Roads Not Taken: Thomas Fleming on American Slavery

Thomas Fleming, author of several books, including an overview of the coming of the Civil War, declares that (white) Americans set aside several paths to end slavery in the United States in a most interesting article.

Among his conclusions:

–(White) Americans missed a great opportunity to get rid of slavery through gradual compensated emancipation followed by colonization, as offered by Lincoln.

–This failure was sue in large part to the sectionalization (and thus concentration) of slavery. As Fleming argues, James Madison “concluded that a national solution to the problem of slavery could be found in one word – dispersion. By allowing slavery in all the new states beyond the original thirteen, the federal government would gradually make it a minority issue, which could be eliminated state-by-state, as it had been in the first round of emancipation in the original northern states.” Thus limiting slavery preserved it where it still existed.

–According to Fleming, “The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority. Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.”

–Fleming concludes, “If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.”


10 thoughts on “Roads Not Taken: Thomas Fleming on American Slavery

  1. Talmadge Walker January 16, 2016 / 4:34 pm

    Mutual forgiveness??? In many situations there’s a need for that, but is he saying that we’re supposed to forgive African-Americans for their role in slavery?
    “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? ” Probably because the combined value of enslaved persons in the South amounted to billions of dollars, not millions.
    Bless his heart.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 16, 2016 / 5:23 pm

      There are a few jumps in logic that I don’t understand.

      • James F. Epperson January 16, 2016 / 5:57 pm

        Few? Jumps? More like an infinite string of caverns to me …

  2. neukomment January 16, 2016 / 6:34 pm

    Fleming makes an assumption about the place of and reason for fear as the motivation behind pro-slavery intransigence regarding any kind of emancipation. The supposed evidence he cites for minimizing other reasons is in my mind, not at all strong enough to carry the conclusion he takes from it; especially in light of the number of words published to defend slavery on the basis of supposed inferiority as a race. There was indeed real fear resulting from events in Haiti and the Nate Turner uprising, but I am still skeptical that those events were the only or even the main reason for fearing and opposing emancipation. Nor is it a given that Madison’s approach to slavery in the new states would have cooled the fires of abolition…

  3. Al Mackey January 16, 2016 / 7:46 pm

    This is why I no longer take Mr. Fleming seriously. His “dispersion” is nothing more than what was called “diffusion.” The theory of “diffusion” was discredited with what happened when slavery expanded westward. It provided a market for slaves from Virginia and instead of leading to emancipation in Virginia it led to Virginia becoming a large producer of slaves for other states. By adding additional slave states it increased the political power of the slaveocracy in Congress. While Jefferson and Madison did push the theory of diffusion, in practice it proved to be merely a way of increasing slavery’s influence and power.

    Also, his idea that the south didn’t cling to slavery because of greed or racism but in fact was because of fear is silly. The fear was caused by their racism and their greed. They feared what they assumed were “savage” African-Americans–an assumption rooted in their racist view of African-Americans as uncivilized brutes. They also feared the loss of billions of dollars worth of capital invested in human property, which they believed would wreck their economy–a fear rooted in their greed.

    And he calls the failure to emancipate “not anyone’s fault.” People were willing to break up the Union and fight a war to protect slavery from what they perceived to be a threat to its existence. Slave owners in the American South were unwilling to consider compensated emancipation of their slaves, even when Abraham Lincoln offered it to the Border States. How, then, can we say with a straight face that the failure to emancipate was “not anyone’s fault.”

    • bob carey January 17, 2016 / 5:22 am

      I couldn’t agree more> It was all about greed and power. If fear was the major factor against emancipation then why did the deep south increase their number of slaves during the 1850’s, was it to increase their fear? It just doesn’t make sense.
      I believe that slavery would have expanded west just as the country did, any labor intensive industry such as mining, lumber and railroad construction would have been fertile ground for slavery. The Dred Scott decision would have assured this.

  4. Mark January 16, 2016 / 9:02 pm

    >> “Virtually no one of importance – and absolutely no one of unimportance – got this solution right.”

