While reading Thomas Fleming's new book, A Disease of the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, about how America blundered through the worst slaughter in the history of our country, I was reminded of that oft quoted phrase, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
With myth destroying zeal and careful research Fleming contends that a fanatical sense of moral superiority on the part of the abolitionists, an irrational fear of a race war by Southerners abetted by sinister political posturing, and a deeply biased media were the prime motivating factors in a war that by far surpassed the casualties of all wars combined since America was founded.
Fleming clearly reiterates the point that from our beginnings as a nation we have been plagued by the moral dilemma posed by the entrenched and repugnant institution of slavery. Indeed, a number of signers of the Declaration of Independence, and our most revered forefathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners. Many of the founders were well aware that slavery was a moral nightmare, but they were unable to unite the disparate parts of the colonies and agree on changing a system that was economically intertwined to the point that it was the third rail of colonial unity.
As Fleming points out, it was Jefferson who raised the specter of a possible race war, alarming the South, especially in those states where the slave population exceeded that of the whites. Fleming traces the disunity from its origins, citing the growing activism that culminated in John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and its resulting propaganda as an example of how the Northern media at the time began to beat the drum, heralding an end to slavery and a beginning to the destruction of the South where slavery was an integral part of the economy.
On the other side of the coin, the race war that Jefferson had warned might occur if slavery was summarily abolished, was fueled by the brutal takeover of Santo Domingo by slaves who slaughtered the whites on the island. Nat Turner's bloody slave rebellion had also instilled fears among powerful slave owners in the Southern states.
Fleming delves deeply into the hate and alarm engendered by both sides, which complicated the admission of new states that were being formed in those areas comprising the Louisiana Purchase and Texas, and solidified the views of politicians. Any suggestion of a compensated end to slavery in the States, as had occurred in the United Kingdom and its vast sugar producing slave islands in the Caribbean, was an inconceivable proposition in this toxic atmosphere.
Fleming deftly traces the days leading up to the secession and Abraham Lincoln's heavy burden of winning the Presidency as the Union was dissolving. With only 40 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln was pressed to preach unity in the face of this dilemma.
Titled after James Buchanan's statement equating these disastrous events as, "an incurable disease of the public mind," Fleming's book can be read as a primer to understanding how wild emotion and the refusal to compromise can have disastrous results. A powerful lesson for what we are going through in modern times.
In many ways, Fleming tells a heartbreaking story. There were four million human beings in bondage in America when the Civil War bloodbath began. 500,000 slaves had become free through purchase or other methods. The deep hatred between both sides resulted in the death of 750,000 over a four year butchery, not including the vast impact on their loved ones; wives, children, parents, and friends, and the catastrophic destruction of property, the expense, and misery inflicted on countless millions in the preservation of our country.
One must cry out in agonized frustration at this event, the bloody consequences of which might have been avoided if greater moral compassion had trumped blind hatred and uncompromising certainty. But then, as the historical record attests, and Fleming makes crystal clear, uprooting evil comes with a price that must be paid, no matter how high.
Warren Adler recently released Target Churchill, a Cold War thriller he co-authored with Pulitzer Prize nominated Churchill biographer James C. Humes. Best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Adler has optioned and sold film rights to more than a dozen of his novels and short stories to Hollywood and major television networks. Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas), The Sunset Gang (starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Doris Roberts), Private Lies, Funny Boys, Madeline's Miracles, Trans-Siberian Express and his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series are only a few titles that have forever left Adler's mark on contemporary American authorship from page to stage to screen. The Sunset Gang also premiered Off-Broadway as a musical with music composed by the noted composer L. Russell Brown and lyrics by Adler himself. The New York Times called it, "A bittersweet musical about aging and desire... a deeper examination of love and loyalty among people over 60."
For more information on Warren Adler visit www.warrenadler.com