Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why Slavery Wasn't Really So Bad After All

For the first time in many years, I am commuting to work by train again. This not only means that I get more opportunity to read books, but I finish more of the books I read. When I get bored or annoyed with a book at home, I put it down and pick up something else. While commuting, however, I'm stuck with a book at least for an hour or so. One book that I might not have otherwise finished is A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War by Thomas Fleming.

Fleming's thesis is that the Civil War resulted from the fact that Northerners and Southerners hated each other and had since the founding of the republic. Fleming acknowledges that slavery was wrong, but not nearly as bad as it was made out to be by northern abolitionists. Had it not been for the unnecessarily confrontational tactics of the likes of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, Fleming thinks that southerners would have found it in their hearts to let slavery fade away as the founders eventually expected that it would.

The first point at which I was tempted to quit reading was in the introduction when Fleming started posing rhetorical questions. Noting that Britain, Brazil, and Cuba had eliminated slavery without going to war, he asked "Why were the Americans, with a government designed to respond to the voiceor voicesof the people, compelled to resort to such awful carnage?" Observing that only a small proportion of southerners owned slave, he queried "Why did the vast majority of the white population unite behind the slaveholders in this fratricidal war? Why did they sacrifice over 300,000 of their sons to preserve an institution in which they apparently had no stake?"

Interesting questions to be sure, but I found myself wanting to say "You know. I think there have might have been a book or two written on the topic.  Have you read any of them?" You might think that Fleming would compare his new understanding to some of the older understandings, but he never seems to acknowledge that any other historians have even thought about the issues. Nor does he devote much time to examining how other countries eliminated slavery peacefully. After the introduction, Cuba and Brazil are never mentioned again.

The book starts our with a chapter vilifying John Brown as a murderous crackpot, which is, I suppose, a tenable position. It made me wonder whether, if I had lived at the time, I wouldn't have found radical abolitionists to be as obnoxious as I find radical pro-lifers to be today. Like those pro-lifers who don't care what happens to a baby after it's born, many of the abolitionists seemed to have little interest in what would happen to the slaves after they were freed.

Where the book really started losing me though was when Fleming discussed the nasty accusations that abolitionists hurled at slave owners, such as the charge that slave owners routinely forced themselves on female slaves:
Did the campaign of slander about the South's sexual exploitation of its slaves have any basis in fact? The mulatto population of the South as recorded in the censuses of 1850 and 1860 suggests a rather low rate of miscegenation. In the nation as a whole, the census takers of 1850 counted 406,000 "visibly mulatto" people out of a black population of 3,639,000, which is 11.2 percent of the total. About 350,000 mulattoes lived south of the Mason-Dixon.

The figures make it clear that there was considerable amount of sexual activity between the two races, even if it was a long way from meriting the term "unrestrained lust."
Really? It's not clear to me at all that the lust was restrained. If the census counted the "visibly mulatto," that clearly implies that many were uncounted because their mixed racial heritage was not obvious. Why should I believe that the "visibly mulatto" provide an accurate measure of slave exploitation? When you consider that only 6% of whites owned slaves, you wind up with more mulattoes than owners even if you only count the "visible" ones. Moreover, when you look at the even smaller portion of whites who owned twenty or more slaves, you start getting ratios of two to three mulattoes per owner.

In trying to make some sense of the numbers, I found that between the 1850 census and the 1860 census, the number of visibly mulatto slaves increased from 247,000 to 412,000, a 67% increase. This might suggest a real frenzy of slaveholder debauchery. On the other hand, it might just mean that spotting mixed race heritage was not a precise science. Either way, it suggests that the raw number of visibly mulatto people in 1850 isn't particularly helpful in determining the extent to which slaves were sexually exploited. Fleming's tactic is basically the same one that Christian apologists like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell use, i.e., cherry pick the statistic or anecdote that most favors your argument and present it as if it settles the question.

I think the point at which the book most wanted to make me puke was when Fleming described Robert E. Lee's decision to turn down command of the Union Army before resigning and going south to serve the Confederacy.
As Robert E. Lee sat there trying to absorb this astounding offer, what did he think and feel? What did he remember? Almost certainly his first thought was John Brown. That madman's rant about the sin of slavery and the blood that was required to wash it away, the pikes he had been prepared to put into the hands of slaves, weapons that might have been thrust into the bodies of Lee's daughters and wife, the letters in Brown's carpetbag linking him to northern backers. Could Lee invade Virginia or any southern state at the head of an army composed of men who believed John Brown was as divine as Jesus Christ? How would the orders of a southern-born general, a slave owner thanks to his wife, restrain such men?

Next perhaps came the memory of the way the abolitionists had smeared him in their newspapers in 1859accused him of stripping a young black woman and personally lashing her. Did he want to fight for a government that had been elected, in part at least, by these fanatics? What would prevent them from smearing him all over again if he lost a battle or even a skirmish? The thought of their righteous arrogance filled him with loathing.

Finally might have come the distant but still terrible memory of the way Nat Turner and his army of maddened black men had slaughtered men, women, and children only a few miles from Fortress Monroe. Would that happen again if his northern army routed the South's soldiers? Would there be timeseven for a few hourswhen slaves ran wild that way.

No. No. No. That was the word that whispered in Robert E. Lee's soul. He could never undertake such a task.
What unadulterated crap.  The eighty-five year old Fleming clearly watched too many movies like Santa Fe Trail in his youth where Errol Flynn plays a young Lieutenant Jeb Stuart encountering John Brown in Kansas.  Naturally, the southern-born slave-owning Stuart is the only one who really understands and cares about the black people that Raymond Massey's Brown is cynically exploiting, and the blacks are grateful for his attentions. Throw in Ronald Reagan as Stuart's West Point classmate George Armstrong Custer (despite the fact that Custer was actually seven years behind Stuart) and you have the typical Hollywood version of history, i.e., never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Perhaps Fleming doesn't know that one of the most successful and most respected generals of the Civil War was George Thomas. Thomas's memories of Nat Turner's slave rebellion would have been even more vivid than Lee's as he, his sisters, and his widowed mother had been forced to flee from their home and hide in the woods in 1831. Nevertheless, the Virginian Thomas remained loyal to the Union and was universally respected by the officers and men who served under him.

I was not familiar with Fleming's work before I picked up this book at the library, but he has apparently written a number of books like this that challenge conventional interpretations of American history with the upshot usually being that the problems were the fault of liberals. While I think it is important for me to read books written from a conservative perspective in order to test and challenge my views, Fleming's sloppy methodology gives me little confidence in anything he has to say. His concepts of noble southerners and crazed abolitionists are more reactionary than revisionist.

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