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 Adrian Brettle (Arizona State University)
Published on H-Nationalism (November, 2021)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Globalization’s recent fall from grace and perhaps a new era of American isolationism starting with the retreat from Afghanistan should not blind us to the fact that a generation of historians grew up in the heyday of “America and the world” after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. They have now matured into book-publishing machines. Always present in scholarship about the United States as a world power in the twentieth century, the transnational turn, as academics like to call it, first appeared in the reappraisal of the colonial period with the discovery of the complex web of empire and the invention of the Atlantic world, and this reconceptualization of US history then slowly advanced into the nineteenth century.
A Contest of Civilizations is an important contribution to seeing the US Civil War era in a global context and American nationalism as preeminently an ideological enterprise dedicated to liberty, moderation, the pursuit of compromise and consensus, and adherence to “the rule of law and democratic pluralism” (p. 3). It was reliance on these abstract ideas that rendered US nationalism exceptional: “distinct not only from other human societies but from the course of history itself” (p. 7). Lang’s book has plenty of paradoxes, but the overarching one is that it places the United States in the wider, global context but at the same time affirms its exceptional character. This combination is important, as scholars of the transnational turn typically strive to refute notions of American exceptionalism. Lang contrasts his thesis with Thomas Bender’s A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006) as illustrative of the historiography he confronts. Scholars, including Edward Rugemer and Matthew Guterl, have made connections between the antebellum South and the slaveholding societies of Cuba and Brazil both in slavery and the progress of emancipation. Anne Tucker and Andre Fleche demonstrate how the Confederate bid for independence was one of many struggles for self-determination, from Greece to Ireland, Italy, Hungary, and Poland.
Turning to the Civil War itself, Christopher Bayly has cast it as one of three inter-regional shocks (the other two were the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the Taping Rebellion and Indian Mutiny in Asia) that marked the birth of the modern world. Lang considers this mid-nineteenth-century instability—he counts a total of 177 wars between 1840 and 1880—as symptomatic of a prevailing global militarism, from which citizens of the United States wanted to keep themselves and their civil war separate (p. 175). The first studies about American Reconstruction among reconstructions, as another imperial or nation-building enterprise have begun to appear. In a 2006 article, Edward Ayres provocatively pointed out that when casting around for blame as to the failure or a lost moment of Reconstruction, historians should pay closer attention to the difficulties Americans have had in more recent projects of nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan. But comparative studies are hard to do well, as Gordon Wood observed, and only help historians to ask questions otherwise missed and these omissions are only spotted when the events compared are very similar. The contemporary German and Italian unifications do not at all resemble what happened after the Civil War in the United States. The process of American Reconstruction together with American emancipation still appear unique in world history.
A Contest of Civilizations is not an exercise in comparative history; instead it attempts to reconstruct how Americans during the Civil War era distinguished what they were doing at home from what else was going on in the world, especially Europe and the Americas, around them. This interest, Americans believed, was more than reciprocated abroad—the eyes of the world were glued, and the world’s future depended, on the progress of the American experiment in republican self-government. If successful, the nations of the world might, eventually, emulate American precedent and example. Expansionists pleaded to accelerate this process of emulation by annexation and conquest in the Caribbean and Mexico; but they lost, as the majority coalesced around developing the Great West as “an uncorrupted, uninhabited, land of opportunity waiting patiently for industrious white pilgrims to exploit its rich and abundant assets” (p. 372). Lang’s mid-nineteenth-century United States was to be a beacon of hope, not yet an enforcer of global democratic norms. Americans tended to be mistaken about European interest in their affairs. Europeans mostly ignored whatever self-proclaimed last hope of self-government the United States presented to the world (even Tocqueville, much relied on as a source by Lang, had his doubts as to the transferability of American democracy to his native France). As for the United States’ closest neighbors, the Mexicans, they regarded Americans as aggressive, militaristic, tyrants, never as a democratic example to imitate.
