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

by James Durney on April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War
by Marc Egnal

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080909536X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809095360

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.  The national political parties, in both places could work together and build consensus.

This vertical nation started to break down as railroads and cannels linked the Great Lakes to the East.  While more expensive, it was faster to ship goods to New York this way than down the Mississippi.  This creates a northern block, looking for local internal improvements and independent from the South.  The majority of the book traces the rise to power of this northern block and the southern response.  Questions of tariffs, internal improvements and slavery become not national issues but regional ones.  The author presents the views of all regions in their terms.  This gives the reader a fuller understanding of how they see these developments and how this influences the local economy.

Is slavery important?  Yes, the author fully covers the North’s anti-slavery movement and Southern responses.  He shows that anti-slavery did not mean acceptance of free blacks.  Kansas was a free state for white labor that did not wish to compete with blacks as slaves or as freemen.  One chapter deals with the North’s raising anti-slavery sentiment and the general raciest attitudes and laws in most of the states.  This is powerful stuff, raising real questions about how much did the North want to end slavery.   Having read Evan carton’s “Patriotic Treason” not long ago, this chapter was familiar and I could see how good the scholarship is.

The author follows this idea through the war and into Reconstruction.  He makes a powerful case that economics has the single greatest impact.  For those interested in the causes of the war this is an excellent book!  It will challenge you with logical arguments bolstered by convincing examples.  The author’s ideas fit what happened and show that while anti-slavery was a major force; it was driven by economic realities.  If you get a chance, read the first and second paragraphs on page seven in the Introduction.   The author addresses the problems with the “current emphasis on slavery” and provides an excellent interpretation of causes for the war.

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