INTRODUCTION Rethinking the Origins of the Civil War
The Civil War will not go away. The outpouring of books about the causes of the conflict, Abraham Lincoln, and the war itself continues unabated. And for good reason. Whether the issue is race, region, or industrialization, the Civil War has left a deep imprint on modern America. You would think that after all these years historians would agree on why the country came to blows. But they do not. In many ways, to be sure, our knowledge of the era has advanced remarkably, particularly since the 1960s, when I attended graduate school. During the past decades there has been an outpouring of works on politics, the economy, and ideology. Bookshelves fill with biographies and studies of secession, as well as works on the role of African Americans, women, and the less wealthy. Printed volumes of papers and new sources on the Internet have proved a marvelous boon for researchers. So what is the problem? Why cannot historians explain the origins of the Civil Waror at least agree on the general outlines of an interpretation? Part of the difficulty lies with the very abundance of material. No one individual could come close to mastering the relevant secondary and primary sources. Even those who work on a single state can spend decades understanding events in one commonwealth. Part of the problem lies in the nature of what historians do. Despite the dreams of a few theorists, writing history remains as much an art as a science.
Still, there is no reason to abandon the question or succumb to an anything goes” relativism. The Civil War is too important to leave alone. It haunts anyone who wonders how the United States came to be the country it is today. Moreover, professional scholars agree on a great deal before they begin to disagree. Almost all acknowledge the widespread racism in the North. Very few see African Americans as docile, childlike creatures. Most historians recognize the dynamic nature of the Northern economy at least from the 1820s onwardeven as they argue about the pace of change in the South. Debates among scholars tend to be exchanges among the well informed. They are clashes between two lawyers who agree about certain facts but differ markedly in the way they interpret those facts.
Clash of Extremes is presented in that spirit. It is written, in part, because of the importance of the topic and the new vistas opened by the literature of the past decades. It is also written because of the
problems that beset recent interpretations. If there is a leading explanation today, it is one that harkens back to earlier views. Many historians now affirm the traditional wisdom that slavery caused the Civil
War. The North, led by the Republican Party, attacked the institution, the South defended it, and war was the result. James McPherson, the best-known scholar writing today on the Civil War, entitled his great work Battle Cry of Freedom and labeled Lincolns victory the revolution of 1860.” He quotes approvingly a Southern newspaper that in 1860 described the triumphant Republicans as a party founded on the single sentiment . . . of hatred of African slavery.” Southerners, according to McPherson, had no choice but to respond to this threat and did so in the counterrevolution of 1861.” Reviewing a book by Maury Klein, McPherson notes: If anyone still has doubts about the salience of slavery as the root of secession, Kleins evidence should remove them.” In short, according to McPherson and the historians who agree with him, the Norths passionate opposition to slavery and
the equally fervent Southern defense of the institution caused the sectional clash.
There are, however, difficulties with this idealistic” explanation. To begin with, an emphasis on strongly held views about slavery sheds little light on the sequence of events that led to the Civil War. At least
since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Northerners had resolutely condemned slavery, even if few advocated immediate abolition. This hostility to bondage, however, marked both the era of compromise,
1820 to 1850, as well as the increasingly bitter clashes of the 1850s, culminating in war. A persuasive interpretation must look elsewhere to explain why a lengthy period of cooperation gave way to one of
A focus on slavery also explains little about the divisions within the North and the South. It assumes unity in each of these regions when in fact there was fragmentation. Southerners who deemed the Republican victory so threatening that they called for secession comprised a distinct minority within their section. Of the fifteen slave states only seven, located in the Deep South, left the Union before fighting broke out. And many people in those seven states resisted immediate secession. At least 40 percent of voters, and in some cases half, opposed immediate secession in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Border StatesDelaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouriremained in the Union, while the Upper South statesVirginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansasjoined the Confederacy only after Lincolns call for troops forced them to choose sides. One hundred thousand whites (along with a larger number of blacks) from the Confederate states fought for the Union. There is no question that some individuals in the South felt that Lincolns election posed a mortal threat to slavery, but more did not.
Similarly, the North was divided in the years before the war, with only the Republicans rejecting compromise. In 1856 most Northerners backed the Republicans opponents, and even in 1860 45 percent of the North voted for a candidate other than Lincoln. A convincing explanation must shed light on all groups and not simply focus on those whose outlook fits the interpretation.
