Thomas Fleming’s “Disease in the Public Mind”

I opened myself to the challenge of reading 12 books in 2023 chosen by my Facebook friends. One friend suggested Thomas Fleming’s “A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War”. This is the third of twelve—I’m shooting for one a month.

The title comes from James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States (1857-1861). As Civil War “loomed on the horizon,” he called it—on several occasions—the result of “an incurable disease in the public mind.” The public, influenced by media, extreme politicians, and leading influencers, had been infected to such an extent that polarized and antagonist views had been absorbed by the general public. This disease was the result of hostile, polarizing, and bigoted public discourse.

Fleming argues that radical abolitionists on the one hand and radical enslavers on the other used the long history of antagonism and suspicion between New England the deep South to acerbate and poison political discourse within the nation. The radical abolitionists used those prejudices to demonize enslavers in the worst possible light, and the most extreme abolitionists employed violence (for example, John Brown). Radical enslavers defended enslavement of Africans on the ground of their inferiority, white supremacy (this country was made for white people), and their own sense of benevolence (something like, we are helping black people by civilizing and christianizing them).

These two poles, riding on the waves of North-South economic, social, and political sectionalism, drove the nation into a Civil War that cost it close to one million deaths (that is, one out of every 31 people died in the 1860s from this War or its effects).

This disease in the public mind, which hindered or prevented civil discourse and potential political solutions that might have led to freedom for enslaved people, carries significant weight. A disease infected the public mind because of polarizing rants and discourse designed to engender hate and ultimately violence.

Southerners feared a race war, and thus it was best to keep Africans enslaved. The South had witnessed the liberation of slaves in the West Indies by Britain and heard the horror stories of massacres in the islands. This fear drove southern polarization.

Northerners feared the extension of slavery into the territories, and literature (like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) stoked hatred for slavery by casting it in the worst possible light. Northern hatred of southern slavery led to violence as seemingly the only solution to the problem.

Fleming suggests that this polarization and its fears left no space for a gradual elimination of slavery in the South as had happened in New England and the Middle States (Pennsylvania, New York, etc.) as well as in other countries around the world. The United States was one of the few nations that fought a civil war to end slavery. Ultimately, there were only two choices: the continuance of slavery or war.

Fleming seems to lay most of the blame on radical abolitionists, and he describes southern enslavers in a more understanding light than typical. It comes across as if the abolitionists were irrational, filled with hate, and would not listen to reason while southerners were not given a fair chance to seek other solutions. The North, Fleming suggests, pushed the nation into war when southerners were not receptive to abolitionists demands to abolish slavery immediately.

This is not a “new understanding,” despite the title of the book. While it has merit in many respects, I don’t find it fully convincing. The hero of his book is Abraham Lincoln who, Fleming argues, hoped for a gradualism that would eliminate slavery through compensated emancipation even though he believed the institution was evil. Lincoln sought compromise but fought a war to save the union by which enslaved peoples were liberated.

I think Fleming underplays the evil and reality of enslaved peoples. He treats it with almost a soft hand though he calls it deplorable. I also am not so sure gradualism was really an option for the future of the country—perhaps 100 years later maybe. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s as well as the history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the South suggest the bigotries and animus toward black people was not going to disappear through gradualism. When the war ended slavery, other forms of slavery arose, including Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, redlining, and even now mass incarceration. Was there any real hope that gradualism would work? It was voted down, for example, during constitutional conventions in antebellum Tennessee and Virginia (border states that resisted secession until Lincoln called up 75,000 volunteer troops in response to the formation and actions of the Confederacy).

Nevertheless, I think the notion that a “disease in the public mind” is an excellent point. It is a complicated situation with lots of intersecting hostility, suspicion, and hatred between sections of the United States. Fleming’s book is worth reading, and while he offers lots of helpful perspectives to moderate some perspectives, I don’t think he offers a comprehensive understanding but illuminates one of the complicating factors that led to Civil War.

Though published ten years ago, it speaks to our contemporary situation. Hostile, polarizing, and bigoted discourse—a few calling for national divorce, succession, or even violence—characterize our present political and cultural situation.  The public mind is poisoned by social media influencers, radical politicians, and extreme media.

As a disciple of Jesus, I invite us to practice love, prayer, and acts of kindness for our enemies as we also bear witness to the truths embedded in the Christian narrative.

You are free to comment (though I will delete offensive or extraneous comments), but I have no interest in arguing for or against Fleming’s thesis in the comments. Be kind and share your ideas (if you wish) with love and in a mutual search for understanding.

Leave a Reply