Marc Egnal

 

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

Cover Interview of February 22, 2010

The wide angle

Several principles shape the book.  First, the story of the coming of the Civil War and its aftermath is told with a focus on individuals.  Readers will encounter lawmaker Thaddeus Stevens, hobbled by clubfoot and with his red wig askew, frantically trying to stop the disenfranchisement of blacks in the Pennsylvania legislature.  They will meet Dixon Lewis, who weighed over 400 pounds, campaigning for states rights at Alabama crossroads towns.  They will also get to know women like Abigail Kelley, who had to harden herself to the abuse she received as she went door to door in Lynn, Massachusetts, collecting signatures on antislavery petitions.  Clash of Extremes also highlights African-Americans, like Frederick Douglass, and common folk, like Woodson May, an Alabama shingle maker.

There is no contradiction between a book that examines trends in the economy and society and a focus on individuals.  Just the opposite.  Any explanation of broader changes makes sense only if it also works on the personal level.  Lincoln remarked (in discussing his decision to favor emancipation), “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

Individuals did more than reflect larger developments; they also helped shape them.  John C. Calhoun’s forthright defense of Southern rights influenced his many followers.  Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated divisions within the North and the formation of new parties.  A focus on individuals illuminates the society in which they functioned and the conditions that made their accomplishments possible.  Many in the Deep South eagerly embraced Calhoun’s views because they too feared that the cotton economy could not secure new soils within a Union dominated by the North.  Douglas’s initiative brought into the light divisions within the North that had been present for several years.

Second, while Clash of Extremes concludes that economics was the most important single concern shaping politics, it also examines a broad range of other factors.  The growth of antislavery had a noteworthy impact on the outlook of Northerners.  Religion, place of birth, and national origins were also significant.  For example, New England Congregationalists who settled in the Midwest often favored antislavery parties.  By contrast, those who moved from the slave states to the North remained more sympathetic to the Southern cause.  Similarly, settlers who migrated from the Appalachian highlands to the Deep South supported the Union more than did their neighbors who hailed from South Carolina and Georgia.

Finally, in examining the impact of economic self-interest on individuals, Clash of Extremes emphasizes the mediating role of ideology rather than short-term calculations.  Few individuals chose sides in the sectional dispute simply to put dollars in their purses.  For the elite, ideology might have involved elaborate treatises.  But for the common folk, ideology often meant a party platform that spoke to their broader interests.