Monday, March 2, 2009

Egnal: "Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War"

[Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War by Marc Egnal (Hill and Wang, 2009). Hardcover, maps, tables, notes, index. Pages main/total: 360/429. ISBN: 978-0-8090-9536-0 $30]

The relative importance of the various factors put forth as major causes of the Civil War is a source of endless debate among scholars and enthusiasts alike, and a fair number of books are published each year promoting one idea or another. Not surprisingly, some of these works are the product of modern ideological agendas, with economics being a common offender. Thankfully, any fears about the standing of Marc Egnal's contribution to the discussion are quickly proved baseless. Clash of Extremes is a well documented and skillfully developed advancement of the idea that rapidly changing and competing economic realities comprised the primary driving forces behind the movement toward secession and ultimately Civil War. At the same time, it's surely fair to say that the last thing Egnal would want his readers to take away from this book is any notion that slavery had little or nothing to do with the Civil War. The role of the peculiar institution and the North's growing opposition to its spread are far from minimized in the author's analysis; indeed, they are deeply intertwined with Egnal's primary argument that evolving sectional economies created the climate that would lead to war.

The author traces how, by the mid-1850s, the rapidly expanding Great Lakes economy led to a fundamental and permanent transformation from a sectionally beneficial north-south arrangement to a cheaper and more efficient east-west system of railroads and canals. The transformation forged closer trade and political ties between the upper midwest and the New England states. This rather radical reorientation, in combination with a more assertive national Abolitionist movement and soil exhaustion in the Deep South, fed the feeling of isolation within those agrarian states with the highest slave populations and enhanced southern fears of the end of their social and economic system. The burgeoning Great Lakes economy also demanded of its general government the internal improvements necessary for its new national prominence. The question was what political party would be able to take advantage of this new direction. The old national parties (Democrats and Whigs) failed, with the Democrats imploding over the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Whigs crumbling at a rate few could have predicted at the time1. Into the vacuum stepped the Republican Party, with its anti-slavery stance and strong support for protective trade policies and internal improvements. Unfortunately for the country as a whole, its power base was exclusively northern2. The new level of extremism in both sections made compromise impossible.

Egnal also expands his economic outlook into Reconstruction and beyond. In a fascinating chapter, he outlines the Republican party's abandonment of its black civil rights agenda in the South in favor of (re-)devoting itself to economic interests, namely the focused expansion of industry in the North. The author's argument that this movement was less of a change in principle and more of a reassertion of the original party platform grounded in economics is largely persuasive. The whole idea raises an interesting what-if question as to what role former president Lincoln would have played, or could have played, in the critical years following the Civil War in managing the ideological direction of the Republican Party. Lincoln was above all a politician, and, released from the incredible political pressures surrounding the priority of winning a Civil War, would it have been the post-war years that truly would have seen the "real" Lincoln?

So, where does this all take us? We still have a Deep South seceding over fears attached to the national election of a purely sectional party openly hostile to slavery (or, more realistically, slavery's spread). I think Egnal would counter that it was the fundamental economic realignment of the 1850s that created the radical political environment to begin with -- the death of national parties that would serve the self-interest of northern and southern men, and the rise of sectional extremism on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. In doing so, however, the author rather understates the radicalizing political fallout from the "Bleeding Kansas" events of the same period, but his overall point is well taken.

Clash of Extremes is a product of original research and analysis, as well as able synthesis of the secondary literature. Egnal's thesis lending causative primacy to economic factors is a well supported one. His narrative is also abundantly supported by well rendered maps and tables. The thesis presentation additionally avoids the common pitfall of narrowing its economic focus so much that it cannot accommodate other important factors. Similarly, the generalities presented to the reader uniformly have qualifiers attached, a practice indicative of a thoughtful anticipation of notable exceptions and counter arguments to the point made. Egnal's dispassionate scholarship is a welcome breath of fresh air in an economic discussion all too often characterized by its absence. His accessible study is an award worthy effort that is highly recommended.

1 - Egnal's explanation of the mid-1850s demise of the Whigs is interesting. Dissatisfied with finding a home in an established party, Free Soilers and anti-slavery Democrats wanted a fresh start with a new party. Northern Whigs themselves were divided between those with traditional economic ties with the South and lake district Whigs more committed to anti-slavery policies and deeply concerned with the internal improvements they believed their newly prominent region was owed. The author's assertion that the Know Nothings were far more an anti-slavery than anti-immigrant party is also persuasive.
2 - According to Egnal, the Democratic and Whig parties had kept extremism in check by emphasizing class differences over sectional ones. Prosperous farmers, professionals, and merchants -- North and South -- were attracted to the Whig principles of protective tariffs and government support for transportation, schools, and banks. Louisiana's sugar plantation owners were particular supporters of trade protection. Small farmers and the urban working class were less directly involved in industrial expansion and the market economy. They comprised the bedrock of the Democratic opposition.

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