New book challenges current view on cause of American Civil War

Despite popular belief, the American Civil War was not fought over slavery, says York history Professor Marc Egnal in his new book, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War, to be launched next week. The comforting notion that the Civil War was fought to end bondage doesn’t square with the events either before or after the war or with the divisions within both sections, says Egnal.

Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War is being touted as a bold reinterpretation that will challenge the way people currently think about the American Civil War. In his forthcoming book launch and talk, “Lincoln is Not the Civil War", Egnal will examine the ideas in his new work. The event will take place Jan. 21, from 4 to 6pm in Room 108N, at the Munk Centre, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto (one block south of Bloor Street near the St. George subway stop).

Left: Marc Egnal, and below, some of

Egnal argues that economics, not slavery or high moral principles, caused the war. It’s a contention that runs contrary to the accepted interpretation, which asserts that strong beliefs about slavery underlaid the conflict. Despite the North’s dislike of slavery and the South’s defence of the institution, the period from 1820 to 1850 was marked by a series of sectional compromises, says Egnal.

During these decades, the Mississippi River tied together the country’s northern and southern regions, he notes. The textile manufacturers of the North relied on the cotton producers, while the southern states had abundant new soils and a close relationship with a federal government that defended their interests. "Given these strong ties, both sections were willing to make deals," he says.

Around mid-century, the patterns of trade and production in the two sections changed. The commerce of the North was reoriented around an east-west axis involving the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. "So the people living around the Great Lakes had less interest in cooperating with the South. They were more concerned with improving navigation on the lakes," says Egnal. Northerners demanded extensive outlays for lake improvements and justified these demands with a philosophy of nationalism.

At the same time, the South was facing soil exhaustion and increasing hostility from a federal government that seemed less and less interested in expanding the area open to their staples. Planters in the Deep South also saw the border states growing closer to the North. Concerns about the long-term survival of slavery led many cotton planters to contemplate secession.

"The abolitionist movement was expanding during these years, but these individuals were always a minority and much less significant than those who focused on building the economy," says Egnal. He figures those who cared about improving the lives of African-Americans represented only about 15 per cent of the northern population. As proof, Egnal points to the aftermath of the war – the era of Reconstruction – when segregation and racism became thoroughly entrenched in the US, despite the dominance of the Republican party. 

“It’s a topic I’ve long been interested in. I think books come out of dissatisfaction with other books’ interpretations,” he says. “I have spent more than a dozen years on this topic because of the importance of the Civil War and because of what I see as the shortcomings of the prevailing interpretation."

Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War, picked up by the History Book Club in the US as the alternate book in April, covers the period from the 1820s through Reconstruction (1865-1877).

Egnal is also the author of 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.