Egnal Revisits Civil War Theory

'Clash of Extremes' by Marc Egnal (Hill and Wang)

“The Civil War will not go away,” Marc Egnal begins his new book, “Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War.” This grand statement strikes the reader with the relevance and importance of his argument right from the start.

The argument—that the Civil War was caused more by economic changes than the glaring issue of slavery—goes to the heart of a historiographical tendency that Egnal rightly sees as dangerous. People have come to see slavery as the cause of the war, he argues, because this provides them with a comforting myth that helps present the history of the United States as simply the progress of liberty and democracy. The Civil War won’t go away, because it shines a light on America that can be troubling, but this problem must be reconciled and not ignored, he writes.

According to Egnal, a change in the national economy brought about a realignment of American politics along a north-south axis in the decades before 1861. His cogent and engaging book serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of simplistic historical awareness.

Egnal gradually builds his argument through an analysis of the 40 years preceding the outbreak of war. He begins by outlining the model of a “national economy” that linked the producers of the South to the manufacturers of the North and helped bind regional interests. In the 1850s, however, this alliance broke down because of two factors: the rise of the antislavery movement and the development of the Great Lakes economy.

Both of these were northern-based movements and spurred the growth of the Republican Party, which promoted federal support for the northern economy and opposed the spread of slavery, culminating in the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 and the secession of the southern states.

Egnal argues that most Americans, including many historians, have come to accept that the Republicans’ anti-slavery policies were the cause of both their popularity with the electorate and the decision of the slave-holding states to secede. He acknowledges that this was one part of their attraction but argues that economics offer a more satisfactory explanation for the party’s rise.

The argument Egnal makes is both powerful and valid. It’s important to consider slavery from an economic, rather than a primarily ethical, standpoint. Northerners demanded that the expansion of slavery end, driven by both their moral objection to the institution and their desire to cultivate the northern industry in the West, and Lincoln only adopted the cause of immediate emancipation in 1862 due to military necessity. While it is difficult to say for sure that Egnal’s argument for the preeminence of economic factors in the outbreak of war is wholly correct, it is clear that the economic differences between the North and the South determined the political landscape of the period.

One reason why Egnal’s interpretation of the conflict might be unfashionable is the troubling light it throws on this period of American history. More than 600,000 soldiers were killed during the Civil War, and this brutality is much easier to justify in the name of high ideals, like the preservation of each individual’s inalienable rights. If the war had economic motivations, though, this “war of liberation” becomes something much darker. Egnal calls this, “one of the tragedies of American history,” explaining that despite their moral imperative against slavery, Northern sympathy for its victims was limited.

“Myths are luxuries that no nation can afford,” Egnal says, and this message could not be more correct or relevant. Marc Egnal is right. We cannot live with the history we want; we must accept all of its complications and difficulties, no matter how hard that may be.

—Staff writer Chris R. Kingston can be reached at kingston@fas.harvard.edu.