A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War
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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.
worn by colonists were dyed with indigo produced by slaves, he wore only undyed garments. This meant he wore white all year. In 1772 John Woolman went to England, hoping to enlist English Quakers in a campaign to outlaw the slave trade in the entire British empire. He appeared at the London Yearly Meeting of Ministers and Elders, the most respected body in Quakerdom. More than a few members were rich, and many of them were distinguished scientists and thinkers. These sophisticated Londoners
not participate in the floor debates.) There, he urged investing the president with the power to veto acts of Congress even if the lawmakers unanimously disagreed with him. Not a few delegates were troubled by this idea.10 There were ferocious conflicts on other issues. Small states were fearful that the large states would dominate the government. Eventually, the delegates reached compromises on the disputed points. They agreed to let Congress override a presidential veto if the lawmakers could
muster a two-thirds vote. Small states and large states were reconciled by giving each state two spokesmen in the Senate, while the House of Representatives would be chosen on the basis of population. At this point the South interposed a serious objection. Their large number of black slaves put them at a disadvantage, unless they too could be counted as part of their populations. More than a few northern delegates objected to this idea. Finally, the convention agreed to give Southern states the
Federalists saw as distorters and corrupters of the noble heritage of presidents George Washington and John Adams. Garrison read with delight and wonder the savage denunciations of Jefferson’s party from the acid tongues of Timothy Pickering, Fisher Ames, and other Federalist leaders. Although the older men made only passing references to slavery, their rhetoric made it easy for the young Garrison to see the “peculiar institution,” as it was beginning to be called, as a key element in the
play-book and resort to the ominous word, nullification. At this point Calhoun was considered a likely prospect for the presidency. Strikingly handsome, he was a superb orator and a politician who seemed adept at working with Northerners and Westerners. He had been a well-regarded secretary of war under President Monroe. But he was extremely sensitive to the growing hostility to slavery in the northern states. Soon there was something called “the Exposition of 1828,” a treatise secretly written