A Contest of Civilizations is rich with challenging ideas and hangs on a central paradox: 19th-century Americans’ unshakable belief in their nation’s exceptionalism, despite its status as the world’s largest slave-owning empire. Exceptionalism is currently out of favor, but Andrew F. Lang reminds readers that many 19th-century Americans embraced the notion with a fervor that colored their unsuccessful effort to avert war, the war’s progression, and its aftermath. That it continues to inform our current day politics, while left unsaid, is nevertheless evident.
A Contest of Civilizations poses three compelling questions: 1) How could a republic committed to equality become “the largest slaveholding nation in the modern world?” 2) How could a people seeking a “stable course… welcome a violent civil war?” And 3) How could “the world’s largest enslaved population… emerge as fully emancipated citizens” in less than a decade?
“Conceived in Liberty,” the book’s first section, addresses how the concept of liberty informed 19th-century American identity. “Because the Union was as much an enduring ideal as it was a nation,” Lang argues, “the republic invited unlimited claims for inclusion.” The existence and growth of slavery refuted these claims, and by the mid-19th-century the debate over the fate of newly acquired western lands brought into clear relief the national tension between freedom and slavery.
For antislavery advocates, slavery represented a temporary detour on the path to a more perfect union. Slaveholders, conversely, sought to permanently embed the institution in American life through territorial expansion, resumption of the transatlantic slave trade, and the use of federal power to protect their interests.
“Now We Are Engaged in a Great Civil War”—the book’s longest section—explores how contested visions of Union led to secession and war. “For Confederates,” Lang suggests, slavery “[was] the unquestioned essence and secure foundation of the southern republic.” Secession would ensure that foundation. For the North, the eventual embrace of emancipation was a modernizing stance that simultaneously marginalized the Confederacy.
Despite “enormous but restricted bloodletting,” posits Lang, voluntary restraint characterized the fighting on both sides. The “inconceivable” end was the “sudden and absolute collapse of a civilization built on slavery.” What remained was “a stark paradox of exceptionalist conviction”: how to preserve and stabilize the republic by striking a delicate balance between moderation and force, and Union and emancipation.
“Shall Not Perish from the Earth”—the book’s third section—addresses Reconstruction. Moderation, restraint, and leniency were necessities for a mild, sustainable peace, but by the 1870s, insists Lang, the only path to national stability was a “negotiated compromise” ensuring that “whites, somehow, would govern the republic.” Authentic racial equality, he concludes, was “seen by many white Americans as an ideal at best and a curse at worst.” To suggest that it remains so today seems only appropriate.
The single shortcoming of Lang’s book is a reliance on an overabundance of quotations, which are frequently redundant and break up the flow of a well-crafted narrative. Otherwise A Contest of Civilizations marks a brilliant conclusion to the Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, a 16-volume collaboration between the University of North Carolina Press and the University of Texas’s Littlefield Fund for Southern History.
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