31 May 2013

Thomas Fleming's Disease

The book jacket describes Thomas Fleming's A Disease in the Public Mind as "a new understanding of why we fought the Civil War but at age 85 Fleming himself is old enough to know better. A prolific popular historian, Fleming has actually revived a thesis popular in his own youth. Asking "Why was the United States the only nation to fight a war to end slavery?" he blames this exceptional violence on what used to be called a "blundering generation" of misguided or incompetent political leaders. Fleming's own emphasis is on "misguided," and his interpretation of the buildup to war will strike many contemporary readers as contrarian if not perverse. Consider: if Fleming's book has a villain, it is William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist publisher. What makes this uncompromising enemy of slavery a villain? If you guessed the "uncompromising" part, you'd be right. Fleming's particular thesis is that Southerners hardened their attitudes toward slavery in the face of abolitionist propaganda from the likes of Garrison that actually amounted to hate speech. Garrison's rhetoric was particularly objectionable, Fleming claims, because The Liberator persistently equated slavery with rape while insinuating that slaveholders generally were rapists. This could not but offend the pride of Southern planters, and if you ask why we should care what slaveholders thought Fleming will be glad to explain.

Not only was abolitionist rhetoric offensive, Fleming argues, it was also insensitive. In particular it was insensitive to southerners' fears of slave insurrections and race war. Fleming describes in gruesome detail the atrocities of the Haitian revolution against France to make clear what Southerners feared. The Haitian record is meant to show that those fears weren't just some racist delusion. While Fleming never goes so far to suggest that mass murder of whites by blacks on the Haitian scale was a possibility in the U.S., he emphasizes the violence of this country's far smaller slave insurrections to remind us that slaveholders had something to fear. If you scoff at their fears, or treat them as slaveholders' just desserts, Fleming implies that you're treating them the way they treated blacks. No, he doesn't mean that you're whipping them into doing your work for you. Instead, he indicts abolitionists for not treating them as human beings whose opinions, interests and anxieties have to be acknowledged, if not taken entirely seriously. To insist on immediate, uncompensated emancipation and immediate equal rights for freed slaves, as most abolitionists did, was to willfully disregard any concerns felt by those who'd feel the immediate consequences of those decisions. That disregard wasn't just a matter of abolitionists' presumed moral superiority, but also an expression of sectional hatred. Fleming actually reaches further back into American historiography to revive an anti-Yankee or anti-Puritan theme that is rarely heard in the mainstream these days, though it can certainly be found in "neo-Confederate" literature. In this account, New Englanders saw themselves as the rightful moral, political and economic leaders of the nation, and took offense whenever Southerners won political power. Garrison was just another anti-Southern Puritan bigot in Fleming's account.

As a historian Fleming echoes the "both sides are to blame" rhetoric of some centrist commentators on present-day politics. He points out that Southerners had plenty of early opportunities to end slavery, yet botched every one. Even so, he makes a point of noting that Southerners acknowledged that they had a slavery problem and that some of them wanted to fix it. He believes that these honest efforts would have continued had not abolitionist extremism hardened Southern hearts and provoked defensive arguments that slavery was a positive good and a necessity to the section.

Despite what I'm describing, Fleming's book has a clear moral focus. Remember the initial question: why did we have to fight a war? Fleming notes that Great Britain did not, and notes further that Britain adopted compensated emancipation. He believes that the U.S. should have done likewise, and that however offensive it might seem to pay evildoers to renounce evil, it was preferable to a war that killed more than half a million men. In Fleming's words:

Compensated emancipation had psychological and spiritual dimensions as well as an economic side. It brushed aside the abolitionists' hatred of slave owners based on their religious conviction that slavery was a sin. Instead, it recognized that slavery was a system that the South had inherited two centuries ago. The current generation of slave owners was not guilty. They had not invented the system, and not a few of them admitted it was evil.

Fleming is no apologist for slavery, but he would probably dispute Spike Lee's characterization of the peculiar institution as a "Holocaust." He challenges a narrative of monotonous oppression by describing an organic evolution of the institution that allowed slaves to acquire skills and wealth and might have evolved further to a natural expiration. He goes against what I take to be the current grain by refusing the assumption that immediate, uncompensated emancipation was an irresistible moral imperative. He doesn't think slavery was worse than killing, while many today more likely see slavery as a kind of slow-motion murder. He clearly doesn't see emancipation as being worth all the lives lost in the war. When he quotes Lincoln's second inaugural address, he highlights "with malice toward none" rather than "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." In short, whatever others may feel, Fleming does not believe that slaveholders deserved death. He would not be amused by Django Unchained. That aside, if readers find Fleming's theses morally offensive, he'll conclude that they've missed his point, which is, apparently, that moral outrage doesn't entitle you to kill or even to provoke a war. One may wonder how comprehensive the argument is, not to mention whether obnoxious newspaper writers are really to blame for all the dead. But what's worth killing for is a question worth asking often, whatever the answer is. If Fleming meant his book to be provocative, he'll probably succeed one way or another.


Anonymous said...

Fleming loses any points he may have scored by the simple fact that we're talking about SLAVERY here. People who were treated like property. Whipped, murdered, raped, humiliated, etc. Slave owners deserved NOTHING except, perhaps, a slave revolt where they were all treated in the same way that they treated their slaves.

Instead, even after starting a war which, as he pointed out, cost half a million lives and untold millions of dollars, they were let off. Every last one of the Confederate government should have been tried for treason and hanged. Every plantation owner should have had their property confiscated and divided up among their former slaves. That is what would have been the right and just thing to do.

The only "disease" here is Fleming's mind and the mind of anyone else who believes the south was treated unfairly.

Samuel Wilson said...

To be fair to Fleming, he's also asking whether there was an alternative to sacrificing all the Northern/Union lives. The real problem with his argument is that the real blame for the war lies not with anyone's intolerant attitude toward Southern whites but with those Southerners who refused to accept the results of a fair election. None of their fears, rational or not, justify their response to Lincoln's election. Someone might go on to ask whether it was worth sacrificing so many lives to bring the South back into the Union, but Fleming doesn't raise that question.

Anonymous said...

I agree, but that always seems to be part and parcel of right-wing thinking. Conservatism - such as it is - is not truly conducive to a democratic ideal.

As long as people they agree with win elections and hold power, they love democracy. The minute those they don't agree with start winning elections and gaining power you begin hearing talk of secession. Note that none of them are ever willing to just pick up and leave - they want to take the land with them. That is unacceptable.