Clash of Extremes The Economic Origins of the Civil War

Marc Egnal

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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Clash of Extremes takes on the reigning orthodoxy that the American Civil War was waged over high moral principles. Marc Egnal contends that economics, more than any other factor, moved the country to war in 1861.

Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Egnal shows that between 1820 and 1850, patterns of trade and production drew the North and South together and allowed sectional leaders to broker a series of compromises. After midcentury, however, all that changed as the rise of the Great Lakes economy reoriented Northern trade along east-west lines. Meanwhile, in the South, soil exhaustion, concerns about the country's westward expansion, and growing ties between the Upper South and the free states led many cotton planters to contemplate secession. The war that ensued was truly a "clash of extremes."

Sweeping from the 1820s through Reconstruction and filled with colorful portraits of leading individuals, Clash of Extremes emphasizes economics while giving careful consideration to social conflicts, ideology, and the rise of the antislavery movement. The result is a bold reinterpretation that will challenge the way we think about the Civil War.


Praise for Clash of Extremes

"For far too long, when historians have investigated the origins of the American Civil War, they have focuses almost solely upon slavery as the overriding factor that spawned the war. This is an oversimplified explanation for a conglomeration of factors that coalesced to push the country into war. In Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Marc Egnal provides an in-depth and compelling look at the economic factors that were instrumental in the rush toward war . . . Today, it is politically correct to describe the American Civil War as a war fought over humanitarian principles and that it was solely a war aimed at ending slavery. A long, long time ago, when I was in school, this was not the standard line. Rather I was taught that the war began due to, basically, an imbalance in trade. The North had all the manufacturing facilities, while the South mainly relied upon cotton and tobacco as their main source of income. These were two crops that greatly depleted the fertility of the southern fields, and as time passed, yields began to decrease drastically. As well, due to the lack of manufacturing facilities, the South was a net importer, having to buy just about everything from machinery to basic supplies either from the North or foreign counties. As their economy began to slow down, their ability to import these necessities became more costly, which in turn gave rise to huge social and political conflicts. In Egnal's ground breaking book, he takes a step back from the current moralistic view of the Civil War, and reinvestigates this older theory that it was economics, not slavery, that was the main impetus that led to the start of the American Civil War. In the process, he provides a solid, academically rigorous examination of how this economic imbalance occurred, and its far reaching political, economic, and social consequences. Not the least of which was, according to Egnal, the Republican Party's push for a ban on slavery in the new territories to the West on purely economic grounds, not on moral ones. In writing this book, Egnal scrutinized countless primary and secondary sources, focuses on the period from 1820 through the Reconstruction. He examined trade practices between the North and South, westward expansion, soil depletion in the South, patterns of production of durable goods, mechanization, and the politics of trade and economics. In addition, he also looked at the undertones that the antislavery movement had on the move toward war, as well as how soil exhaustion in the South help drive the desire of Southern farmers and politicians to gain control of new lands to the West, where soil conditions were more favorable. Without a doubt, many will view a Clash of Extremes as a controversial book. After all, it steps on the toes of many long cherished ideals and the self-image that many Americans' have of their Nation's history. It is much easier to reconcile oneself to the destructive nature of a Civil War when you couch its cause in moral terms. When it just boils down to money—it becomes a very bitter pill to swallow. Egnal's scholarship and detailed analysis of the data makes it hard to argue with the notion that the war, at least initially, was driven in large measure by economic factors. While I agree with much of Egnal's analysis, I find it hard to agree with him that economics was the exclusive cause of the American Civil War. We may never know the entire truth about what exactly caused the start of the Civil War, but we can rest assured that its origins lie in a combination of factors, not just one. I will, however agree, that economics played a substantial role in the events leading up to the start of the war—and it was a major player in deciding the outcome of the war. No matter which side of the line you fall on, in regard to which factor or factors you believe where most influential in propelling the country to war with itself, you will find that Clash of Extremes offers keen insights into the often underrated effect that economics did indeed play in all aspects of the American Civil War. You will also find that his exploration of the economic factors that contributed to the war, and the related political and social discordances that arose due to these economic factors, will enable you to better understand the causes and the consequences of the Civil War, and will also help you to understand the role that economics played in the prosecution of the war. This book is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the American Civil War, and it is sure to spark heated conversations in both academic and social settings."—Herbert White, History in Review
"Marc Egnal proposes that economics was more a cause of the American Civil War than was slavery—itself only one of the major aspects of the economic tensions between the North and the South—and that other issues led to the conflict. Egnal backs up his proposition with research into the various regional economies of the United States from its beginning up to the days of the Civil War . . . Several charts and maps throughout Clash of Extremes help the reader better understand what Egnal is discussing, along with endnotes and an index . . . Highly recommended to those interested in the causes of the Civil War and the economic history of the United States."—Curled Up With a Good Book

