By the time John Brown hung from the gallows for his crimes at Harper's Ferry, Northern abolitionists had made him a holy martyr” in their campaign against Southern slave owners. This Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leader of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson. This malevolent envy exacerbated the South's greatest fear: a race war. Jefferson's cry, We are truly to be pitied,” summed up their dread. For decades, extremists in both regions flung insults and threats, creating intractable enmities. By 1861, only a civil war that would kill a million men could save the Union.
Always a quirky, contrarian writer-historian, the prolific Fleming (Washington s Secret War) offers what he deems a fresh take on the causes of the Civil War. But despite its subtitle, his interpretation isn t new, and it doesn t hold up. Fleming s argument that fanatics in the North and South drove the nation into avoidable conflict in 1861 was also the argument of a few mid-20th-century historians, like James G. Randall, who called the war s belligerents a blundering generation. If only reason had prevailed, they wistfully regretted, slavery would have withered from within, and all would have been well. But this stance which is Fleming s ignores recent scholarship, which has found that slavery likely would have endured. It also requires Fleming to ignore the war s profound moral issue, viz. that slavery is an evil. Surely there was much fanaticism, and some slaves were raising themselves up by mastering the technology of the South s agriculture as well as the psychology of leadership. Perhaps change was possible but it would have been a creeping transformation carried out over decades on the backs of over 3 million slaves, and it would ve deeply scarred the nation s moral and international standing. This book can serve neither as a reliable guide to the past, nor as authoritative argument and scholarship.