Book Review: A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era


by Andrew F. Lang

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, Nage. Pp. x, 560. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $3.07. ISBN: 1469660075

Sectionalism and Exceptionalism in Ante Bellum America

According to Abraham Lincoln, “the United States is a republican union that is timeless in its purpose and enduring in its commitment to safeguarding the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people”, yet there was white male suffrage in the largest democracy while millions were held in slavery in the largest slave holding country in the world in the nineteenth century. Lincoln inferred that the U.S. was different from other countries, with its shared belief in the rule of law, equality under the law, and the popular consent of government. However, the differences between the sections and ideas about slavery were significant between the North and the South over the spread and continuation of this way of life. Andrew Lang makes a significant point in that by 1850 the U.S. was an extraordinary nation that was based on enlightened beliefs but which failed to live up these commitments for all citizens and human beings.

By 1861, some people and regions had moved away from the goals of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Constitutional restraints and dealt with emotional issues that made it challenging for the U.S. in becoming a truly exceptional country in relation to the rest of the globe. American exceptionalism and the differences the U.S. had with the nations of the world are well documented, sustaining by limited government in the nineteenth century and the extraordinary ability of a young nation to become an emerging power.

Individuals in the South decided to form a new nation and make war rather than allow the U.S. to endure. In the North people decided to accept war in order to preserve the union. In the end, Lang argues, both the Confederacy and the United States considered themselves exceptional and each was determined to preserve its ideal of a society based, respectively, in slaveholding and free-labor. He does a good job in analyzing this conflict as a way to inspire citizen-soldiers and armies to not only wage war but to find a lasting peace. Lang also advances provocative conclusions, proposing that race eventually ruptured the basis of a just war. He makes a convincing argument that long after the guns fell silent, that Reconstruction for the nation and equality for African American had just begun in 1865, posing a protracted challenge for the emerging country following the hard fought war years.

Lang’s purpose is to survey the ways in which nineteenth-century Americans understood their country, the sectional differences, the conflict that occurred in 1861-1865, and what happened during reconciliation within the framework of the international community, European-American philosophies, and apprehension over the role and future of the nation. He permits the reader to understand nineteenth century Americans, and their actions and beliefs during a time of conflict and change. And Lang does a nice job of not being judgmental from a twenty first century perspective, writing writes about these people within their contemporary setting.

A Contest of Civilizations is broken into three parts exploring how different visions of progress and Union helped form this important period in U.S. history. The first part deals with creating and American identity. There follows a look at how and why both Southerners and Northerners felt much different about their ways of life and how it should evolve, whether preserving or ending slavery, providing excellent insights into the vision of both North and South that led to war and to victory for the Union. Finally, in part three, Lang examines Reconstruction and its successes and failures for the nation and particularly the failure to develop opportunity for African Americans.

Lang makes a convincing argument that abolitionism in Great Britain, economic and political discontent in Europe, and turmoil in the Caribbean and Latin America all had an impact on domestic matters in the United States, and the underpinning principles of mid-nineteenth American society. He further evaluates how foreign affairs – including such nations as Mexico, Russia, Great Britain, France and Caribbean countries – affected the United States during the period, and how these relations changed over time, ultimately influencing the rise of expansionist America.

Scholars and serious students of the Civil War will enjoy this book. Lang tells a sweeping story that offers the enthusiast a great deal to consider, and makes a substantial contribution to understanding the philosophies, motivations, controversies, strategies, tensions, and triumphs that characterized the work and lives of the people examined in A Contest of Civilizations.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Arguing until Doomsday, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign, and Defending the Arteries of Rebellion.




Note: A Contest of Civilizations is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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