Finally, the idealistic interpretation distorts the policies and positions of the Republican Party. Unquestionably Republicans, like virtually all free state residents, condemned slavery. But for most Republicans, opposition to bondage was limited to battling its extension into the West. Few Republicans advocated ending slaveryexcept in the distant future. Party members roundly rejected abolitionist demands for immediate action. Moreover, most Republicans (like most Northerners) were racists and had little interest in expanding the rights of free blacks. Indeed, many Republicans advocated free soil and a prohibition on the emigration to the West of all African Americans, free and slave. Blocking the spread of slavery was an important stance and one that frightened many in the South. But this position must not be equated with a humanitarian concern for the plight of African Americans. For most Republicans nonextension was more an economic policy designed to secure Northern domination of Western lands than the initial step in a broad plan to end slavery.
Nor does a celebration of the battle cry of freedom” fairly characterize Republican goals once fighting began: the party initially rejected emancipation. Freedom became a war aim only once the North saw its utility in hastening a Confederate defeat. Had the conflict been brought to a quick close, as most Northerners and Southerners confidently assumed it would, slavery would have survived. Even after a
year of war, with pressure for emancipation building, Lincoln told the editor Horace Greeley: My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, conformed to that third option: freeing some of the slaves. It liberated those in the rebel states without threatening the property of Border State slaveholders.
The prevailing interpretation creates an odd dichotomy in explaining the first decades of the Republican Party. Before the war, according to this idealistic approach, the Republicans were humanitarians, driven by their concern for free farmers and African Americans. However, this portrayal of the Republican Party quietly yields to a very different picture in the years after the war. Most accounts depict the postwar Republicans as the corrupt servants of big business. The result is a striking discontinuity. The noble crusaders of the antebellum years become the spoilsmen of the Gilded Age. Of course, parties
change. But it is striking how many of the leaders of the 1850s continued to guide the party in the 1870s and later. Idealism existed before the war. But making it the key to understanding the Republicans distorts the record. It fails to explain the actions of a party that, as soon as it took power in 1861, introduced a bold, coherent program to build a national economy and strengthen the dominance of Northern producers.
In sum, the current emphasis on slavery as the cause of the Civil War is fraught with problems. It does not clarify the sequence of events, the divisions within the sections, or the policies and actions of
the Republican Party. It is these problems that a new interpretation must address.
Clash of Extremes responds to these concerns. It argues that more than any other reason, the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies explains the Civil War. This interpretation may strike some students of the Civil War as unfashionable, or, even worse, old-fashioned. But then in the well-trod field of Civil War historiography, most explanations have their antecedents. The best-known proponents of an economic interpretation of the Civil War are Charles and Mary Beard, who wrote during the first decades of the twentieth century. Their work, which is well known to historians, is badly flawed. They
ignored local politics, overlooked the role of ideology, downplayed the impact of individuals, and more generally provided a creaky, mechanistic analysis of sectional conflict. But these faults, which generations of historians have rehearsed, should not discredit an entire approach.
The story set forth in Clash of Extremes begins with the era from 1820 to 1850 and the unifying influence of the national economy. Business activity during these decades brought together the North and South for five reasons. First, trade along the Mississippi and its tributaries gave the Northwest and Southwest a shared outlook and a common set of interests. Second, the Border States, which comprised the northern reaches of the slave regime, had strong and growing ties with the North. These commonwealths saw few benefits and many drawbacks to clashes with the free states. Third, the growth of textile manufacturing and the cotton trade linked the mill owners and merchants of the North with the planters of the South. This alliance, complained Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, joined the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Fourth, the buoyant economy of the Southwest reinforced the case for the Union. The region boasted fresh soils and high returns, as well as a deep appreciation for the role the federal government played in pushing back natives, Spaniards, and Mexicans.
Finally, the burgeoning economy fostered similar divisions in every state, creating the foundation for two national parties. Throughout the United States prosperous farmers, planters, and businessmen came together to support the Whigs. At the same time urban workers and poorer farmers, individuals who felt excluded by the new exchanges, backed the Democratic Party. While the two parties battled each other vigorously over economic issues, both had adherents throughout the country, and shared a common belief in a unified nation.
