Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War

Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War

by Marc Egnal
     
 

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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

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“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 (cwba.blogspot.com)

“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 (cwmemory.com)

“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

Publishers Weekly

This incisive, if overstated, study locates economic interests rather than clashing ideologies and social systems at the roots of the Civil War. British historian Egnal (A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution) traces America's polarization in the 1850s to antagonistic sectional economies. In the North, he contends, the Republican Party, beholden to a burgeoning "Great Lakes economy" and focused on promoting industrial growth, conceived its effort to ban slavery in America's Western territories-the issue that precipitated the war-in terms of the economic interests of Northern settlers. Conversely, he argues, Southern planters, their soils depleted, saw expansion of slave agriculture onto the fresh soils of those territories as a dire economic necessity; for them, "secession was a rational act." Egnal's perceptive, fine-grained analysis of fragmentation within the North and South around local patterns of trade, agriculture and manufacturing is especially revealing. Still, economic motives alone don't seem powerful enough to have started a war without the atavistic forces of racism and nationalism energizing them. While not a sufficient account, Egnal's is an illuminating contribution to our understanding of the Civil War's causes. 11 maps. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780809016457
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
01/05/2010
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
1,163,197
Product dimensions:
5.58(w) x 8.34(h) x 1.11(d)

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Rethinking the Origins of the Civil War

The Civil War will not go away. The outpouring of books about the causes of the conflict, Abraham Lincoln, and the war itself continues unabated. And for good reason. Whether the issue is race, region, or industrialization, the Civil War has left a deep imprint on modern America. You would think that after all these years historians would agree on why the country came to blows. But they do not. In many ways, to be sure, our knowledge of the era has advanced remarkably, particularly since the 1960s, when I attended graduate school. During the past decades there has been an outpouring of works on politics, the economy, and ideology. Bookshelves fill with biographies and studies of secession, as well as works on the role of African Americans, women, and the less wealthy. Printed volumes of papers and new sources on the Internet have proved a marvelous boon for researchers. So what is the problem? Why cannot historians explain the origins of the Civil War—or at least agree on the general outlines of an interpretation? Part of the difficulty lies with the very abundance of material. No one individual could come close to mastering the relevant secondary and primary sources. Even those who work on a single state can spend decades understanding events in one commonwealth. Part of the problem lies in the nature of what historians do. Despite the dreams of a few theorists, writing history remains as much an art as a science.

Still, there is no reason to abandon the question or succumb to an “anything goes” relativism. The Civil War is too important to leave alone. It haunts anyone who wonders how the United States came to be the country it is today. Moreover, professional scholars agree on a great deal before they begin to disagree. Almost all acknowledge the widespread racism in the North. Very few see African Americans as docile, childlike creatures. Most historians recognize the dynamic nature of the Northern economy at least from the 1820s onward—even as they argue about the pace of change in the South. Debates among scholars tend to be exchanges among the well informed. They are clashes between two lawyers who agree about certain facts but differ markedly in the way they interpret those facts.

Clash of Extremes is presented in that spirit. It is written, in part, because of the importance of the topic and the new vistas opened by the literature of the past decades. It is also written because of the problems that beset recent interpretations. If there is a leading explanation today, it is one that harkens back to earlier views. Many historians now affirm the traditional wisdom that slavery caused the Civil War. The North, led by the Republican Party, attacked the institution, the South defended it, and war was the result. James McPherson, the best-known scholar writing today on the Civil War, entitled his great work Battle Cry of Freedom and labeled Lincoln’s victory “the revolution of 1860.” He quotes approvingly a Southern newspaper that in 1860 described the triumphant Republicans as a “party founded on the single sentiment . . . of hatred of African slavery.” Southerners, according to McPherson, had no choice but to respond to this threat and did so in “the counterrevolution of 1861.” Reviewing a book by Maury Klein, McPherson notes: “If anyone still has doubts about the salience of slavery as the root of secession, Klein’s evidence should remove them.” In short, according to McPherson and the historians who agree with him, the North’s passionate opposition to slavery and the equally fervent Southern defense of the institution caused the sectional clash.

There are, however, difficulties with this “idealistic” explanation. To begin with, an emphasis on strongly held views about slavery sheds little light on the sequence of events that led to the Civil War. At least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Northerners had resolutely condemned slavery, even if few advocated immediate abolition. This hostility to bondage, however, marked both the era of compromise,
1820 to 1850, as well as the increasingly bitter clashes of the 1850s, culminating in war. A persuasive interpretation must look elsewhere to explain why a lengthy period of cooperation gave way to one of conflict.

A focus on slavery also explains little about the divisions within the North and the South. It assumes unity in each of these regions when in fact there was fragmentation. Southerners who deemed the Republican victory so threatening that they called for secession comprised a distinct minority within their section. Of the fifteen slave states only seven, located in the Deep South, left the Union before fighting broke out. And many people in those seven states resisted immediate secession. At least 40 percent of voters, and in some cases half, opposed immediate secession in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Border States—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—remained in the Union, while the Upper South states—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—joined the Confederacy only after Lincoln’s call for troops forced them to choose sides. One hundred thousand whites (along with a larger number of blacks) from the Confederate states fought for the Union. There is no question that some individuals in the South felt that Lincoln’s election posed a mortal threat to slavery, but more did not.

Similarly, the North was divided in the years before the war, with only the Republicans rejecting compromise. In 1856 most Northerners backed the Republicans’ opponents, and even in 1860 45 percent of the North voted for a candidate other than Lincoln. A convincing explanation must shed light on all groups and not simply focus on those whose outlook fits the interpretation.

Finally, the idealistic interpretation distorts the policies and positions of the Republican Party. Unquestionably Republicans, like virtually all free state residents, condemned slavery. But for most Republicans, opposition to bondage was limited to battling its extension into the West. Few Republicans advocated ending slavery—except in the distant future. Party members roundly rejected abolitionist demands for immediate action. Moreover, most Republicans (like most Northerners) were racists and had little interest in expanding the rights of free blacks. Indeed, many Republicans advocated free soil and a prohibition on the emigration to the West of all African Americans, free and slave. Blocking the spread of slavery was an important stance and one that frightened many in the South. But this position must not be equated with a humanitarian concern for the plight of African Americans. For most Republicans nonextension was more an economic policy designed to secure Northern domination of Western lands than the initial step in a broad plan to end slavery.

Nor does a celebration of the “battle cry of freedom” fairly characterize Republican goals once fighting began: the party initial

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Meet the Author

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.

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