Historian and novelist Thomas Fleming is the author of more than fifty books, including two very good revisionist histories of the two world wars: The New Dealers’ War, and The Illusion of Victory in World War I. He has authored biographies of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and has written extensively about the founding generation, including his best-selling book, Liberty! As a regular on PBS and NPR he is as “mainstream” as it gets. That is, he was, until he published his latest book, A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War.
No respectable historian believes the Deep North/government school fantasy that enlightened and morally-superior Northerners elected Abe Lincoln so that they could go to war and die by the hundreds of thousands solely for the benefit of black strangers in the “deep South.” And Thomas Fleming is as “respectable” as one gets in terms of contemporary writers of history. Fleming has discovered what scholars such as the late, great Murray Rothbard and the not-late-but-still-great Clyde Wilson wrote about many years ago: A war was not necessary to end slavery – the rest of the world did it peacefully; only 6 percent of adult Southern men owned slaves, which means that the average Confederate soldier was not fighting to preserve a system that actually harmed him and his family economically; and that the real cause of the war was what Fleming calls a “malevolent envy” of the South by New England “Yankees” who waged a war of economic conquest. In his own words, from the inside front cover of A Disease in the Public Mind:
[Northern] hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. Abolitionists were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leaders of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson.
The inside cover of the book asks, “Why was the United States the only nation in the world to fight a war to end slavery?” The standard “answer” to this question, which I have asked many times in my own writings, is that Southern plantation owners were by far the most evil human beings in world history, far more evil than British slave owners, Spanish slave owners, or French, Danish , Dutch and Portugese slave owners. Therefore, no peaceful means of ending slavery was ever possible. This of course makes no sense at all, and Thomas Fleming recognizes it.
He points out that “Only 316,632 Southerners owned slaves – a mere 6 percent of the total white population.” This leads Fleming to ask the obvious question: “Why did the vast majority of the white population unite behind these slaveholders in this fratricidal war? Why did they sacrifice over 300,000 of their sons to preserve an institution in which they apparently had no personal stake?”
Fleming actually understates this point: Slavery only benefited the slave-owners who exploited the slaves but was economically harmful to all the rest of Southern society because slave labor is inherently inferior to free labor. The entire South was poorer as a result. Moreover, the average Confederate soldier, who was a yeoman farmer who owned no slaves, was harmed by the slave-owning plantation owners through unfair competition. That is why so many Northern states like Illinois banned the migration of blacks, free or slave, from their borders, and it is also the main reason why the Republican Party opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories – they wanted to “preserve them for free white labor,” as Lincoln himself once said. In every major Civil War battle Confederate soldiers who did not own slaves fought against (mostly border state) Union Army soldiers, such as Ulysses S. Grant, who did own slaves (Grant’s wife Julia, cousin of Confederate General James Longstreet, inherited slaves from her South Carolina family and Grant was the overseer of his father-in-law’s slave plantation for a period of time before the war).
Fleming contends that the real reason for the war – and for why, of all the nations on earth, only the U.S. associated war with the ending of slavery – was twofold: First, there was the extreme “malevolent envy” of Southerners by the New England “Yankee” political class, who had long believed that they were God’s chosen people and that they should rule America, if not the rest of the world. Second, there were a mere 25 or so very influential New England abolitionists who had abandoned Christianity and even condemned Jesus Christ, while embracing the mentally insane mass murderer John Brown as their “savior.” This is part of the “disease in the public mind” that is the theme of Fleming’s book.
John Brown, who had declared himself to be a communist, had organized terrorist attacks in Kansas which included the murder of entire families who did not own slaves, and the murder of free black men. “Perhaps most appalling,” writes Fleming, “were the murders of James P. Doyle and his two oldest sons, while Doyle’s wife, Mahala, pleaded frantically for their lives . . . . The Doyles were immigrants from Tennessee who . . . had no interest in owning slaves.” Brown claimed that his purpose was “to strike terror into the hearts of the proslavery people.” He planned even larger acts of terrorism at Harpers’ Ferry in 1859 where he was apprehended by U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, and he was hanged for his crimes.
Fleming discusses in great detail how John Brown came to replace Jesus Christ in the minds of Northern abolitionists, who adopted his mantra that blood must shed in order to eradicate sin. That is, if they were to be saved and sent to Heaven, there must be bloodshed, and the more the better. That is why peaceful emancipation was not achieved in America, writes Fleming: It was not stubborn and evil Southern plantation owners who were the problem, it was the bloodthirsty abolitionists.
John Brown “descended from Puritans” and was “the personification of a Puritan,” says Fleming. And he truly became a “god” to the New England “Yankees.” “Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed awe and near-worship of John Brown,” writes Fleming. He lavished praise on John Brown’s “religion of violence.” Emerson called Brown “that new saint” who “would make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau said that “Brown was Jesus.” He was “the bravest and humanest man in the country,” said Thoreau with horribly clunky English. He described Brown in that way after learning of Brown’s execution of non-slaveowning, innocents in front of their wives and children. These men were clearly crazy, and their writings must have contributed a great deal to the “disease in the public mind.”
The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was also a John Brown worshipper. As a typical New England Yankee Garrison possessed “the prevailing attitude” of New Englanders in that “they were inclined to believe in the moral depravity of anyone who disagreed with them,” and had “an almost total lack of empathy” for their fellow countrymen in other parts of the country. This, says Fleming, was “a flaw that permeated the New England view of the rest of America.”
