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



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


Hill and Wang
June 6, 2009


Marc Egnal’s Clash of Extremes challenges the orthodoxy that the Civil War began for moral reasons. Egnal contends that more than any other concern, the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies explains the sectional clash.

Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Clash of Extremes shows that between 1820 and 1850 patterns of trade and production drew the sections together. For example, the Mississippi River provided a strong north-south axis while planters earned high profits on fertile soils. Those ties allowed sectional leaders to broker a series of compromises. After mid-century all that changed, as the rise of the Great Lakes economy reoriented Northern trade along east-west lines. Slave owners, wrestling with the first signs of soil exhaustion, found Washington more foe than friend. The underpinnings for compromise were gone, and escalating hostility was the result.

While this study emphasizes economics, it gives careful consideration to the role of individuals, the rise of the antislavery movement, and social conflict. Ultimately, changes in the Lake districts and New England and in the southern part of the Deep South caused those regions to take the lead in the conflict. The result was truly a “clash of extremes.”

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.