Divergent Paths 

Divergent Paths examines three regions – the US North, the US South, and French Canada – and argues that the key to their different paths of development lay in culture and institutions. The North became richer than the other two areas not because of its natural resources or climate, but thanks to the mindset of its inhabitants.  The book covers the period from the colonial era to the 1990s and explores the impact of slavery on the South, Catholicism on Quebec, and Puritanism on the North.

The book makes its case with graphs, maps, and sketches of famous (and not so famous) people.


Here’s Peter Baskerville’s review in the American Historical Review, June 1998

Marc Egnal, Divergent Paths: How Culture and Institutions Have Shaped North American Growth. New York: Oxford University Press. 1996. Pp. xvi, 300. Cloth $45.00. paper $17.95.

Comparative history can allow one to discern what is distinct and what is common in a nation’s past, and it is especially valuable in the delineation and understanding of causation. Crane Brinton employed such an approach to shed light on the process of revolution. Economic historians have often used comparative approaches in attempts to understand variable patterns of economic development across nations and regions. Marc Egnal has set himself the task of understanding the economic development of three North American regions between 1750 and the present: Quebec, the northern United States, and the southern United States. The result is a well-researched, engaging, and provocative study.

Egnal argues that “landholding, religion and slavery–more than any other concerns–defined the rapid path of growth that the North followed and the road of slower development taken by the South and French Canada (i.e., Quebec)” (p. 68). He views issues such as intellectual life, entrepreneurial drive, mobility and literacy as outgrowths or elaborations of these three core factors. Slavery in the South and the seigneurial system and Catholicism in Quebec were institutions that, in Egnal’s words, cultivated a feudalistic mindset, a deeply seated and continually reinforced attitude averse to entrepreneurial risk-taking. Illiteracy, communalism, deference and a priority on social values characterized much of French Quebec. In the South, slavery fostered an elite concerned more with social status than with making money. A relatively free land-hold system in the North, coupled with Protestantism, aided in the growth of a strong entrepreneurial drive and the emergence of a society dominated by the priority of making money. Capitalists existed in all three regions, but capitalism dominated only in the North. A concern for reform rather than tradition typified the northern mindset. Northerners were more mobile, better educated, and more individualistic than were southerners and French Quebecers.

Reminiscent of Louis Hartz’s characterization of North America’s political cultures, Egnal underlines the persistence of attitudes and institutions and points to the extreme difficulties of changing deeply rooted values even after abolition of the seigneurial system and slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. While the North assumed a position of leadership in the cornmercial and industrial world, the South and Quebec lagged far behind. Only after World War II did economic growth in the South and Quebec begin to resemble that of the North. After a brief downturn attributed to the hierarchical tendencies of bureaucratically inclined corporations, the North’s entrepreneurial spirit reemerged with the dawn of the postindustrial era. Still burdened by a poorly educated populace (a result of past cultural and institutional preferences), the South and Quebec are, Egnal argues, experiencing significantly greater difficulty in confronting the new economic order. For per capita income to converge across these regions, Egnal points to the necessity for institutional and cultural change.

The above schematic summary does not do justice to the richness of Egnal’s presentation. Employing a somewhat eclectic mix of sources–from portraits to travelers’ observations to trade and income indices–and reviewing a wide and often contentious historiography, Egnal keeps his main theses clearly before the reader. Yet although he continually argues for a balanced appreciation of the effect that culture and institutions had on economic development in the three regions and attempts to steer a middle course between competing historiographical schools, he is not always successful. Economic indices for Quebec, especially in the nineteenth century, are far weaker than those for the North and South, but this does not give Egnal much pause. Moreover and relatedly, he evinces a disturbing tendency to dismiss summarily data that run against the grain of his argument. Serge Courville and his colleagues have, for example, generated impressive evidence on the extent of rural industrialization in nineteenth-century Quebec, evidence that Egnal dismisses as unconvincing in a footnote (p. 225). Similarly, he finds the work of Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot, who have argued in a series of publications for the existence of normal modernizing forces in early nineteenth-century Quebec, somehow too “abstract.” All too often Egnal relies on an older Quebec historiography to buttress his thesis.

Egnal, of course, might reply that the comparative perspective led him to emphasize arguments that privilege cultural and institutional differences, since those were the differences that seemed most evident and most relevant for explaining differential growth rates. But to be convincing, such an argument would have to rest on the contention that all else was equal, and in this book that assumption is only implicit. A more systematic look at labor markets, resource endowments, and government activity, to name a few factors looked at only cursorily in this book is necessary. But comparative history invites such commentary. This is a provocative and erudite study. It deserves a wide readership.

Peter Baskerville
University of Victoria