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Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War.

Author(s):Egnal, Marc
Reviewer(s):McGuire, Robert A.

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. xiii + 416 pp. $30 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-8090-9536-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert A. McGuire, Department of Economics, University of Akron.


In this story of the American Civil War, Marc Egnal, professor of history at York University, chronicles the history of the events leading to southern secession and the Civil War, arguing that the war?s origins can be found in the changing economy of the nineteenth century.? In short, Clash of Extremes ?presents an economic interpretation of the origins of the Civil War? (p. 17).? The thesis of the book is straightforward: ?It contends that the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies, more than any other factor, explains the conflict? (p. 17).? Egnal concludes his story with the bold assertion that ?Economics more than high moral concerns produced the Civil War? (p. 348).

According to Egnal, while slavery, of course, played a critical role in the Civil War, the existence of slavery alone cannot account for the geography and timing of southern secession and the Civil War.? No one doubts that slavery (and the slave economy) was the prominent issue for the Lower South.? However, Egnal argues that slavery cannot account for why secession took place in the Upper South but not in the Border States.? Neither can slavery account for why secession and the war (even in the Lower South) began in 1861 and not earlier.? Yet the changing economies of the various regions of the United States and the economic relations among the regions during 1820-1860 can explain the geography and timing of secession and the war, according to the author.

While Clash of Extremes is referred to as ?an economic interpretation,? it is very prominently a political story of the origins of the Civil War as well.? It tells the story of the roles of the key political players in the development of the various political parties that came and went during the nineteenth century and their economic positions.? Among the better known political actors whose roles and economic views are prominently discussed are: John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Salmon Chase, Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, Joshua Giddings, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, John Sherman, Alexander H. Stephens, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Martin Van Buren, and Henry Wilson.? Egnal argues that the development of the political parties and developments within and among the regional economies go hand in hand, along with ideologies, individuals, and religion, to explain secession and the Civil War.? He concludes that the cause of the Civil War was ultimately the clash of extremes among the Democratic and Republican parties, which supported fundamentally different economic policies in the southernmost part of the Deep South and the northernmost part of the North.

Following an introductory chapter, Part I (chapters 1-3) explains how economic ties between northern and southern states through the expansion of north-south trade on the Mississippi and growing ties among the Border States and the North kept the nation unified during the 1820s-1840s.? According to Egnal, the development of the Whig and Democratic parties as national parties with proponents throughout the nation facilitated sectional cooperation despite regional and sectional differences among their supporters.? Part II (chapters 4-7) describes the economic changes that took place in the 1830s and 1840s that Egnal considers the roots of the sectional conflict that was to follow.? Economic changes in the North were the growth of the Great Lakes economy and growing east-west economic relations and strengthened commercial ties between the Border States and the North.? Economic changes in the South were the spread of wheat production and the growth of more diversified economies in the northern areas of most of the Deep South states.? Ideological changes also were important: northern antislavery sentiment grew and divisions between the northern and southern regions of the Deep South over states? rights developed.? Both sets of changes were part and parcel of changes in the two national political parties — the eventual demise of the Whigs and the movement of Democrats toward being a southern party.

Part III tells the story of the origins and triumph of the Republican Party in 1854-1860 (chapters 8 and 9) as well as the story of southern secession in 1860/61 (chapters 10 and 11).? According to Egnal, the national economic policies of the Republicans more than anything else led to secession and war.? Republicans wanted higher tariffs, internal improvements (mainly in the North), limits to the expansion of slavery, and a homestead act, but they did not generally move to proscribe slavery in the District of Columbia, stop the interstate slave trade, or overturn the fugitive slave act.? Mainstream Republicans were not abolitionists.? The South, however, feared that the pursuit of a national and northern economic agenda would ultimately destroy slavery so they seceded and went to war.? Part IV argues that the economic policies of the Republicans during the war (higher tariffs, national banks, national currencies, a homestead act, land-grant colleges, and a transcontinental railroad) make clear that its prime motivation in not compromising with the Democrats and the South in 1861 was its economic nationalism (chapter 12).? Moreover, Republican economic policies in promoting an industrial state during the postbellum decades and the eventual abandonment of the former slaves in the 1870s provide further nails in the coffin of the ?slavery? explanation for the Civil War (chapter 13).

Clash of Extremes is not written in the cliometric tradition.? There are no formal models of economic behavior or motives; there are no quantitative tests or econometrics in the book.? The approach of the book is the traditional historical narrative.? Egnal compares and contrasts the stated economic positions and policies of the leading political actors and their political parties from 1820 through 1860 as well as the economic positions and policies of the Republican Party during the war and in the immediate decades thereafter.? To support his arguments, Egnal primarily relies upon evidence on (1) congressional and presidential voting patterns, the location of crop cultivation, and the location of secession votes which are presented in eleven different maps; (2) legislative voting on selected economic issues and the distribution of farm animal values, farm values, manufacturing, and slaves which are presented in eleven different tables; and (3) the documented rhetoric of the primary political actors.

While there are always things that one can complain about in a book[1], I still liked the book overall and found the arguments convincing.? I enjoyed reading Clash of Extremes.? It is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the events and history leading up to the American Civil War.? It also is worth reading for anyone interested in nineteenth- century political history more generally and the history of nineteenth-century political parties more specifically.


1. For example, there was a much greater North-South split over the tariff during the entire 1820-1860 period than Egnal acknowledges (see Baack, McGuire, and Van Cott, 2009, pp. 554-55 and table 1); Egnal in passing seems to imply that higher tariffs were definitely pro-development (p. 321); Egnal makes antiquated arguments that after the war ?African-Americans were forced to sharecrop, grow cotton, and accept a life of poverty? and that ?[s]harecropping negated free labor? (p. 333), which ignore a large body of modern economic history research.


Ben Baack, Robert A. McGuire, and T. Norman Van Cott (2009) ?Constitutional Agreement during the Drafting of the Constitution: A New Interpretation,? Journal of Legal Studies 38 (June): 533-67.


Robert McGuire is Research Professor at the University of Akron.? His most recent books are the collaborative, multi-authored Government and the American Economy: A New History (University of Chicago Press, 2007) with Price Fishback, Robert Higgs, Gary Libecap, et al and Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress: Diseases and Economic Development (MIT Press, forthcoming 2011) with Philip R. P. Coelho.?

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Servitude and Slavery
Military and War
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century