A Disease in the Public Mind.

Author:Lovy, Howard
Position:Book review

Thomas Fleming (author); A DISEASE IN THE PUBLIC MIND; Da Capo Press (Nonfiction: History) 26.99 ISBN: 9780306821264

Byline: Howard Lovy

A region of the country believes the federal government in Washington is undermining its culture and way of life. There is talk of war and secession. But this is not 1861, when the first blood of the Civil War was drawn. This is 1814, and the region threatening secession is New England.

While the fact that it was the North that first raised the specter of a house divided is nothing new, it is not widely remembered. Yet it is a crucial point on a timetable running from the Revolutionary War to Lincoln's assassination, presented by historian and author Thomas Fleming, that places the blame for the Civil War on extremism by both North and South. At least, extremism is what appears to be the "disease" in his extremely captivating, yet ultimately flawed book, A Disease in the Public Mind. It is never quite clear what exactly this disease is, yet it is a theme that ties together disparate people and events in revealing ways.

When Union soldiers marched to war, they proudly sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," whose lyrics taken from Revelations seemed to be God's own exhortation to keep America whole. But the tune was taken from a song that originally drove Union men forward. It was called "John Brown's Body," and it glorified the memory of an abolitionist who attempted to lead a slave insurrection but succeeded only in murdering innocents. How "John Brown's Body" became "The Battle Hymn" is symbolic of how this "disease" of extremism infiltrated Northern culture.

And so a once-rebellious New England that threatened to secede from the Union because of the federal government's domination by slave-owning Virginians -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe -- became, in a generation, stalwart patriots again.

On the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Southern mind was paralyzed by a "disease" of its own. There was a pathological terror of bloody slave insurrection, a fear that dates back to the time of Thomas Jefferson, who believed the relationship between whites and blacks had been so tainted by slavery that the two races could never live together as equals. Jefferson and other Southern slave owners feared that if slaves were freed, there would be another another San Domingo, a place that struck fear in the hearts of every Southerner. Today, half of the island is known as Haiti, where in 1791, slaves...

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