By midcentury new patterns of commerce and new attitudes had emerged, shattering the unities of the earlier era and providing the basis for a decade of increasingly bitter sectional politics. In the North the rise of the Great Lakes economy changed the outlook of many in the region from western New York to Wisconsin. Producers in the Northwest now conducted most of their business along an east-west axis that began with the lakes and included the Erie Canal and New York City. The booming lake economy required extensive spending on the waterways, higher tariffs to pay for those improvements, and an
active federal government to oversee these programs. Using the language of nationalism, individuals in this region demanded the federal government assist the growth of the Northern economy.
A second development helped reorient the North, reinforcing the changes that emerged from the new patterns of trade. Militant antislavery grew from a handful of abolitionists in the early 1830s to a
powerful movement at midcentury. Perhaps 15 percent of the Northern population came to affirm radical doctrines, including the abolition of bondage in the District of Columbia and the repeal of federal
fugitive slave laws. Most of these individuals lived in New England and in the areas of Yankee settlement around the lakes. Together the rise of the lake economy and the spread of antislavery sentiment transformed the North and created the basis for the Republican Party, an organization that had little interest in compromising with the South. The new party was remarkably successful, winning much of the North in its first national contest in 1856 and electing the president in 1860. Reflecting their roots, Republicans enunciated both antislavery and economic policies, but their clear priority was Northern growth rather than helping African Americans. Even more fervently than other Northerners, Republicans condemned slavery, citing the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation that all men are created equal.” But the only significant initiative Republicans advocated to assist blacks was free soil, a program that furthered both economic and humanitarian goals. Declaring the new territories off-limits to slaveholders, this policy assisted Northern farmers at the same time that it struck a blow against slavery by limiting its expansion. Mainstream Republicans pointedly refused to condemn the Fugitive Slave Act, the interstate slave trade, or slavery in the District of Columbia and federal shipyards. The party acquiesced in the racism that defined Northern society. Although eschewing programs to help blacks, Republicans vigorously supported economic initiatives including higher tariffs, free homesteads, internal improvements, land grant colleges, and a transcontinental railroad.
Not all areas of the North were swept up in these changes; nor did all Northerners rush to the Republican standard. The most outspoken opponents of the new party came from the lower North, an area that included the Ohio Valley, as well as New Jersey and much of Pennsylvania. These districts lay farthest from the lakes and stood apart from the fires of antislavery agitation. Only in 1860 did Republicans win over former Whigs in this region. These partisans responded not to antislavery rhetoric but to the economic measures that were at the heart of the Republican program. Democrats in the lower North, however, did not care for the Republicans economic and antislavery planks and remained firm in their opposition to the party of Lincoln.
By 1850 the South too had been transformed by economic change, leading many individuals to become more ardent defenders of states rights. The most striking turn toward sectionalism appeared in the southern reaches of the Deep South. Planters in these districts displayed little interest in manufacturing or diversified agriculture. Instead, they hitched their future to slavery, a single cash crop, and fresh land. Their determination to expand was intensified in the 1840s by depleted soils, the need for new states to preserve the balance in the Senate, and mounting fears about rebellious slaves in a static society. Unfortunately for these planters, the demand for new lands coincided with the growing opposition in the North to further expansion of the slave regime. The result of this collision of interests was the emergence of an outspoken states rights group and the first secession crisis” of 184951. Across the cotton states prominent politicians, like John C. Calhoun, called for separation. At midcentury, however, unlike in 1861, lawmakers in Washington hammered out a compromise, staving off disunion.
Even in the Deep South not all planters and small farmers cheered the turn toward states rights. Residents in the northern districts of these states had ties of kinship and trade with the Upper South and
were reluctant to go along with the plans of sectional politicians. Many in these areas favored a more diversified economy and believed the South could continue to prosper, even if its expansion was
checked. These divergent views led to clashes during the debates over the Compromise of 1850.
