A prolific popular historian casts a harsh light on the abolitionists, insisting that their vitriolic rhetoric deserves more blame for the Civil War.
In a preface, Fleming (The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, 2009, etc.) establishes his thesis and defines his terms—diseased public minds have made possible everything from the Salem witch trials to 9/11—then writes that he would like to have been an observer at John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry raid. Not many sentences unspool before readers realize that Fleming is no fan of Brown. In the author’s view (expanded in later chapters), Brown was a lying, murdering madman, a failure at most everything he attempted. After the Harpers Ferry moments, Fleming returns to the arrival of the first slaves to America in the 17th century, then guides us slowly forward to the outbreak of the Civil War, then to Appomattox and its aftermath. Along the way, he says things that won’t endear him to more liberal readers. He defends the slave-owning founders, emphasizing their ambivalence (without any commentary about, say, Sally Hemings), and alludes to research that shows there wasn’t as much rape of slave women as the abolitionists averred—and that most slave owners weren’t really into whipping and other fierce punishments. (He does condemn slavery, calling it “deplorable.”) But John Quincy Adams, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and others—they were so intent on demonizing the South (where many did not own slaves, Fleming reminds us) that they contributed substantially to the regional polarization that eventually led to war. If only people had been more willing to talk, negotiate and compromise, writes the author. All fine, of course, unless you and yours have been enslaved for more than two centuries.
At times, this thesis-driven tour employs a curious moral compass.