Andrew F. Lang. A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 568 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6007-3.
Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Published on H-CivWar (December, 2021)
Commissioned by Madeleine Ramsey (Virginia Military Institute)
A Contest of Civilizations opens with Abraham Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838, entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Lincoln’s topic was not unique for a nineteenth-century orator, and he reached conclusions that many of his contemporaries shared. Specifically, people in the nineteenth-century United States believed that “it was not enough for Americans to live merely in their present, infatuated with individual commercial enterprise. As a free people they possessed a duty, if not a burden, to preserve for future generations the same political moderation that made their republic of liberty the envy of the world” (p. 4).
Lincoln’s sentiments in this address, not to mention those of his contemporaries, are examples of American exceptionalism (“American” in this case refers to the United States, not to the Western Hemisphere). The many people in the United States who embraced American exceptionalism “heralded an incomparable republic that they believed stood apart from the nations of the world. Viewing themselves as distinct not only from other human societies but also from the course of history itself, nineteenth-century Americans considered their nation an unprecedented beacon of liberty within a world of oppression and decay” (p. 7). In other words, many citizens in the United States “measured their democratic republic against what they imagined as an antidemocratic world dominated by imperial oligarchs; privileged aristocrats; and noble kings, queens, and lords” (p. 9). This view contained an important element of truth—democracy, after all, was not the dominant mode of governance in the nineteenth-century world—although it privileged the United States above all other democracies.
In recent years, scholarly efforts to scrutinize American exceptionalism have proliferated, particularly because “the end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization influenced a generation of scholars seeking to pull American history out of its protective exceptionalist shell, which had celebrated an inimitable founding, an egalitarian democratic political culture, and an economic system that mitigated class tension” (p. 7). Andrew F. Lang, currently associate professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of the award-winning In the Wake of War (2017), offers a deeply researched and well-written contribution to the ever-developing understanding of American exceptionalism. A Contest of Civilizations “engages paradoxical questions raised by nineteenth-century exceptionalist conviction, civilizationist discourse, and conservative practice” (p. 13) and “surveys the ways in which nineteenth-century Americans understood their nation, the sectional crisis, the Civil War, and the process of reunion within the context of global events, Atlantic ideologies, and domestic fears of international influence” (p. 15).
A Contest of Civilizations contains three parts. Each part continues the focus on Lincoln by taking its title from the Gettysburg Address. Part 1, “Conceived in Liberty,” explores the concept of Union in the antebellum period. Many people argued that the United States stood removed from the monarchies, aristocracies, and oligarchies throughout the globe. As noted above, this view contained an important truth: the United States was indeed different when compared to many of the governments of the world. Furthermore, many people in the United States welcomed what they considered their mission to be a model for the world. Of course, people throughout the rest of the world often took particular pleasure in highlighting the hypocrisy of a republic built on liberty containing millions of enslaved people. As he surveys the history of the antebellum United States, Lang concludes that “the seeds of civil war were planted firmly in a domestic landscape, nurtured by global conditions, and watered by fears of internationalization” (p. 76). Slaveholders came to believe that “the world’s penchant for revolutionary emancipations had radicalized an otherwise moderate white republic” (p. 124) and that Lincoln’s victory in 1860 meant the destruction of everything they held dear. Consequently, they seceded and began a civil war.
Part 2, “Now We Are Engaged in a Great Civil War,” examines the war years. Secessionists believed that they could and should pursue life, liberty, and happiness without an oppressive central government. Unionists, on the other hand, linked secession with other examples of political destabilization. Nevertheless, despite disagreements, both sides “drew from the same tradition of democratic restraint to underwrite mutual expectations of a limited war” (p. 173). In other respects, however, the war was not limited. Many people either embraced at the beginning of the conflict or came to embrace the idea that the war was the best way to destroy slavery. Furthermore, the idea that only in the United States “could liberty extend to all humans, flourishing as an untarnished beacon for the rest of the world to emulate” (p. 265) also proved widespread. When it came to slavery, the Confederacy was indeed exceptional and “the nineteenth-century world wanted little to do with a nation so acquiescent with, so casual about, and so dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal” (p. 281). Ending the war, Lang asserts, “proved just as critical as waging the conflict” (p. 284) and “a just war’s emphasis on peace, combined with a uniting faith in American exceptionalism and white reconciliation, necessitated the reintegration of wayward southerners into the democratic fold with leadership provided by regional Unionists” (p. 286). Merciless retribution was, for many people, not an option because it would have undermined claims that the United States was an exception to oppressive state-sanctioned violence that occurred throughout the rest of the world.
Part 3, “Shall Not Perish from the Earth,” discusses Reconstruction. “Although bitter wars had long plagued the world,” Lang contends, “the United States was wholly unique in the way it transitioned from civil war to civil peace” (pp. 325-326). All residents of the United States were supposed to enjoy equitable independence. In order to achieve this, Republicans “unleashed one of the great democratic transformations anywhere in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world” (p. 349). Once this transformation occurred, the United States possessed a familiar mission: namely, to demonstrate to the rest of the world that democratic republicanism “privileged the peaceful competence of citizens over state centralization, radical militarism, and oligarchic exploitation” (p. 361) and, again, be a model for the world to follow. However, as Reconstruction collapsed, “moderate Republicans came to the sober conclusion that retreating from the enforcement of Reconstruction was the only path to preserving national stability and constitutional integrity” (p. 396). That Republicans traded Reconstruction for stability should not surprise. The same sort of Faustian bargain occurred in other countries as well.
“It is difficult,” Lang concludes, “for us in the modern era to understand why the exceptionalist faith in Union so consumed the American disposition, especially when the concept seems so flawed and inconsistent. But few attributes of American life were more influential in shaping a powerful national consciousness that above all else privileged the preservation of the founding generation’s birth of a republic predicated on sovereign individual liberty” (p. 12). Modern observers may indeed find it difficult to understand the power of American exceptionalism. Nevertheless, after reading this volume, they should come away with a much clearer understanding of this important concept. A Contest of Civilizations helps readers understand why American exceptionalism appealed to so many different people throughout the nineteenth century and, moreover, the crisis of American exceptionalism that took place during this critical period.
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Evan C. Rothera. Review of Lang, Andrew F., A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era.
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