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Worcester, MA
Permit No. 2



A Disease in the Public Mind ...

By Thomas Fleming
DeCapo Press, 2014
Paperback, 384 pages

t the beginning of D.W. Griffiths still controversial silent

film, Birth of a Nation, a panel declares; The bringing of the African
to America planted the first seed of
Immediately after
comes the opening scene of what
appears to be a slave auction. Griffiths film was sympathetic to the
Confederate cause, but whatever his
politics, the action evokes sympathy
for the bondsmen.
Oddly enough, at the time of the
portrayal, there was no union except with the mother country and
slavery was not a cause of that rupture, nor did it stop the formation
of a federal government.
So what would drive us to civil


New thoughts on reasoning behind Civil War

war? Historian Thomas Fleming
cites the words of President James
Buchannan, an incurable disease
in the public mind. The lame
duck, in his final address to congress, was reacting to the recent
raid by John Brown on Harpers
The Connecticut born Brown
had had a long career of what
could be described as failure. His
business enterprises all came a
cropper, leaving messes behind
What Brown was good at was
causing trouble. Converted to the
abolitionist cause, he went about it
leaving a trail of murder and mayhem in his wake. He pursued it

with an insane passion.

Browns last adventure, the
aforementioned raid, was a debacle
that ended in successful failure.
While he could not ably lead his
small force, he could manage himself well enough in court. Though
he would hang, his final address
would acquit him in the minds of
many northerners. Less than two
years later, at Fort Sumter in South
Carolina, our nations deadliest war
would begin.
Flemings book, A Disease in the
Public Mind, A New Understanding of
Why We Fought The Civil War, is an
exploration of how we got from
slaverys introduction to the fratricidal conflict. It is also somewhat of

a history of the nation up to that

point, as the two are not separable.
Thomas Jefferson knew the
problem as it was for the South.
The man who had penned, all
men are created equal saw the
contradictions. The slave revolt on
Haiti and a small uprising in Virginia in 1800 had concentrated his
mind. He did not like the institution of slavery and wrote how it
debauched both races.
With Haitis brutal race war
and unrest domestically, he did not
see a solution other than foreign
colonization of the Negro. Americas most thoughtful founding father could offer no viable plan.
Continued on page 30


Book review
Continued from page 9
Others opposed what they called The Slave
Power. Not the least of their weapons was hatred. By The Slave Power was meant the supposed long-range plan of the South to take
control of the US Government and extend slavery. According to Fleming, no man was doing
more to popularize the idea than our own John
Quincy Adams.
Adams, son of the second president was more
than a little bitter at not having a second term.
He had not been so vehement about African
bondage before, having seen two slave territories,
The Louisiana Purchase and Florida, taken into
the Republic.
Now that he was an anti-slavery advocate, he
objected to Texas Statehood. How much of this
was compassion for the enthralled and how
much was resentment that both he and his father
were denied second-terms is the question?
The man most associated with the abolitionist
movement was another Bay Stater, William
Lloyd Garrison. He was as fanatical as he was
Indefatigable in his war on bondage. Fleming
says of him, He did not analyze and refute his
opponents arguments; he denounced them,
sneered at them, dismissed him. Think what he
could have done with Twitter? He was sincere,
but no help in anything but agitation leading to
war despite being a pacifist.
Another man who stirred the pot was Senator
Charles Sumner. His vicious insults of an older
members speech defect might have ended his ca-

reer. Unfortunately, Senator Preston Brooks beat

Sumner with a cane. Sumner deserved to be ostracized and might have been dropped by his
Northern colleagues. Brooks, a relative of the
abused, took it upon himself to near kill the arrogant Bostonian. Now it was the Norths turn
to be outraged.
Harriet Beecher Stowe would gain sympathy
for the plight of the slave with a book that was
not overly factual. Her model for Uncle Tom
was no uncle tom in the sense the term is used
today. He was an accomplished man who gained
freedom and wealth by his own intelligence and
Flemings portrayal is fairly nuanced, but in
no way justifies slavery. His short chapter on the
slave patrols is damning. The patrols almost
seem a duplicate of the slave hunting Krypteia
the ancient Spartans used to keep the Helots in
A reader can find villains aplenty in the book,
but there are also men who did what they could
to keep the Union from sundering. Arguably, the
most effective of the compromisers was Henry
Clay. A southerner himself, he realized the
North would never let the economically crucial
Port of New Orleans be controlled by a foreign
When he and his colleagues, Daniel Webster
and John Calhoun were gone, there were no men
who could or would conjure even temporary accords.
There is an omission in the book that should

have been addressed. Thomas Fleming does

not comment on the Tariff as cause of the
war. After all, the duty on imports and not
slavery led to South Carolinas threat of nullification that could have led to civil war in
1832, as Fleming noted.
The Morrill Tariff, signed by Lincoln was
the highest ever and could hardly have been
a magnet to keep Southerners attracted to the
Though the tariff had been mentioned in
every school I attended from elementary to
college, it was never considered the primary
I first gave consideration to the thesis that
The Civil War was a tax revolt in reading
Charles Adams For Good and Evil, The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization.
He addresses a chapter to the effect of the tariff leading to war. Adams is unequivocal in
calling it the major cause.
Adams may be wrong, but the tariff should
have been discussed in greater detail, if only
to exclude it.
This is not meant to condemn the authors
work. It is detailed in its exploration of slavery
and the impact of the peculiar institution on
the development of the United States and is
a wonderful resource.
So was it an incurable disease in any
clinical sense? Probably not. If, however, you
are wondering, what were they thinking? Mr.
Flemings book is a good place to look.

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