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

Univ. of North Carolina. Jan. 2021. 568p. ISBN 9781469660073. $34.95. HIST
In this brilliant book, Lang (history, Mississippi State Univ.) explains how the concept of American liberty might seem a self-evident truth, but it was not a self-activating realization. It demanded definition, direction, and discipline—and the Civil War–era generation struggled to give it form and force. As the author makes clear, Northerners and Southerners alike defined liberty and their responsibilities to realize it against the experience of failed democratic revolutions in Europe. Those experiences quickened Americans’ obligations to create a working democratic republic in order to ensure liberty’s promise and prospects at home and abroad. But slavery prevented an American consensus on what kind of democratic civilization liberty required, and neither Northern interests nor Southern ones would concede liberty’s definition to the other. Lang tells how the North’s turn toward emancipation and the South’s fury in response to that as an act of revolution set the stage for a troubled peace, with white Southerners willing to use any means to restore power.
VERDICT 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.
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