Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group
Clash of Extremes

Clash of Extremes

The Economic Origins of the Civil War

Marc Egnal

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

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.


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Praise for Clash of Extremes

“The argument that the Civil War was caused by economic interests goes back at least as far as the work of Charles and Mary Beard a century ago. Egnal deftly revives the debate, claiming that the rise of the Great Lakes economy strengthened the bonds between the states of the North. For the South, soil depletion made expansion necessary and secession a ‘rational act.' Egnal writes carefully and without dogmatism.” —Elsa Dixler, New York Times

“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 . . . Essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the American Civil War.” —Herbert White, History in Review

“Marc Egnal offers both a correction and a challenge to historians of the Civil war in this important new interpretation . . . Egnal skillfully recounts how people made choices, how they changed, how they understood themselves and their world.” —A. James Fuller, Civil War Book Review

Clash of Extremes is a well documented and skillfully developed advancement of the idea that rapidly changing and competing economic realities comprised the primary driving forces behind the movement toward secession and ultimately Civil War . . . Egnal's dispassionate scholarship is a welcome breath of fresh air in an economic discussion all too often characterized by its absence. His accessible study is an award worthy effort that is highly recommended.” —Civil War Books and Authors (

“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 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, Express Milwaukee

“Best overall Civil War history 2009.” —Civil War Memory (

“A contentious examination of how mid-century economic shifts powered secession.” —American History

“Sure to provoke discussion.” —Kirkus Reviews

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

“A serious work that may well reignite a historical debate.” —Jay Freeman, Booklist

“Challenging a great deal of modern scholarship, Clash of Extremes promises to be the most talke 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

“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

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

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

Marc Egnal

From the Publisher

Hill and Wang

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