The evolution of the national economy also shaped the response of the Border States and Upper South to the midcentury crisis. Thanks to expanding trade and the declining importance of slavery, the Border StatesMissouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delawaregradually drew closer to the North and shunned the protests led by states rights politicians. The Upper SouthVirginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansasalso boasted many unionists. They included city dwellers, individuals involved in the expanding exchanges with the free states, and many small farmers, particularly those residing in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and the Appalachian highlands. However, unlike the Border States, the Upper South claimed a militant group of slaveholders, who echoed the disunionists views. During the winter of 186061 the cotton states seceded. Leading the campaign for separation were the planters and smaller farmers in the southern districts of the commonwealths from South Carolina to Mississippi, and kindred spirits in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. The arguments put forth echoed those raised in 184951. Only now the case was immeasurably stronger with the Republicans triumphant, slavery still weaker along the Great Border,” and more free states in the Union. For those championing disunion, the logic of their position was clear: Republican pronouncements about the ultimate extinction” of slavery and references to the Declaration of Independence signaled the inevitable destruction of Southern society. Dire foreboding about rebellious slaves, restless lower-class whites, and subversive
factions nursed by Republican patronage sealed this analysis. Separation was the only answer.
Thus the secession of the Lower South emerged from what seemed to be a glaring asymmetry. States rights leaders in the cotton states feared for the survival of slavery and regarded the Republicans as abolitionists. Republicans swore they would not interfere with the peculiar institution” where it existed and affirmed that bondage might last another hundred years. Secessionists accused Republicans of
seeking equality. Republicans replied they had no intention, for the foreseeable future, of disturbing race relations in either section. Both sides were right. The Republicans short-term agenda, as party members
repeatedly protested, was a cautious one; it focused on economics rather than on race. But over the long run, which might have meant decades or even a century, Republican policies would accelerate the
end of slavery. Initiatives that boosted Northern industry and the spread of free labor inevitably undermined bondage.
A different calculus governed actions in the Border States and Upper South. Few in the Border States and only a minority in the Upper South agreed with the fire-eaters of the cotton states. Overwhelmingly,
the citizenry of this northerly part of the South rejected the notion that the mere election of a Republican president was cause for secession. In these states plantations were smaller, slaveholding less important,
economic activities more diversified, and ties with the North stronger. Secession came only once war began, and Lincolns call for troops forced Southerners to choose sides. Led by the larger slaveowners,
the Upper South joined the Confederacy. The Border States, with their smaller, less influential planting communities, remained with the Union. Class lines, at least as they were reflected by regions within states, were a more important determinant of loyalties in these two tiers of states than in the Deep South. The free districts of western Virginia split from Virginia, while many small farmers in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northwestern Arkansas fought for the Union.
The policies adopted by the Republicans after 1861 confirm and illuminate the nature of the prewar party. As in earlier years, party members pursued two prioritiesassisting African Americans and developing the Northern economybut not with equal determination. Republicans did not enter the war with any intention of transforming the Souths institutions. But after a year of fighting and the prospect of
a prolonged conflict, party members became more open to proposals for emancipation and the recruitment of black soldiers. Military necessity coupled with long-standing Republican beliefs in freedom and black rights argued for such daring initiatives. Still more fully in keeping with party ideology were the economic measures adopted between 1861 and 1865. Guided by their self-serving ideology of nationalism,” lawmakers passed legislation for internal improvements, higher tariffs, a national banking system, a uniform currency, a homestead act, and a transcontinental railroad.
After the war Republicans again hoped to make progress on both fronts: defending the basic rights of blacks and fostering economic activity in the North. Faced with the intransigence of white Southerners,
who refused to accept the moderate program advocated by mainstream party members, Republicans adopted strong measures. They divided the South into military districts, enfranchised blacks,
and took the vote away from former Confederates. However, Republican support for these measures was short-lived. State by state they abandoned their African American allies and the progressive regimes in the South. By contrast, Republican determination to assist Northern business continued undiminished. Currency policies, lucrative subsidies to corporations, regressive taxation, and the use of troops to suppress strikers and relocate Indians helped the rich get richer and made possible the rise of monopolies and oligopolies. The Republican Party also changed. The leavening of idealism, which had attracted many to its ranks, disappeared by the early 1870s. Radical politicians left an organization they now felt was misguided. More than ever, the party focused on its prime directive: developing the North.
