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Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Hardcover – January 6, 2009
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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.
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the strong economic bonds that united New England and the South in the first part of the nineteenth century had been superseded by an east-west axis as the economy of the Great Lakes region developed.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
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Top customer reviews
Over and over again, Mr. Egnal demonstrates how Slavery near breaks the Union, and only the economic dependency of North upon South forces the Northern States to disagreeable compromise.
By constant recitation of the role that Slavery played in shaping events, (and how the North agonized over compromise), the body of the text argues effectively against the thesis stated.
Mr. Egnal does an thorough job of showing how the South became a less significant part of the North’s economy. As that process accelerated, the North became less willing to accept the expansion of slavery in return for economic gain. The wealthier the North became and the less trade depended on the South, the easier it was to stand against compromise. This was not so much an economic motive to suppress slavery as it was removal of an incentive to abandon principle.
The book documents that, by the time of the rise of the Republican Party, you find a fairly consistent Northern consensus on three issues. First, that the Free States had the right to outlaw Slavery within their borders. Second, the expansion of Slavery to new territories was unacceptable. Third, that individual Northern States had the right to refuse to return runaway slaves who reached their borders.
The author then shows that the Slave State leaders understood that accepting this consensus meant the eventual dismantling of their society; possibly sooner than later.
The South’s system could not survive a free North that would accept runaway slaves and turn a blind eye to future John Browns. Add to that a cap on expansion of slavery to the Territories, and slavery had a very short life expectancy. Recognition of this reality is why the South’s leadership demanded a constitutional amendment to make slavery legal throughout the United States and territories. When it became rapidly apparent that this was not forthcoming, the South had no choice other than between the eventual destruction of their feudal system or a war to try and regain their former supremacy in government. It was not to start a new country that the Confederate States seceded; it was to take the old one back. So, while the North did not initially fight the war for abolition, it was the North’s stand on slavery that made war almost inevitable. The South began the war to preserve Slavery through re-achieving domination; the North reacted to prevent that.
What mainly seems to offend Mr. Egnal is that pre-war anti-slavery forces do not meet his modern moral standards. He creates a narrow definition of what it meant to be “Anti-Slavery”. You must be for immediate nationwide abolition and integration of male ex-slaves as equal citizens to meet his test. This is a moralistic and modern way of looking at the issue. It was entirely possible to be sincerely opposed to Slavery and still be a racist. These positions are not inconsistent. To believe sub-Saharan Africans are incapable of the exercise of equal rights did not require acceptance of their enslavement. You could also be against Slavery, but not wish to see a bloody and destructive war for immediate abolition. This “peace at any price” position was not due to lack of adherence to principle; but from recognition that life often faces us with the choice of the lesser of evils. If you broaden the definition of “Anti-Slavery” to include the racists and the pacifists, you then get a much more accurate picture.
In short, I think this book shows that the origin of the war was the North’s refusal to accept slavery, and the South’s reaction to that refusal. I would recommend that the reader skip the introduction and final chapter, wherein it is demonstrated clearly that not all men are Saints. Shocking, I know.
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