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Monday, June 10, 2013

‘Why We Fought the Civil War’

New book finds the economic roots of America’s defining conflict

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In A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (Da Capo), historian Thomas Fleming promises to shed new light upon the root causes of the conflict. While he does present some of the latest research on the subject, most of the book contains material well known to readers of American history. Nevertheless, his fast-moving, erudite, yet accessible account will keep most readers turning the pages.

Part of the “New Understanding” comes from recent scholarship revealing “the South’s breathtaking wealth.” In the 1850s, the 15 slave states were by far the richest parts of the United States. The South’s reluctance to surrender slavery was largely wrapped up in the fact that its 4 million slaves were worth $3 billion. Fleming adds that in 1860, 70% of America’s richest people lived in the South, demolishing “the standard abolitionist assumption that the North was the dynamic section of the country and the slave-encumbered South was mired in backwardness and poverty.”

The phrase “A Disease in the Public Mind” originated in 1859 with President James Buchanan’s response to abolitionist John Brown’s quixotic raid on Harper’s Ferry. Buchanan stated that Brown’s “reckless venture” was caused by “an incurable disease in the public mind,” a malady he reasserted as the Southern states began seceding the following year. Similarly, Lincoln accused the South of “debauching the public mind” over secession.

Fleming adeptly shows the inexorable buildup of mutual hatred and paranoia between North and South, primarily over slavery. He illustrates potential turning points along the sad road to national catastrophe, the “what ifs” that make history so interesting. Truly noble characters are few and far between in this book; most are deeply flawed, well intentioned but inept or warped by hatred. Robert E. Lee emerges as an honorable man and Lincoln, the closest to being a hero. After discussing his assassination, Fleming concludes, how heartbreaking “to imagine what this extraordinary man might have accomplished if he had lived.”