns were more than justified. Northerners cared nothing about their fears of slave insurrection. If anything, they supported such a possibility. In “dozens of New England cities,” Fleming wrote, church bells rang to mark the passing of Brown.
Robert E. Lee famously said: “I shall never bear arms against the Union. But it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state.”
He probably spoke for most Southerners. The majority might not have cared all that deeply about slavery, but they weren’t about to let Northerners who hated them end the practice without ensuring the safety of Southern whites.
This is the “disease of the public mind,” of which Fleming’s title speaks. It was the unthinking fear among southerners, and the unthinking conspiracy theories of northerners—so many Founding Fathers and early presidents and leaders had come from the south that Northerners dubbed this policy hegemony as “the Slave Power,” as if it were a vast cabal tied into all aspects of power and privilege, something that could only be toppled with bloodshed.
Slavery, of course, was a ghastly practice that never should have begun and should have ended quickly. Fleming doesn’t spend a lot of time on moral opprobrium, however. He’s more interested in telling the story of why Southerners felt so afraid for their families that leaving a Union indifferent to their fears seemed their only recourse, and then armed defense of their home states the only final option.
Reading Fleming’s page-turning book took me back to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. In that work of fiction, at one point a pacifist preacher confronts his abolitionist father about his pre-Civil War activities, some of which involved helping John Brown:
“I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…I defer to no one in this. Not to you, not to Paul the Apostle, not to John the Divine. Reverend.”
Even the New York Times had chastised Northern abolitionist attitudes toward the South in the wake of John Brown Harper’s Ferry raid, saying in an editorial that many abolitionists were people:
“…who do not love the slave as much as they hate the white.”
This hatred—of southerners—eventually inspired one passionate abolitionist to leave the cause. Fleming tells the tale of Theodore White Weld who, after working hard at the anti-slavery cause, eventually came to the conclusion that calling slave owners vicious names and being indifferent to southerners’ fears of slave insurrections did not help anything and was, in fact, the opposite of Christian charity.
Fleming doesn’t offer any suggestions as to how the Civil War could have been avoided, but an imaginative mind can envision scenarios. Perhaps a compensation plan, akin to the one Great Britain adopted for its West Indies slave-owners, coupled with assurances of federal aid in the event of the feared race war, would have gone a long way. The Virginia legislature had, after all, seriously debated ways to abolish slavery in the state, and didn’t vote to secede from the union immediately. Surely there was room for compromise among thoughtful southerners. Was there in the north?
There’s no question slavery was evil. But not all southerners were. When they fought, they were more likely fighting to defend home and hearth against the imagined race war. The north certainly had never taken their fears seriously and had, in fact, affirmed them at times by underwriting terrorists like Brown.
The lessons to take away from Fleming’s excellent work are plentiful. But one that has played in my mind for some time before even opening his tome was this: to move any policy forward effectively, adversaries shouldn’t resort to demonizing their opponents.
In modern times, this demonization process is a great fundraising tool. Like John Brown’s wealthy northern backers, rich activists open their wallets when approached with outrageous stories and hateful characterizations of policy opponents. Social media, too, seems to buzz with such tales, growing mailing lists and potential donors.
But the results of these tactics are troubling. Hatred becomes more important than problem-solving. Tenderness and empathy for differing viewpoints, even when disagreeing with them, is lost.
In such an environment, hating the NRA becomes more important than actually pushing gun control forward, calling gay marriage opponents bigots can become more rewarding than actually treating opponents’ concerns about marriage seriously in order to effectively dispel them; loathing the NEA can become more satisfying than the hard work of choice-oriented education reform.
Fleming’s compelling tale is a new look at an old issue, but it has much relevance for today.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.