Marc Egnal


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

Cover Interview of February 21, 2010

A close-up

Here are my suggestions for browsing Clash of Extremes.  Begin with the Introduction: it provides a brief overview and roadmap for the rest of the book.  Then take a look at Chapter 4, “Rise of the Lake Economy.”  It’s right at the heart of the changes that transformed the North. It’s a chapter filled with portraits of the important, colorful individuals who spoke for the districts near the Great Lakes.  Among those featured are Joshua Giddings, “Long John” Wentworth (one of the few lawmakers taller than Lincoln), Benjamin Franklin Wade, and Lewis Cass.  The chapter also discusses the emergence of a peculiarly Northern strand of “nationalism”—a belief that “what’s good for the North is good for the entire nation.”  That self-serving philosophy would guide the Republicans in the decades after 1860.

Clash of Extremes is an economic interpretation that takes antislavery very seriously. The fifth chapter, “The Campaign Against Slavery,” portrays such activists as William Lloyd Garrison, Salmon Chase, Charles Sumner, and Gerrit Smith.  These pages explore why such crusaders had only a limited impact on the North and why moral concerns remained subordinate to economic ones.

After that, if you are still browsing, explore topics that you find intriguing. You might examine Andrew Jackson’s role in party formation (Chapter 1); follow the activities of Robert Barnwell Rhett in leading the campaign for secession (Chapter 10); or see how Ulysses Grant handled the battle against Klan violence (Chapter 13).