Review of “A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War” by Thomas Fleming

Scholars don’t often look to James Buchanan, America’s 15th president, as a source of quotable material, but Thomas Fleming does just that in A Disease in the Public Mind, his latest book, which proffers what he says is a novel explanation of the outbreak of the Civil War.

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Buchanan used the title phrase to describe the attitude of John Brown and the abolitionists, who attempted to spark a slave rebellion with an ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Buchanan saw Brown’s movement as only a small part of an incurable fanatical disease that affected a large segment of Northern opinion. And to a large extent, Fleming agrees with Buchanan.

The abolitionists are not the only diseased characters in Fleming’s morality play — Southern whites were even more delusional in their apocalyptical fear of a slave uprising. With the examples of Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia and the slave revolution in Saint-Domingue, southerners were motivated far more by fear of a black hecatomb than by the potential loss of cheap labor. Moreover, the press in both areas of the country tended to exaggerate the risks faced by their citizens and to fan the flames of intersectional hatred.

An engraving with text depicting the Horrid Massacre in Virginia during Nat Turner's Rebellion circa 1831. Black Males are seen Attacking White Males, Females and Children.  (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

An engraving with text depicting the Horrid Massacre in Virginia during Nat Turner’s Rebellion circa 1831. Black Males are seen Attacking White Males, Females and Children. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Fleming argues that even before the outbreak of hostilities, northern whites hated not only the institution of slavery, but despised white southerners even more. And white southerners, most of whom did not own slaves, could still hate northerners for potentially subjecting them to the unspeakable perils of a race war (i.e., with them as the innocent victims). As the 1850s drew to a close, Fleming writes, “a perfect storm of deadly emotions was poised to engulf the United States of America.”

Evaluation: While the author’s take on the Civil War isn’t as innovative as he would have us think, he knows how to turn history into a good story, and the book is worth reading. The concept of a disease in the public mind is a useful concept in understanding not only the Civil War, but today’s United States. Basically, he is referring to passions inflamed by propaganda and misinformation. Certainly those media figures of today who strive to stir up antipathy between classes and races could be seen as continuing in this tradition. Nevertheless, the Southern animus toward blacks and against freeing the slaves was much more than just the result of sectional hatred. Fleming sacrifices a more in-depth and astute analysis in the interest of supporting his conceptual framework.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2013

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