Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (Hardcover)

The Economic Origins of the Civil War

By Marc Egnal

Hill and Wang, 9780809095360, 432pp.

Publication Date: January 6, 2009



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.

About 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."

Praise For Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War

“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 “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 “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 “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  “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 “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