Marc Egnal


On his book Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War

Cover Interview of February 21, 2010

In a nutshell

Clash of Extremes presents a new interpretation of the causes of the Civil War.  If the prevailing explanation can be summarized in one word, “slavery,” the argument in my book comes down to “economics.”

I tackled the Civil War because I felt slavery just didn’t explain why the sections clashed.  For example, the Republican Party, which emerged in the 1850s, made clear it would not disturb slavery where it existed.  Nor did Abraham Lincoln’s party oppose the Fugitive Slave Law or call for emancipation when war broke out.  In the South, most whites reviled abolitionists, but opposed secession during the winter of 1860 and ‘61.  The Border States would remain in the Union, while the Upper South left only once fighting erupted in April 1861.  Even in the Deep South, perhaps half the whites resisted immediate secession.  A focus on slavery also does not shed light on the earlier period; between 1820 and 1850 the North and South cooperated with each other, although Northerners denounced bonded labor and Southerners defended the institution.

The evolution of the Northern and Southern economies better explains the events of these years.  Between 1820 and 1850 the national economy kept the sections together despite disagreements over slavery.  The Mississippi River and its tributaries formed a powerful north-south axis.  High returns from cotton, fresh soils, and the assistance of the federal government in obtaining new territories persuaded Southerners to value the Union.  The two great parties that formed in this era—the Whigs and the Democrats—divided along lines of wealth while sharing a belief in a unified nation.

After 1850 this picture changed.  The rapid growth of a transportation system based on the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal reoriented the trade of the northern part of the North.  The spread of antislavery only heightened sentiments in that area.  In the South, the declining profitability of cotton and diminished prospects for new land led many to question the value of remaining part of the United States.  The opposition to further compromise was greatest at the extremes: the northern part of the North and the southern part of the South.  Hence the book’s title: Clash of Extremes.  In contrast to the Deep South, the slave states more involved in the growing overland trade with the prosperous North proved reluctant to sever ties.

The changing economy, along with the growth of antislavery, fostered new political alignments.  Voters living near the Lakes and in New England came together to form the Republican Party.  This party was more concerned with promoting economic development than with fighting slavery.  In the South a new militant Democratic Party emerged and in 1860 ran its own candidate, John C. Breckinridge.  After the outbreak of war, as before, the Republicans focused more on their economic program than on helping African Americans.  This imbalance—economic development, first; assistance to blacks, second—continued during Reconstruction.