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Clash of Extremes

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Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War. By Marc Egnal. (Hill & Wang - A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2009. Pg. xii, 416.) ISBN 10: 0-8090-9536-X. ISBN 13: 978-0-8090-9536-0.

Reviewed by Herbert White - January 14, 2009

For far too long, when historians have investigated the origins of the American Civil War, they have focuses almost solely upon slavery as the overriding factor that spawned the war. This is an oversimplified explanation for a conglomeration of factors that coalesced to push the country into war. In Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Marc Egnal provides an in-depth and compelling look at the economic factors that were instrumental in the rush toward war. Egnal, a professor of history at York University, is the author of a number of groundbreaking books, including: A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution, Divergent Paths: How Culture and Institutions Have Shaped North American Growth, and New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada.

Today, it is politically correct to describe the American Civil War as a war fought over humanitarian principles and that it was solely a war aimed at ending slavery. A long, long time ago, when I was in school, this was not the standard line. Rather I was taught that the war began due to, basically, an imbalance in trade. The North had all the manufacturing facilities, while the South mainly relied upon cotton and tobacco as their main source of income. These were two crops that greatly depleted the fertility of the southern fields, and as time passed, yields began to decrease drastically. As well, due to the lack of manufacturing facilities, the South was a net importer, having to buy just about everything from machinery to basic supplies either from the North or foreign counties. As their economy began to slow down, their ability to import these necessities became more costly, which in turn gave rise to huge social and political conflicts. In Egnal's ground breaking book, he takes a step back from the current moralistic view of the Civil War, and reinvestigates this older theory that it was economics, not slavery, that was the main impetus that led to the start of the American Civil War. In the process, he provides a solid, academically rigorous examination of how this economic imbalance occurred, and its far reaching political, economic, and social consequences. Not the least of which was, according to Egnal, the Republican Party's push for a ban on slavery in the new territories to the West on purely economic grounds, not on moral ones.

In writing this book, Egnal scrutinized countless primary and secondary sources, focuses on the period from 1820 through the Reconstruction. He examined trade practices between the North and South, westward expansion, soil depletion in the South, patterns of production of durable goods, mechanization, and the politics of trade and economics. In addition, he also looked at the undertones that the antislavery movement had on the move toward war, as well as how soil exhaustion in the South help drive the desire of Southern farmers and politicians to gain control of new lands to the West, where soil conditions were more favorable.

Without a doubt, many will view a Clash of Extremes as a controversial book. After all, it steps on the toes of many long cherished ideals and the self-image that many Americans' have of their Nation's history. It is much easier to reconcile oneself to the destructive nature of a Civil War when you couch its cause in moral terms. When it just boils down to money - it becomes a very bitter pill to swallow. Egnal's scholarship and detailed analysis of the data makes it hard to argue with the notion that the war, at least initially, was driven in large measure by economic factors.

While I agree with much of Egnal's analysis, I find it hard to agree with him that economics was the exclusive cause of the American Civil War. We may never know the entire truth about what exactly caused the start of the Civil War, but we can rest assured that its origins lie in a combination of factors, not just one. I will, however agree, that economics played a substantial role in the events leading up to the start of the war - and it was a major player in deciding the outcome of the war. No matter which side of the line you fall on, in regard to which factor or factors you believe where most influential in propelling the country to war with itself, you will find that Clash of Extremes offers keen insights into the often underrated effect that economics did indeed play in all aspects of the American Civil War. You will also find that his exploration of the economic factors that contributed to the war, and the related political and social discordances that arose due to these economic factors, will enable you to better understand the causes and the consequences of the Civil War, and will also help you to understand the role that economics played in the prosecution of the war. This book is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the American Civil War, and it is sure to spark heated conversations in both academic and social settings.

Related Reviews:

The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, edited by Drew Gilpin Faust.
A compelling history that looks at an often overlooked aspect of the American Civil War - the dead, and how the military and civilian population dealt with the more than 600,000 casualties.

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, by James M. McPherson.
The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, this compelling history chronicles the battle that took place on September 17, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This day remains the single most deadly days in American history, and the outcome of the battle was to change the course of the Civil War.

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