That is a bare-bones outline of the argument of the book. This interpretation explains the sequence of events leading up to the war, the divisions within the North and South, and the goals and evolution of
the Republican Party. It indicates why before 1861 the most defiant positions were taken in the northern part of the North and the southern part of the South, making the Civil Waras the books title
suggestsa clash of extremes. But this plot summary is not enough. It is also important to suggest the larger dimensions of this economic interpretation.” To begin with, this explanation values the role of individuals. There is no contradiction between a focus on particular people and an emphasis on the importance of broader developments. Indeed, the two approaches complement each other. Understanding the evolution of society in the North and South provides a context for individual actions. Often the most successful politicians were those who grasped the dynamics of change and harnessed these energies to their own ends. Few individuals were more adept in responding to shifting conditions than Abraham Lincoln. In 1864 Lincoln explained to Kentucky editor Albert Hodges why he had come to support emancipation. When, early in the war, Gen[eral] Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it,” Lincoln remarked, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity.” But conditions changed, Lincoln noted: [In] 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the Border States to favor compensated emancipation. . . . They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter.” Lincoln concluded: In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Individuals not only responded to broader trends, but they also shaped history. Andrew Jacksons entry into national politics helped realign voting patterns. John C. Calhouns forthright defense of Southern
rights influenced his many followers. Stephen A. Douglass Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated divisions within the North and the formation of new parties. The far-reaching influence of particular people does not undercut an economic interpretation. Rather, a focus on individuals helps illuminate the society in which they functioned and the conditions that made their accomplishments possible. Jackson had such a significant impact on voting because tensions already existed between employees and employers, poorer farmers and wealthier ones. Many in the Deep South eagerly embraced Calhouns wisdom because they too feared that the cotton economy could not secure new soils within a Union dominated by the North. Douglass Kansas-Nebraska Act brought into the open divisions within the North that had been evident for several years. Understanding the pattern of change requires looking at both leaders and society.
Second, this study introduces no abstract, disembodied Larger Forces. Historians are justly wary of concepts emblazoned in capital letters or ones that enter the stage with an aura of inevitability. The Beards called Northern politicians statesmen of the invincible forces recorded in the census returns” and labeled their chapters on events leading to the war The Sweep of Economic Forces” and The Politics of the Economic Drift.” Such concepts obscure more than they clarify. Students of this era cannot do away with collective nouns. New Englanders voted together on some issues, as did people living around the Great Lakes. But aggregates must emerge from a close analysis of the data. That is the approach taken in Clash of Extremes.
Third, ideology serves as the link between interest and action. Few people chose sides in the sectional conflict simply to put dollars in their purses. Rather, beliefswhich had strong roots in self-interest
guided their behavior. Some individuals developed their worldview after poring over book-length treatises or writing eloquent disquisitions. But for most people the power of partisan ideologies came from the succinct, forceful way these ideas were communicated and the relevance of these ideas to their lives. Thus in the 1830s the poorer farmers of northern Illinois and Indiana endorsed Democratic doctrines. These landowners applauded politicians who denounced high tariffs and railed against government spending. In the 1850s these same farmers embraced the ideology of the Republican Party. Their trade had shifted, and they now viewed themselves in a different lightas members of a lake economy that needed outlays on harbors, higher tariffs to pay for those improvements, and a stronger government to administer these programs.
Fourth, if economics was most important, it was never the only influence on the political process. The growth of antislavery reshaped Northern politicseven if economic concerns remained more important
in forming parties and determining their platforms. Peoples origins made a difference, as did their religion. New Englanders who settled in the Midwest carried their beliefs with them, helping to lead the anti-Southern movement in their new states. Quakers took a similar, critical view of slavery wherever they settled and were in the forefront of the reform movement. By contrast, Irish Catholics, who tended to be poor and often competed with blacks for jobs, mocked the abolitionists and opposed the Republicans. Residents of the Upper South who migrated to the Deep South were usually more moderate than their neighbors. All these influences helped shape the politics of the antebellum period.
This work presents an economic interpretation of the origins of the Civil War. It contends that the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies, more than any other factor, explains the conflict. This argument, however, is never simplistic or reductive. Individuals, religion, and ideologies also shape the story. Chapter 1 examines the foundations for the era of compromise, 182050, and the prominent
role played during these years by Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren.
Excerpted from Clash of Extremes by Marc Egnal.
Copyright © 2009 by Marc Egnal.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.