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  • Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States by Michael E. Woods
  • Gregory A. Peek
Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States. Michael E. Woods. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-107-06898-8, 264pp., cloth, $90.00.

This is an insightful and original addition to the history of U.S. Civil War causation. In Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States, Michael E. Woods postulates that “emotions suffused the political conflict that culminated in the Civil War” (232). Shared emotional values, forged by the furnace of the American Revolution, once acted as a national glue binding free and slave states together. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, appreciation of these values diverged, contributing to each section’s growing alienation from the other. Antagonistic emotional worldviews emerged, informing antislavery critiques of the peculiar institution and proslavery [End Page 86] assertions of its beneficence. Eventually formal separation through secession came, among its proponents, to symbolize the rift already present in the citizenry’s hearts.

The “Affective Theory of Union” characterized the Early Republic’s initial emotional paradigm. Solidly grounded in a prodigious historiography, Woods highlights how feelings of shared fraternity and sacrifice shaped a pervasive devotion to the nation. After 1845, the theory took on particular significance as pro-Union moderates and radical southern sectionalists employed it to critique antislavery activists. Southern radicals forcefully employed the theory to describe perceived threats from Republicans and justify secession.

According to Woods, a litany of additional emotions, made malignant by the slavery controversy, gradually eroded the stockpile of benevolence built up by the founding generation. Competing notions of happiness, as future visions of social order and economic development, produced one fracture. Southern happiness centered on contentment and stability, which not only protected the profitability of its slave-based system of agriculture but glossed over the region’s latent class antagonisms. In contrast, the North’s political economy of free labor stressed fluidity, competition, and faith in a better tomorrow. Artisans, mechanics, and farmers witnessed the tangible rewards of industry, while the southern bondsperson’s drudgery reaped little of lasting value.

Jealousy represented another pole around which southerners and northerners cultivated sectional hostility. Once praised by Revolutionary leaders from both regions for promoting vigilance against tyranny, by the 1830s jealousy fell out of favor among the North’s urban middle classes. Religious reformers viewed jealousy as the emotional basis of domestic cruelty and despotism, while politicians cast it as an aristocratic vice dangerous to northern liberty. Jealousy served as an emotional custodian for southerners, guarding the racial and social status quo that privileged white slave-owning men. Their attitudes created an environment hostile to outside criticism and susceptible to amplified political rhetoric, where disunion emerged as their logical conclusion.

As growth of the Republican Party demonstrated, however, an emotionally charged political climate was not solely confined to the South. Northern opposition to a multitude of perceived proslavery measures, from congressional gag rules to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, kindled feelings of indignation. Unlike jealousy, indignation was an acceptable form of anger, one imbued with moral righteousness. As it heightened moral awareness, indignation was socially beneficial, deterring potential wrongs and meting out just retribution to perpetrators. The point where public indignation turned to mass political mobilization took place in May 1856 in reaction to the concurrent events of “Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner” (150). When South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, contends Woods, indignation again marshaled a unified North, this time dedicated to ending perceived proslavery threats to their liberties once and for all. [End Page 87]

The study concludes with a return to the affective theory of Union and the problem of Reconstruction. After four years of bloodletting, could the nation return to the voluntary and benign familial feelings of the prewar years? Many whites, both North and South, desired to see the nation emotionally constituted as before, despite the limitations it placed on the quest for racial justice. As was often done before the war, an eventual compromise was struck; slavery was now gone but white supremacy remained.

The author does a remarkable job of integrating interdisciplinary literature related to emotion and...


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pp. 86-88
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