These realities are beside the point for Lang, whose purpose is to show the rather consistent worldview of Americans during these decades, however ignorant they were about facts. He then explains how Americans—white Northerners and Southerners and African Americans, men and women—used this worldview, which Lang refers to as “hostile internationalization”—defined as a world outside the United States characterized by “aristocracy, antidemocratic politics, and a hierarchical society ordered along immovable class, social, and racial distinctions”—to justify certain policies and actions they chose to enact at home (p. 71). The world was generally full of menace to democratic republican self-government, and specific events, such as the 1848 revolutions across Europe, were interpreted through an American lens as abortive struggles for that same democracy and self-government. The value is that these largely ominous trends abroad, resulting in increased centralization, arbitrary justice, and tyrannies based on standing armies, were things that Americans believed would be replicated at home if insufficient vigilance was maintained in protection of ordered liberty. Only a “dedicated anti-internationalism, the rule of law, and moral virtue” could save the republic (p. 38). In this way memories of the Glorious Cause of 1776 and the debates over the Constitution were superseded by this ongoing contest with internationalization. But history did matter to Americans: Harry Watson, Michael Holt, and others have successfully argued those revolutionary debates about the balance between liberty and power remained passionate preoccupations throughout the Civil War era. Nevertheless, Lang is also right that, starting in the 1790s—when shocking news about the course of the French Revolution reached the United States—Americans keenly debated whether European events followed or deviated from their prior example.
According to Watson and Holt, the Slave Power conspiracy reminded Americans of earlier attempts by banks, Freemasons, the Catholic Church, and British privileged interests to enslave white Americans. Lang agrees, but adds that perceptions of slavery had “already been shaped by the Atlantic revolutions in America, France, and Haiti” (p. 76). This broader understanding of slavery, Lang argues, sustained President Abraham Lincoln’s charge that “slaveholding depended on arbitrary and unfair privileges dispensed by unaccountable sovereignties, obstructing the natural free will” (p. 117). Specifically, abolitionists both declared slaveholders to be “American Jacobins” and “located the Fugitive Slave Act among the Atlantic World’s worst despotisms” (pp. 105, 112). This latter point adds to what scholars, including Matthew Karp, have persuasively argued: that proslavery Southerners—far from being the champions of state rights as presented in the Lost Cause memory—willingly embraced federal government power in order to pursue fugitive enslaved people, among other things.
For their part, many white Southerners complained that it was Northern abolitionists—Black Republicans--who threatened American exceptionalism as they sought to import British Antislavery Society opinions into the entirely different US context. Lang shows what was so disruptive about slavery was how white Southerners, whether they owned enslaved people or not, came to regard the peculiar system as the true foundation of American exceptionalism, as it “unveiled a peaceful, unparalleled path toward modernity and equality for all white men” (p. 83). Lang is right to emphasize the distinctive nature of Southern slavery compared especially with the European Caribbean colonies and how slaveholders believed the precedent of Haiti and revolts in Jamaica pointed to “an inferno of racial bloodlust” should emancipation be implemented in the United States (p. 84). At the same time, though, he needed to note some intriguing parallels with Brazil, as Vitor Izecksohn has shown, as opposed to simply bracketing that independent slaveholding empire with Caribbean islands governed by distant increasingly antislavery metropoles.
According to Lang’s study, 1861 was when American exceptionalism appeared most in danger because Unionists “linked secession with hemispheric and international destabilization” (p. 137). The United States would fracture like Spanish America and the geopolitics of North America would resemble Europe, as jostling powers would have to invest in large, permanent military establishments, pursue entangling alliances to support a balance of power system in international relations, and maintain centralized yet unstable governments, headed by tyrannical rulers. Hence the bid to preserve Union was about far more than saving the territorial integrity of the United States, and Lang follows Gary Gallagher’s The Union War in recovering that vital shared sense of purpose in fighting the war to which even emancipation was a means to that larger end of saving republican self-government on behalf of the world. He makes an important contribution here, building on Jay Sexton and Richard Carwardine’s essays on Global Lincoln, by showing how Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg were part of a wider discourse of US exceptionalism and global stewardship, one that was also shared by Confederates. History “convinced Unionists and Confederates, that the war served as the ultimate trial to settle the fate of global democracy” (p. 140). For Unionists, the concern was specifically how secession, with its injection of anarchy and chaos into the republic, not least in the refusal of its supporters to respect the results of a free and fair election in 1860, would end the worldwide as well as domestic appeal of democracy and republicanism. The fact that it was the Confederacy that fired the first shot, at Fort Sumter, confirmed the Northern view that the slaveholders were violent extremists with martial attributes more European and Mexican than American.
