Review: Book wrong on famous Alton abolitionist

2013-10-07T06:00:00Z Review: Book wrong on famous Alton abolitionistBy John J. Dunphy Special to the Post-Dispatch

Nations with large slave populations such as Brazil, Cuba and the British Empire were able to end what Thomas Fleming calls a "deplorable institution" without carnage. The United States, however, ended slavery by a fraticidal conflict that cost the lives of an estimated 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. In "A Disease in the Public Mind," Fleming assigns much of the blame for the Civil War to abolitionists, whose uncompromising demand for the immediate liberation of slaves terrified white residents of southern and border states with the prospect of a race war in which they would be slaughtered by blacks seeking revenge.

Fleming has little use for abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator newspaper and an ardent foe of slavery. If Garrison had supported compensated emancipation for America's slaves, Fleming contends, "he might have found thousands of reasonable men agreeing with him." While Britain was indeed able to eradicate slavery in the West Indies by paying 20 million pounds to slave owners as compensation for their 850,000 captives, destroying slavery with money was never an option for the United States. American slave-holders were not "reasonable men," who were willing to part with their human chattel in exchange for cash. Fleming's disdain for abolitionists is evident by his portrayal of our own Elijah Lovejoy. While in St. Louis, Fleming informs us, Lovejoy had his printing press thrown into the Mississippi River "not once but three times." Actually, pro-slavery St. Louisans tossed Lovejoy's press into the river just once, which made him decide to relocate to Alton. Fleming then claims that when Lovejoy began publishing his newspaper in Illinois, "it did not take long for a mob to gather. Lovejoy and his friends opened fire on them, the rioters fired back, and Lovejoy died with a half dozen bullets in his body."

For the record, Lovejoy's final printing press — his fifth, since Alton mobs had destroyed his press three times during his year in Alton — had just arrived by steamboat and was still stored in the Godfrey-Gilman warehouse on Alton's riverfront when a drunken, pro-slavery mob that numbered in the hundreds besieged the building. The mob pelted the warehouse with rocks and shattered every window. Even when the mob tried to force open the door, Lovejoy and a handful of allies within the warehouse refrained from firing. According to abolitionist Thaddeus Hurlbut, who was inside the warehouse, the mob fired the first shots when it made a second assault on the building. Only then did Lovejoy and his men return fire. Mob members then attempted to set fire to the warehouse's roof, and Lovejoy was killed when he ventured outside to knock over their ladder.

This misrepresentation of Lovejoy's murder is indicative of Fleming's portrayal of abolitionists as troublemaking fanatics who needlessly provoked slave owners. He's also mistaken in asserting that Southerners too poor to own slaves fought for the Confederacy because of "their fear that black emancipation would be a prelude to a race war." These whites fought because they felt a kinship with slave owners in a new nation that had been explicitly founded on the principle of white supremacy and perpetual slavery for blacks. They also fought because they hoped someday to be sufficiently affluent to own slaves themselves.

Fleming makes a misguided attempt to prove that slave owners weren't nearly as lustful as depicted by abolitionists. The census of 1850, he writes, counted just 406,000 "visibly mulatto" people out of a black population of 3,639,000, with 350,000 of these mulattos living south of the Mason-Dixon line. Readers are left to wonder just how dark one's skin had to appear in order to be recorded in the census as "visibly mulatto." Fleming states that the mulatto population was low because "a master who recklessly seduced his slaves would demoralize his plantation." What Fleming considers "seduction" was undoubtedly seen as rape by the slaves themselves. He writes that the average slave woman gave birth to her first child at age 22.5. "This," Fleming concludes,"does not suggest teenage girls having wild sex by the tens of thousands." To conclude that young black women weren't raped by their owners and other white men simply because they didn't give birth is ludicrous. To refer to the rape of young black women as "wild sex," as though these acts consisted of equal partners having a rollicking good time in consensual relationships, is reprehensible.

The book's title comes from a remark by President James Buchanan, who attributed John Brown's disastrous raid on Harper's Ferry to "an incurable disease in the public mind." Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln's predecessor, consistently ranks at the bottom when historians assess our nation's presidents. He was a "Doughface" — a Northern Democrat with Southern sympathies. Buchanan was openly pro-slavery, praised the Dred Scott decision and abhorred abolitionists. After the Civil War, he wrote an autobiography in which he blamed that conflict on abolitionists rather than those slaveholding states that chose to secede from the Union when Lincoln, who ran on a platform that merely opposed the extension of slavery to new territories rather than its abolition, was elected president. A quotation from Buchanan is a curious choice for the title of a book that claims to offer a fresh perspective on the causes of the Civil War.

Fleming, 85, has written more than 50 histories and historical novels since 1960. Publishers Weekly characterized him as "a quirky, contrarian writer-historian." A right-wing website,, praised Fleming as "a revisionist in the best conservative sense of the word." The site also touted him for daring to be "politically incorrect."

"A Disease in the Public Mind" will not sit well with Americans who admire the abolitionists, but could find a receptive audience among neo-Confederates. That alone should indicate that Fleming got it wrong.

John J. Dunphy is the author of "Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois."

'A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War'

By Thomas Fleming

Published by Da Capo Press, 354 pages,  $26.99

Jane Henderson is book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow her online at and on Twitter @stlbooks.

Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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