A Contest of Civilizations

Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era

By Andrew F. Lang

568 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6007-3
    Published: January 2021
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6008-0
    Published: November 2020

Littlefield History of the Civil War Era

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Most mid-nineteenth-century Americans regarded the United States as an exceptional democratic republic that stood apart from a world seemingly riddled with revolutionary turmoil and aristocratic consolidation. Viewing themselves as distinct from and even superior to other societies, Americans considered their nation an unprecedented experiment in political moderation and constitutional democracy. But as abolitionism in England, economic unrest in Europe, and upheaval in the Caribbean and Latin America began to influence domestic affairs, the foundational ideas of national identity also faced new questions. And with the outbreak of civil war, as two rival governments each claimed the mantle of civilized democracy, the United States’ claim to unique standing in the community of nations dissolved into crisis. Could the Union chart a distinct course in human affairs when slaveholders, abolitionists, free people of color, and enslaved African Americans all possessed irreconcilable definitions of nationhood?

In this sweeping history of political ideas, Andrew F. Lang reappraises the Civil War era as a crisis of American exceptionalism. Through this lens, Lang shows how the intellectual, political, and social ramifications of the war and its meaning rippled through the decades that followed, not only for the nation’s own people but also in the ways the nation sought to redefine its place on the world stage.

About the Author

Andrew F. Lang is Beverly B. and Gordon W. Gulmon Scholar in the Humanities and associate professor of history at Mississippi State University.
For more information about Andrew F. Lang, visit the Author Page.


"Lang's tour de force is a compelling and essential read. He shows how Americans' self-anointed claim of exceptionalism was, and is, premised on a supposed consensus on liberty's meaning that never was and perhaps will never be. Vital reading for all."--Library Journal, starred review

"Rich with challenging ideas...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."--Civil War Times

A Contest of Civilizations successfully reflects the current state of the field, and it should remain the first point of departure for new work on the Civil War’s global context for some time to come.”--Andre M. Fleche, author of The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict

“In A Contest of Civilizations, Andrew F. Lang delivers an impressive survey of deeply held notions of mid-nineteenth-century American exceptionalism. He combines lucid prose with a judicious approach in a multifaceted examination of the struggles to define the national identity before, during, and after the Civil War. Always thoughtful and often provocative, Lang relates the dramatic story of the United States testing its ideals of liberty and freedom against a background of turmoil at home and what Americans perceived as tyranny abroad.”--Joan Waugh, coauthor, The American War