Monday, January 11, 2016

Fleming on Slavery and the Civil War

The History News Network posted a bizarre essay on slavery and the Civil War by Thomas Fleming. I presume that it is based on his book, which, based on his essay, I have no intention of reading. He suggests that he has a new understanding of the causes of the Civil War. He notes that he is 

forced to ask – not for the first time – why Americans in general and scholars in particular do not want to look at two solutions to slavery that might have avoided the holocaust we call the Civil War and its aftermath of hate-laden racism. “

The first of these solutions that scholars do not want to look at is compensated emancipation.

Not once but twice Lincoln offered the South millions of dollars if they would agree to gradually free their slaves over the next 40 or 50 years. With smears and sneers of rage the South refused the offer. Why? –

Why? Perhaps it was because the value of slaves on the eve of the Civil War is estimated to be about 3 billion dollars, not several million. It has been estimated that even if the payments had been spread out over twenty years the payments would have tripled the federal budget. See Roger Ransom’s essay at EH.NET for a quick review. The fact that it has been estimated suggests that historians have considered this solution. Fleming seems to be suffering from “If I haven’t read it, it hasn’t been written” syndrome.

I’m not going to go into Fleming’s second solution. The essence of Fleming's argument is that there could be no peaceful emancipation because white people in the South were afraid. Real historians, such as Alan Taylor, have written about this fear, but they did not use it to make statements like

The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority.

I understand that HNN has a commitment to ideological diversity, but they should also have some commitment to reasonable standards of logic and evidence. Even if one were to make a reasonable case that fear had come to dominate Southern thinking on emancipation during the Antebellum period, how could you argue that slavery was not rooted in greed (profit seeking) and racism: They originally imported African slaves as a humanitarian gesture toward people that they regarded as equals? How exactly does that argument work? 

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