    So a few elites got it right, but none of the common folk? Seriously? Why would any reasonable person believe anything other than that a few of both got the issue? Nature of wisdom and all that. Same as it ever was. But from an inauspicious start, Fleming improves considerably. Because he helpfully points out the place of the West Indies in the matter. Read “Denmark Vesey’s Revolt: The Slave Plot That Lit a Fuse to Fort Sumter” by John Lofton.

    >> “The first solution (compensation) came from Abraham Lincoln.”


    >> “Why (was it rejected)?” Fleming implores. The answer:

    >> “the South’s primary fear [was] – a race war …”

    And why was that? Because:

    >> “a black army marched across Haiti and killed every white man, woman and child.”

    Yes that sounds like a sufficient reason to me. The only reason we don’t see it that way today is probably because most CW scholars ignore international implications of any kind. Take it from an exceptionalist, that isn’t what American exceptionalism means. And why do we so easily generalize about “The South”? There is an easy case to be made that SC (keep in mind that Charleston’s streets mirror Barbados) and Georgia drove secession. That without one or the other secession and the war never happens. Is that really far fetched?

    >> “Perhaps, 150 years after slavery’s abolition, it is time for us to realize that failing to eliminate the cursed institution was not anyone’s fault. … the Civil War [was] inevitable.”

    Oh we’ve moved on from the “blundering generation” and arrived again at the “irrepressible conflict”? At least irrepressible given the place of SC and GA, and the culture of the time? Kenneth Stampp is calling, and he wants credit given by Fleming! But I”m liking Fleming. If you listen, you can here the crowd. Fleming! Fleming! Fleming! I’m one of them.

    The major false note I detect in the piece is this:

    >> “the problem of slavery could be found in one word” … “abolitionists were in full cry, demanding immediate emancipation … “

    Oh Thomas! Thomas! Why, oh why Thomas! Did you have to go there? Did you have to bow at the altar of the Lost Cause? Well …, yeah you probably did. If you hadn’t I would never had heard of you. And you knew that, right? Of course you did. We all do. We must pay heed to the sucking vortex that is the Lost Cause because if we don’t we can’t escape it. One day it will be different. Today is not that day.

    But yeah, I’m liking Fleming. I’m liking him a lot.

    P. S.

    And he’s not up to speed on one point. He assumes that we’re in a:

    “struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.”

    No, we’re a struggle for what constitutes reality. Welcome to the 21st century. Postmodernism isn’t a time period, it’s an attitude. Does anyone ask the question “What is race?” Does anyone ask “What is the history of race?” Of course not. Scientific racism might as well still be an established fact, so little does anyone care. We’ve arrived at a racialization. Scientific racism is the stupidest theory ever proposed, but it survives as a postmodern means (for those in its thrall) to explain human differences. What is the alternative? Rationalism? Noooooooooh! We all know that the classic understanding of rational and political man was a multi-millennia hoax. (rolls eyes and makes extreme face). Some lost causes are false but seem attractively true, and some seem regrettably false because of popular assumptions though they are true. The same as it ever was.

  5. Barbara January 17, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    The assumption here is that white lives are more important than black lives and freedom. This is the unstated assumption of this argument. One may go back to the revisionist school, the needless war argument, the bumbling generation interpretation of the war and see the same reasoning. This type of thinking is ALWAYS based on the assumption that black men and women’s suffering do not count. Buttressed by the idea that slavery was not as bad as you think, the give away in his argument, all the “Great Jobs” black men had in slavery. It’s despicable.

  6. chancery January 18, 2016 / 3:39 pm

    One of the amazing things about Fleming’s book (“Disease in the Public Mind”) is how many better books about the civil war he has apparently read without understanding. He describes Professor Blight’s “Race and Reunion” as a “searing exploration of the abolition driven hatred of the South in a post-Civil War nation shorn of Lincoln’s healing power.” Words fail me.

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