Andrew Lang is Associate Professor of History and Graduate Coordinator at Mississippi State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era (The University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
JF: What led you to write A Contest of Civilizations?
AL: I wrote A Contest of Civilizations to recover what I consider the central theme of nineteenth-century American history: an overwhelming contemporary sense that the United States was a unique, destined, and exceptional democratic republic that lived within a rotting, oppressive monarchical world. While the concept of American exceptionalism may seem problematic to some modern audiences—and I do not attempt to validate or prove exceptionalist arguments in the book—it is important to take seriously how and why Americans of a prior era considered their nation, its founding, its Constitution, and its democracy the zenith of modern political enterprises. Only then can we fully grasp the complex reasons why Americans waged a bloody civil war over the very existence, meaning, and fate of their self-proclaimed exceptional republic.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Contest of Civilizations?
AL: A diverse cast of nineteenth-century Americans regarded the United States as the pinnacle nation within the modern world. But the commanding place of slavery within a republic of liberty imposed contested and increasingly irreconcilable understandings of American exceptionalism, contributing to the coming, conduct, and consequences of the Civil War, a conflict that tested, as Abraham Lincoln said, whether the United States would remain “the last best, hope of earth.”
JF: Why do we need to read A Contest of Civilizations?
AL: The book can be read as a meditation on the turbulent events that we face today as a national people. While I make no claim about the veracity of American exceptionalism, generations of Americans have imagined the United States as a unique republic that balances individual liberty and conceives new births of freedom. But the book also reveals that the American experience has never been so idyllic. Implementing the national mission has often been riddled with paradox, contradiction, and shortcoming. And yet, the book reminds us that the enduring ideals of universal equality and liberty establish standards for all generations to strive for a more perfect Union. It should offer a sober reminder that the United States does not, and never has, enjoyed an inevitable destiny, one immune from historical evolution. The nation’s survival instead depends on a citizenry committed to preserving the enduring principles of American life, lest those values fade from our own malevolence or neglect.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AL: When I enrolled in college twenty years ago, I never imagined a life as a historian. I did not even know what it meant to study history. However, the first course in which I enrolled—the American history survey from the colonial era through Reconstruction—captivated my imagination. Even as a first-year student, I did not consider majoring in history. But that course stuck with me as I dabbled in other majors. The content made sense. The questions penetrated my curious mind. And the professor—my first mentor and now a lifelong friend—inspired me with his dynamic teaching style and passion for chronicling the past. As my second year concluded, I visited with him about the prospect of majoring in history. Doing so was among the best decisions I have ever made. I knew then that I wanted to be a college professor and author. And twenty years later, I now attempt to instill in my own students the same spark that my first professor inspired in me.
JF: What is your next project?
AL: I am in the formative stages of a project that explores Abraham Lincoln’s concept of Union and his philosophy of history. Lincoln regarded the Union as a historical concept, a political/legal/perpetual concept, a social concept, a contested concept, an exceptional, contingent concept. For Lincoln, there was nothing inevitable about the Union’s enduring survival. The republic could always disappear depending on the citizenry’s shifting attitudes. The Union and its citizenry thus had to stay true to the spirit of the American founding. Ironies abound in the ways Lincoln considered the Union. He argued for the republic’s perpetual political nature while also conceding that the Union itself could accommodate radical, fundamental changes like emancipation in the service of its own perpetuity. The Union was thus a historical force, one that functioned at once in the past and in the present, both in service to the “vast future.”
JF: Thanks, Andrew!