Lang is less successful in his portrayal of the Confederacy’s global purpose during the war than with white Southerners before and after it. He settles for the usual scholarly treatment when saying of slaveholder expansionism, “Confederate foreign policy restrained these ambitions” (p. 149). Quite the contrary, they expected their postwar independence to inaugurate expansion. Nor were they necessarily conservative in the diplomatic alliances they pursued. For Confederates, their future relations with Mexican provincial governors, Britain and, especially, the United States mattered far more to them than Napoleon III’s Enterprise of the Americas to plant Archduke Ferdinand as emperor of Mexico. Union propagandists attacked Confederate foreign policy as amounting to an “unholy alliance with international despots” and expected that emancipation would “forever preserve the Union’s liberal democracy from separatist factions, marginalize the Confederacy as a slaveholding relic, and bar Europe from recolonizing North America” (pp. 154, 159). Confederates, by contrast, regarded slavery as the future and believed that their new nation-state would be a force for revolutionary change in the world.
Lang makes a powerful case that both sides of the Civil War were mindful about “how an enlightened world scrutinized the American War” (p. 173). This insight adds to historians’ debates about whether the Civil War was a limited or hard or total war. Mark Neely and Mark Grimsley have largely exonerated the uniformed soldiers of the Civil War from the charges of committing atrocities—Neely rightly points out the main source for the atrocity narrative was Confederate propaganda with little basis in fact. Overall, the Civil War was a limited conflict in line with other nineteenth-century great power wars. Perhaps even more limited, as on both sides “white Americans justified and distinguished their war from the world’s pugnacious disposition” (p. 178). They strove to “conform to an imagined sense of American superiority while also demonstrating to the civilized world that republics could adhere to restrained and limited practices” (p. 179). Both Federals and Confederates considered overseas observers might be skeptical about their restraint in war because “wars waged by democracies could spiral out of control, the passions of a free people, the unredeemable loss of sovereignty, and the faith in national righteousness,” could end in a limitless justification of violence in a “national people’s war” (pp. 178, 192).
Restrained conduct becoming for a just war was not only jeopardized by this reputed risk of escalation but also from the realization that “ending war proved just as critical as waging war” (p. 240). European wars often drew to a close in a truce or a cold war between powers, as shown by Britain and France in the eighteenth century and France and Prussia-Germany after 1870. However, the leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy required a much more decisive result from the Civil War: to end it meant “effecting a permanent peace that fashioned an everlasting national stability” (p. 240). In history such civil wars fought for utopian ideals would ineluctably lead to total war. The warning of the massacres in the Vendee during the French Revolution comes to mind. So, it was remarkable and exceptional that both sides honored the rules of war, sidelined guerilla warfare, and the Union developed Lieber’s Code, which translated laws of international conflict into the context of the Civil War. This policy of restraint was risky for the Lincoln administration because it accorded belligerent rights to the Confederacy, which did seem to some overseas observers (not to mention Confederates themselves) as amounting to a first step toward recognition as an independent nation.
American exceptionalism and standards of just war governed the process of emancipation. Lang rightly agrees with Allen Guelzo that proposals to colonize freedpeople abroad was never a serious plan, but rather more of a strategy to persuade skeptical Northerners of the reality of African American agency and aspiration and hence prepare them to accept the latter’s qualification for eventual citizenship. Lang then adds that colonization proposals “further anticipated extending free labor throughout the hemisphere, undercutting the Confederate dream of a powerful empire of slavery” (p. 253). In addition, Lincoln’s approach to emancipation “absolved” the United States from “complicity in black rebellion.” Lang makes a compelling claim that, however the measure appalled Confederates, the enlistment of African Americans as soldiers, instead of being the most radical part of the 1863 Proclamation, actually “moderated the scope of black freedom” (p. 256). Here comparative history is useful, for the previous successful forced emancipation, in Haiti, involved a huge insurrection among enslaved people. Lincoln was determined to be perceived as avoiding the risk of race war by having former enslaved people trained and ordered as uniformed Union soldiers. This caution about being seen to incite insurrection also explains why Lincoln, unusually for him, listened to William Seward’s advice and delayed announcing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation until a time when the conventional military situation looked less dire than it did during July 1862, when emancipation was decided upon.
