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  • A Contest of Civilizationsby Andrew F. Lang
  • Beau Cleland
A Contest of Civilizations Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War EraAndrew F. Lang Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 568 pp. ISBN: 9781469660073 (cloth), $37.50.

As I read Andrew F. Lang's impressive A Contest of Civilizations, I was reminded of a recent observation by journalist Osita Nwanevu that Americans suffer from "main character syndrome"—the tendency to view themselves and their nation as the protagonists of history, no matter how peripheral their role. Lang's book takes the idea of American exceptionalism—that is, the notion that the United States has a special destiny and duty to serve as an international example of republican, democratic virtue—and examines its contradictory and schismatic history in the Civil War era. It is a study of competing visions for how that "main character" ought to behave.

Lang traces the volatile career of American exceptionalism in the years between 1838 and roughly 1877, from Lincoln's now-famous speech to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, to the ragged end of Reconstruction, a period of crisis that challenged the idea that America "resided in but was not of the world" (3). In Lang's analysis, Americans used "conservative moderation" to guide their competing and sometimes contradictory versions of American exceptionalism through the shoals of sectionalism, disunion, war, and Reconstruction, and he argues that this very moderation sometimes drove Americans to extraordinary lengths—to include war and abolition—to preserve their version of what their country should be (14).

Lang finds competing visions of American civilization, divided, not surprisingly, by acceptance of or hostility toward slavery, yet unified by the concept of an antimonarchical, democratic Union. The power of the Union ideal, as a brazen exception of liberty in a world full of international tyranny and oppression, papered [End Page 84]over the fundamental contradictions inherent in the Republic, for a time. The oppressed used the ideals of the Union as a cudgel against the sources of their oppression, be they slavery, patriarchy, or racism, to argue for a place of equality withinthe Union. Their oppressors, the Slave Power chief among them, used the same ideals to justify their way of life and to accuse their opponents of revolutionary intent, informed by malign international influences, that would overthrow the white liberty guaranteed by tradition and the Constitution.

Lang argues that when the seceded states initiated the Civil War, each side allowed its military conduct to conform to its own version of moderate, civilized combat (though I suspect many veterans, myself included, contest that such a thing exists), not least because they desired to serve as international examples of good conduct. Synthesizing recent work by John Fabian Witt, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and others on the Lieber Code and the general restraint of the Civil War, Lang argues that both sides behaved with moderation and in conformity with contemporary standards of warfare. Confederate atrocities against Black US soldiers stemmed from the perception that Union authorities initiated an "unwarranted escalation of racial barbarism," a view deeply colored by antebellum interpretations of the successful Haitian Revolution, British emancipation, and the omnipresent fear of so-called servile insurrection (23). Black participation in the war via the US Army, in contrast, added to the moral authority of the emancipatory version of exceptionalism and delegitimized the Confederates internationally.

Lang writes that after the war, the contest over which vision should prevail remained vibrant in the battle over the course of Reconstruction. This time the struggle was between proponents of the notion that drastic measures were necessary to ensure the permanent end of secession and the Slave Power, and the advocates of a weaker version of Reconstruction that balanced national loyalty with local (white, violent, and exclusionary) self-determination. Lang laments that the conservative ethos of antebellum republican moderation prevailed despite heroic efforts by Black Americans and their allies, setting the stage for Jim Crow and a century and more of disfranchisement and racial oppression. This is an interesting contrast with the scholarship that argues for the radical, transformative ambitions of the early Republican Party, and Lang brings the...