An abolitionist compatriot of Garrison’s named Henry C. Wright declared that Jesus Christ was a “dead failure” for allowing slavery to exist, and insisted that “John Brown would be a power far more efficient” than Christ. Armed with such beliefs, Garrison and comrades waged a decades-long campaign of hatred against all Southerners. Their newspapers broadcast for decades that the South was “a province ruled by Satan” and was guilty of “four unforgiveable sins: violence, drunkenness, laziness, and sexual depravity.” “From Richmond to New Orleans, the Southern states are one great Sodom,” wrote one New England publication. Fleming writes that such frantic “theological somersaults” were strikingly similar to “the public frenzy that gripped Massachusetts during the witch trials . . .” And some people wonder why Southerners in 1861 no longer wanted to be part of a union that included New England Yankees.
Thomas Fleming has discovered historical truths that Clyde Wilson long ago wrote about. In an essay entitled “The Yankee Problem in American History” Wilson pointed out that “by Yankee I do not mean everybody from north of the Potomac and Ohio. Lots of them have always been good folks.” He, like others before him, used “the term [Yankee] historically to designate that peculiar ethnic group descended from New Englanders, who can be easily recognized by their arrogance, hypocrisy, greed, and lack of congeniality, [and] for ordering other people around . . . . They are the chosen saints whose mission is to make America, and the world, into the perfection of their own image.” “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Clyde Wilson continues, “is a museum-quality specimen of the Yankee – self-righteous, ruthless, and self-aggrandizing.”
By 1860, writes Wilson, “The North had been Yankeeized, for the most part quietly, by control of churches, schools, and other cultural institutions, by whipping up a frenzy of paranoia about the alleged plot of the South to spread slavery to the North,” the theme of Abe Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. Of course, that was never the plan and never a possibility, but the “diseased” public mind of the North, fueled by the slick political rhetoric of politicians like Lincoln, actually persuaded many in the North.
Clyde Wilson describes abolitionism in almost an identical fashion that Thomas Fleming does:
Abolitionism, despite what has been said later, was not based on sympathy for the black people nor on an ideal of natural rights. It was based on the hysterical conviction that Southern slaveholders were evil sinners who stood in the way of fulfillment of America’s driving mission to establish Heaven on Earth . . . . Most abolitionists had little knowledge or interest in black people or knowledge of life in the South . . . . many abolitionists expected that evil Southern whites and blacks would disappear and the land repopulated by virtuous Yankees.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of these. He once predicted that since black people were, in his opinion, and “inferior race,” they would eventually “go the way of the Dodo Bird” and become extinct.
A Disease in the Public Mind is filled with scorn for the abolitionists and their un-American beliefs, including their belief of the inferiority of black people. By failing to know anything at all about Southern society, never spending any time there, writes Fleming, the abolitionists did not understand that many of the slaves were highly skilled and talented blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, farmers, and artisans of all sorts. This ignorance has led generations of Yankees, including many of today’s “liberals,” to believe that because of slavery, the descendants of slaves “would have to be treated like children, at best, or creatures from an alien planet at worst.”
Thomas Fleming would likely be in complete agreement with Murray Rothbard, as well as Clyde Wilson, on the nature of mid-nineteenth century “Yankees.” Rothbard wrote in his essay, “Just War,” that:
[T]he North’s driving force, the ‘Yankees’—that ethnocultural group who either lived in New England or migrated from there to upstate New York, northern and eastern Ohio, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois – had been swept by . . . a fanatical and emotional neo-Puritanism driven by a fervent ‘postmillenialism’ which held that as a precondition for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, man must set up a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth. The Kingdom is to be a perfect society. In order to be perfect, of course, this Kingdom must be free of sin . . . . If you didn’t . . ..stamp out sin by force you yourself would not be saved (emphasis added).
This is why, said Rothbard, the “Northern war against slavery partook of a fanatical millennialist fervor, of a cheerful willingness to uproot institutions, to commit mayhem and mass murder, to plunder and loot and destroy, all in the name of high moral principle. They were Pattersonian humanitarians with the guillotine: the Anabaptists, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of their era.”
Thomas Fleming points out that the husband of Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was one of the financiers of John Brown’s terrorist mass murder sprees. Her song replaced “John Brown’s Body” as the Yankee anthem as it celebrated the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens as “the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Thomas Fleming discusses many other historical facts in A Disease in the Public Mind that yours truly has also written about and been denounced as a liar, a slavery defender, a “Neo-Confederate,” and worse. He praises Thomas Jefferson for being among the first American statesmen to propose the peaceful emancipation of Southern slaves. He describes in detail the breathtaking hypocrisy of New Englanders who “rediscovered the sacred union,” he writes sarcastically, after having plotted to secede from the union for a dozen years after Jefferson’s election as president.
Fleming also writes of how the “Yankees” habitually attempted to plunder the South with protectionist tariffs that protected their manufacturers from competition. He understood that the Republican Party’s opposition to the extension of slavery into the new territories was based on their wish of “Free Soil for Free (White) Men,” the title of chapter 19. That is, they wanted a Homestead Act that would hand out free land to white settlers while banning the existence of all black people, free or slave. He quotes Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley explaining that his “paramount objective” was to “save the union” and not to end slavery.
In his final chapter Thomas Fleming writes about Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was an officer in Lincoln’s army who was wounded in battle. After the war, “For seventy years, he repeatedly condemned the abolitionists and others who claimed they had a message from some higher power that everyone had to obey. Above all he voiced his contempt for people whose claim to certitude often persuaded other men to kill each other.” If this sounds familiar, it is because it has been the guiding principle of American foreign policy ever since 1865.