Hard war, as well as just war, was required to bring the war to a close. By the fall of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant and Lincoln had successfully reconciled the expansive aim of perpetual peace with the need for civilized restraint by recognition that “war was a profoundly human event that had to be conducted with relentless but compassionate severity” on the part of Union forces (p. 290). In particular, General William T. Sherman believed in a “prodigious but targeted demonstration of force like the world had never before seen” (p. 290). Jackie Campbell and other scholars have challenged the effectiveness of Sherman’s essentially psychological warfare, especially among women in Georgia and the Carolinas. Grant’s destruction of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the decisive act in forcing Confederate capitulation. However, if the survival of Union meant the map of the continent remained American and did not become European, there was still hard work ahead to save democracy for the world.
Reconstruction is another area where Lang makes a significant contribution and builds on his award-winning In the Wake of War (2017). He argues that the Republican Party set itself up for a partial failure in Reconstruction because its ambition was “to enforce an unparalleled social end like racial equality” (p. 349). Yet to achieve such a revolutionary goal required at least military force and “even state-sanctioned violence to reeducate and intimidate insubordinate parties” (p. 349). In order to succeed, Republicans had to treat former Confederates in the same fashion they treated Native Americans and Chinese migrants: as “unworthy of national inclusion” (p. 356). Instead, former Confederates were restored to citizenship and self-government, the US Army withdrawn, and the achievement of racial equality left to rely on the “rule of law and the competence of blacks to chart their own destinies” (p. 349). While acts of terrorism committed by former Confederates were swiftly crushed by military force, by the early 1870s, there was a sense of diminishing returns as even Republicans began to argue that constant military intervention compromised the very purpose of the Union and its standing in the world. Moderate and Liberal Republicans increasingly pointed to the accomplishment of the congressional legislation and passage of the constitutional amendments and declared it was now up to the states. In turn, African Americans were “shocked” that nothing more practical would be done to implement an exceptional biracial democracy and increasingly feared their “Republican allies seemed far more concerned about esoteric constitutional transgression and lofty antimilitaristic aspirations than the protection of basic human rights” (p. 388). The problem with democracies is how easy it can be to confuse legislation for action and form for substance. Lang points at a more fundamental problem that would linger until the Second World War changed everything: the protections required for African Americans needed “a powerful centralized government” on the European model and in the mid-nineteenth century that was unacceptable to the majority of exception-minded Americans (p. 405).
I will conclude that A Contest of Civilizations is a powerful corrective to the Americans-as-emulators narrative that characterizes too many “United States and the world” and nationalism studies. The omission in this book is the one power that statesmen from the United States—at any rate from time to time—did share a history with, fear, study, copy, envy, and even try to learn from in more than a superficial way—Great Britain—and while we have too many Anglo-American studies on the shelves, John Bull’s absence from Lang’s definition of “internationalization,” while convenient for his argument, does give it an uneven quality.
. Matthew Pratt Guterl, American Mediterranean (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Edward Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008).
. Ann L. Tucker, Newest Born among Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020); Andre Fleche, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
. C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford: Blackwell Books, 2004), 161-65.
. David Prior, ed., Reconstruction in a Globalizing World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), and Reconstruction and Empire (New York: Fordham University Press, forthcoming 2021); Paul Quigley and James Hawden eds., Reconstruction after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2019).
. Edward L. Ayres, “The American Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction on the World Stage,” OAH Magazine of History (January 2006): 54-61.
. Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 196-211.
. Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990); Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983).
. Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
. Vitor Izecksohn, Slavery and War in the Americas: Race, Citizenship, and State Building in the United States and Brazil, 1861-1870 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).
. Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
. Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, eds. The Global Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
. Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-65 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Mark E. Neely, The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
. Jacqueline Glass Campbell, When Sherman Marched North from the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
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Adrian Brettle. Review of Lang, Andrew F., A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era.
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