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Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Paperback – January 5, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The assertion that sectional economic interests rather than the slavery controversy provoked the Civil War goes back at least as far as Charles Beard, and even postwar Southern apologists (including Jefferson Davis) raged over Northern exploitation of the South; so Egnal is hardly reinventing the wheel. Still, he does offer some interesting, even original, perspectives that are well supported by data. In particular, Egnal shows how the strong economic bonds that united New England and the South in the first part of the nineteenth century had been superseded by an east-west axis as the economy of the Great Lakes region developed. He stresses the economic divide between Northern and Southern interests but fails to acknowledge that Southern reliance on slave labor (and, thus, overreliance on cotton) was at the heart of that divide. He also de-emphasizes the emotional flashpoint that slavery provided, despite the massive evidence available from both Northern and Southern newspapers and journals stoking the fires of sectional hostility. Nevertheless, this is a serious work that may well reignite a historical debate. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1 Reprint edition (January 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809016451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809016457
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,965 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm interested in "big picture" history. So my first book, A Mighty Empire, examines the origins of the American Revolution. Divergent Paths treats the influence of culture on growth. My most recent work, Clash of Extremes, looks at the causes of the Civil War. At the same time, I'm convinced that broad interpretations must emerge from the study of many individuals.

Those interested in the Civil War should check out the web site for Clash of Extremes:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By James W. Durney TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The Emancipation Tradition maintains that slavery is the cause of the Civil War. The North found slavery so morally unacceptable that they were willing to make war to end it. The South found slavery so necessary that they were willing to make war to save it. The American Civil War becomes a huge battle between good and evil. The last line of this book says: "Economics more than high moral concerns produced the Civil War.' Disagreeing with the Emancipation Tradition is fraught with peril. The two Amazon editorial reviews imply that the author has missed the boat with this book and his ideas are questionable if not wrong.
This is not the most readable of books! Economic history does not leap off the page. There are no ringing phrases, heroic defenses or gallant charges to keep us involved. What we have is a series of intelligent well-supported arguments that support the author's thesis. The author using politics and economics demonstrates how the United States moved from a vertical North/South nation to a horizontal East/West nation. This movement destroyed the element of comprise that held off war for so many years. While allowing the growth of a northern party, bring it to national dominance in 1860.
In a series of well-presented logical chapters, we see how the vertical alignment of America created comprises. The two national political parties, Whigs and Democrats, had strengths in both the North & South. The Mississippi River system moved goods between the regions establishing dependence between them. The slave owning plantations feed cotton to the mills in the north. Northern merchants handled the international shipping for the South. One nation existed that needed comprises to maintain this system of trade.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Robert A. Lynn on April 6, 2010
Format: Paperback

Between the years 1800 and 1860, arguments between the North and South grew more intense. One of the mainquarrels was about taxes paid on foreign goods: this tax was referred to as a tariff. Southerners believed that these tariffs were unfair and aimed toward them because they imported a wider variety of goods compared to the North's imports. Taxes were also levied on many Southern exports, an expense that wasn't always applied to Northern goods of equal value; an awkward economic structure allowed states and private transportation companies to accomplish this. Consequently, this affected Southern banks because they found themselves paying higher interest rates on loans made with banks in the North. The situation grew worse after several "panics", including one in 1857 that affected more Northern banks than Southern banks. Southern financiers found themselves burdened with high payments just to save Northern banks that had suffered financial losses through poor investments. The North and the West didn't agree on what was more important economically. The West focused on the canals and transportation necessary to get their products to market easier and to receive products from other parts of the country. Some Northerneers were invested in the cotton market (which involved many slaves) and were more concerned with getting the cotton to their mills to produce material for clothes. These tensions usually played out in politics at the local and national levels. Even within the political parties, economics caused problems.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Zon Toro on November 16, 2011
Format: Paperback
Mark Egnal makes a significant contribution to civil war literature by exploring the economic underpinnings of secession and civil war. Egnal's writing is highly analytical, logical, and well supported by ample primary sources and statistics. His analysis is even handed, and demonstrates that neither the Lost Cause or Lincoln Canonizaton schools of thought adequately explain the causes of secession and civil war.

In Mr. Egnal's words, "this work argues that more than any other concern, the evolution of Northern and Southern economies explains the Civil War." In that regard, Mr Egnal makes a compelling case that slavery was a necessary but not sufficient factor in causing secession and the war. Engal analyzes attitudes about slavery and economics on state-by-state basis and in doing so paints a complex picture of social and economic upheaval that challenges simplistic assumptions about Northern and Southern attitudes and priorities.

In his state-by-state analysis, Mr. Egnal introduces us to many of the power players of the period, some that are well known to civil war enthusiasts and others who have been obscured by the passage of time. My only complaint is that he provides so much background information on even the less significant players that it tends to sidetrack his narrative. (On the plus side, when I drove past the Rhett Ave exit in Charleston last week, I realized (thanks to this book) that it was named after one of the leading "fire-eating" secessionists...always interesting to know the backstory of street names I guess.)

I read Clash of Extremes right after finishing Lincoln and the Decision for War. The latter book details how Northern politics influenced the secession crisis. The two are excellent companion pieces that when taken together lead the reader to a much richer understanding of the causes of secession and civil war. I highly recommend they be read together or in quick succession.
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