Documents & Debates: American Exceptionalism and the Civil War

October 11, 2023

Documents & Debates: American Exceptionalism and the Civil War

In the mid-19th century, a fierce intellectual battle raged in the United States over the concept of American exceptionalism. The idea that America was a unique and exceptional nation had been at the core of American identity, but it was being tested by the glaring contradiction of slavery. This article explores the clash of two competing visions of American exceptionalism during the Civil War era and its profound implications for the nation’s future.

American Exceptionalism: An Overview

American exceptionalism, as understood during this period, was the belief that the United States stood apart from the rest of the world. It was viewed as a nation dedicated to political liberty, social equality, and equal economic opportunity for all its citizens. This exceptionalism was rooted in the idea that in America, a humble person could rise to great heights, free from the oppressive hierarchies of the Old World.

A Nation Setting an Example

In the mid-19th century, the prevailing view was that America was not merely following the course of world history but setting an example for the rest of the world to emulate. The United States was seen as a leader, and other nations were expected to follow its path toward greater freedom, equality, and prosperity. This belief was a cornerstone of American exceptionalism during this era.

The Challenge of Slavery

The core challenge to American exceptionalism lay in the institution of slavery. Slavery contradicted the fundamental principles that made America exceptional: political liberty, social equality, and equal economic opportunity. It also contradicted the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” This contradiction became a central point of contention.

The Divergent Views

As the mid-19th century progressed, two distinct visions of American exceptionalism emerged:

  1. The Slaveholders’ Argument: Prominent slaveholders, including figures like George Fitzhugh, James Henry Hammond, John C. Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis, argued that America was exceptional because it provided a platform to prove the natural, moral, and organic hierarchy of racial subordination. They believed that only in the American South could racial superiority and inferiority be demonstrated. Slavery was seen as a crucial part of this exceptionalism, and it underpinned their vision of America’s unique role in the world.
  2. The Anti-Slavery Argument: The Republican Party, founded in 1854, represented the opposition to the slaveholders’ view. They argued that America’s exceptionalism lay in its commitment to liberty, equality, and the belief that all men were created equal. They aimed to make freedom a national principle and prevent the expansion of slavery, thus placing it on the road to extinction.

The Contest of Civilizations

The clash between these two worldviews can be aptly described as a contest of civilizations. It was not a simple North-South divide or a conflict over states’ rights; it was a fundamental disagreement about what America was and what it should become in the world’s unfolding future. The Civil War was a culmination of this contest, where the very essence of the American nation was at stake.


The crisis of American exceptionalism during the Civil War was a pivotal moment in American history. It revealed a deeply rooted American anxiety about the nation’s claim to uniqueness and destiny. The struggle to define American exceptionalism exposed the profound contradictions within the country and ultimately led to a brutal and transformative conflict. The Civil War was not just a war of sectionalism; it was a battle for the soul of America and its place in the world. The contest of civilizations in the 19th century still resonates in the ongoing national dialogue about American identity and its role in shaping global history.

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