"The Civil War was among the great defining events in American history. Its causes were many and are still debated. In Clash of Extremes, York University history professor Marc Egnal challenges the popular view that the war was primarily about slavery. Egnal looks instead to economic factors, pointing out that most Northerners were racists who favored only the gradual extinction of slavery and that the early Republican Party, despite whatever idealism it upheld, was also interested in increasing the strength of Northern industry and commerce. Slavery, of course, was important in all this, but not until the war was well under way did the abolition of slavery gain traction either as public policy or rallying cry. Refreshingly, Egnal emphasizes the influence of individuals as well as social forces in the course of human events."—David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express (Milwaukee)

"Most historians readily acknowledge that economics played a part in the sectional crisis that led to the American Civil War. But recent scholarship has focused on the primary place of slavery as the cause of the conflict and little attention has been to economic matters. Marc Egnal offers both a correction and a challenge to historians of the Civil War in this important new interpretation by arguing that 'Economics more than high moral concerns produced the Civil War' (348). Egnal then proceeds to show just how that happened in a sophisticated and engaging analysis that avoids the reductionist tendencies of economic determinism by placing individual historical actors at the center of the story. A major economic interpretation of the Civil War is long overdue. Although economics certainly served as a component of the modernization theories popular in the 1980s, no full-scale economic explanation has been offered since Charles and Mary Beard's The Rise of American Civilization (1927). That earlier view argued for a capitalist North defeating an agrarian South and suffered from being too simplistic and deterministic. Today, scholars returning to the Beards find much worth reconsidering and resurrecting. Clash of Extremes stands as a perfect example. Egnal admits the Beards' faults, but sets out to correct their errors in his own work. The result is a much more complex and nuanced economic interpretation that includes ideas and individuals while avoiding the pitfalls of mechanistic and determinism inherent in over-arching theories . . . While readers will find some of the tables and statistics one would expect in a work of economic history, they do not diminish the power of Egnal's writing and the engaging way in which he presents his analysis. Throughout the book, biography plays a powerful role, as he places individuals at the forefront. Far from being a deterministic, mechanistic interpretation, this is a story with a human face. Egnal skillfully recounts how people made choices, how they changed, how they understood themselves and their world. In these individual actors, he joins ideology and economics and the result is a sophisticated and complicated view. Abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates, the businessman and the worker, political leaders and female observers, farmers and tycoons, all have a voice and play a part. Economists will no doubt find specific issues on which to challenge Egnal's interpretation. And historians will surely find fault with some of his arguments. But such debates will only serve to underscore the power of this book. It promises to stand as not only an example of how to write good economic history, but also as the work that revived the economic interpretation of the Civil War."—A. James Fuller, The Civil War Book Review

"Challenging a great deal of modern scholarship, Clash of Extremes promises to be the most talked-about book in years on the origins of the Civil War."—Daniel W. Crofts, The College of New Jersey

"In lively and accessible prose, Egnal has succeeded in bringing back economics as a core factor in the coming of the Civil War. Readers are in for a delightful surprise as they explore his engaging analysis of how diverging economies produced conditions that led to secession."—William L. Barney, author of The Making of a Confederate

"I pointed out in these pages 20 years ago or more that Northern history was the future cutting edge of American historical study . . . Clash of Extremes may be counted among the works on The War that pay serious attention to the North . . . The author does not neglect the sins of the South, real and alleged, but his most original contribution is his description of a truly critical new development of the late antebellum period, which he calls 'the Lake Economy.'"—Clyde Wilson, Chronicles

"Marc Egnal's vigorous and original argument will inject new energy into the perpetually fascinating conversation about the meaning of the American Civil War."—Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies, winner of the Bancroft Prize

"A most welcome addition to the literature on Civil War causation. It is sure to spark healthy debate about the war's origins."—Michael F. Holt, author of The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War

"A broad, revisionist assessment of the causes of the Civil War . . . Egnal delineates the economic differences among Whig, Republican and Democrat, and between regions of the country and classes of workers within those regions . . . This one's sure to provoke discussion."—Kirkus Reviews

"An illuminating contribution to our understanding of the Civil War's causes."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Marc Egnal

  • Marc Egnal is a professor of history at York University and the author of several books, including A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution and Divergent Paths: How Culture and Institutions Have Shaped North American Growth.

  • Marc Egnal Nadine Markova