Clash of Extremes 

Clash of Extremes presents a new interpretation of the Civil War.  It argues that more than any other concern the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies explains the sectional clash. The story the book tells begins in the 1820s and continues through the war and the triumph of a business-oriented Republican Party in the 1880s.

Readers will be delighted by the engaging prose, maps that illustrate political change, and sketches of leading figures.


This page contains links to all the reviews, good and bad, that I’m aware of. If I’ve missed any, let me know and I will post them.

There were three pre-publication reviews. While all three were generally favorable, none explored the book in the depth that later reviews would.

Publisher’s Weekly, Sept. 22, 2008. “While not a sufficient account, Egnal’s is an illuminating contribution to our understanding of the CiviWar’s causes.” Click here to read the full review.

Kirkus Reviews, Oct. 15, 2008. “Egnal gives no comfort to the mythmakers. This one’s sure to provoke discussion.” Click here to read the full review.

Booklist, Oct. 15, 2008. “This is a serious work that may well re-ignite a historical debate.” By Jay Freeman. Click here to read the full review.

After the book’s publication in January 2009 the earliest reviews were on-line commentaries.

History in Review, Jan. 14, 2009. “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.” By Herbert White.

Harvard Crimson, Feb. 5, 2009. “The argument Egnal makes is both powerful and valid.” By Chris R. Kingston.

Curled Up with a Good Book, Feb. 2009. “Highly recommended to those interested in the causes of the Civil War and the economic history of the United States.” Click here to read the full review.

History Book Club, Feb. 2009. “Those who lean toward the ‘idealism argument’ will learn much from Clash of Extremes, while those who tend to believe that all wars are, when it comes down to it, fought over money, will find a great deal in here to support their assumptions.” Alternate Book Club selection for April 2009.

Shepherd Express (Milwaukee), May 19, 2009. “Refreshingly, Egnal emphasizes the influence of individuals as well as social forces in the course of human events.”

Chronicles, July 2009. “The author does not neglect the sins of the South, real and alleged, but his most original contribution is his description of a truly critical new development of the late antebellum period, which he calls “the Lake Economy.” By Clyde Wilson. Click here to read the full review.

Civil War Book Review, Summer 2009. “Such debates will only serve to underscore the power of this book. It promises to stand as not only an example of how to write good economic history, but also as the work that revived the economic interpretation of the Civil War.” By A. James Fuller. Click here to read the full review.

Beginning in September 2009 reviews also appeared in scholarly journals.

Reviews in American History, September 2009. Editor Thomas Sloughter created a “forum” for Clash of Extremes. Edwin Perkins and Jason Phillips each wrote 5000 word reviews. I responded to those critiques with a 1000 word essay. Finally Perkins and Phillips each presented 500 word rejoinders. Perkins and Phillips were decidedly mixed in their evaluations of the book. Perkins expressed grave doubts about the validity of any economic interpretation, while Phillips stated that I set forth “conditions that heightened sectionalism,” rather than fundamental causes of the war. Click here to read Perkins’s review. And click here to read Phillips’s essay, my response, and the two rejoinders.

Civil War History, December 2009. Peter Onuf calls the book “forcefully argued and engaging,” and notes that “Egnal’s materialist approach cuts a fresh furrow in a well-worked field.” But ultimately, Onuf was not persuaded by the book’s arguments. Click here to read the full review.

Choice, December 2009. R. M. Whaples’s review concludes: “Highly Recommended. All readership levels.” Click here to read the full review.

New York Times Book Review, January 17, 2010. “The argument that the Civil War was caused by economic interests goes back at least as far as the works of Charles and Mary Beard a century ago. Egnal deftly revives the debate, claiming that the rise of the Great Lakes economy strengthened the bonds between the states of the North. For the South, soil depletion made expansion necessary and secession a ‘rational act.’ Egnal writes carefully and without dogmatism.” By Elsa Dixler. [That’s the complete review, which appeared in the “Paperback Row” column.]

Journal of American Studies, February 2010. Jonathan Levy praises the book, noting, “Egnal is convincing that the rise of the Great Lakes economy should be central to any recounting of the coming of the Civil War.” Click here to read the full review.

Journal of American History, March 2010. Although Paul Paskoff notes that Clash of Extremes is “well written and energetically argued,” he is not entirely persuaded by its argument. Click here to read the full review.

American Historical Review, April 2010. While John Majewski calls Clash of Extremes “a clearly written, fast-moving account” and says “there is much to praise here,” he also finds shortcomings in the book. Click here to read the full review.

Business History Review, Spring 2010. Although Mark R. Wilson says the book provides an “informative synthetic account of antebellum political development,” he concludes it “mostly fails to meet the expectations raised by the author’s bold assertions.” Click here to read the full review.

Journal of Southern History, May 2010. Sean Patrick Adams provides a very positive review, noting “Clash of Extremes is a fine addition to the storied list of works dealing with the origins of the American Civil War aimed at a wider readership.” Click here to read the full review.

H-CivWar, May 2010. John Ashworth finds much to criticize in Clash of Extremes. See his review and my reply. Then read his rejoinder.

EH-Net, August 2010. Robert McGuire notes he “liked the book overall and found the arguments convincing.”

The Historian, September 2011. Kim Gruenwald remarks, “This is an excellent book about the topic; it is engagingly written for popular audiences and for teachers.” Click here to read the full review.

The Journal of Economic History, December 2011. Roger Ransom calls Clash of Extremes “a masterly narrative that blends economic and political analysis . . . with commentaries on the lives and words of individual actors that make the tumultuous history of this period come alive.” Still, he is not entirely persuaded by the argument. Click here to read the full review.

American Nineteenth Century History, Spring 2012. Duncan Andrew Campbell remarks, “Given the preciptious decline in economic history, a work illustrating the centrality of economics to historical (and, for that matter, present-day) events is surely something to celebrate.” Click here to read the full review.