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  • Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States by Michael E. Woods
  • Erin Austin Dwyer (bio)

Emotions, Regional identity, Jealousy, Sectionalism, Secession, Civil War

Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States. By Michael E. Woods. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. 264. Cloth $90.00.)

In his extensively researched monograph, Michael E. Woods argues that in the antebellum period emotions were critical to establishing regional identities, forging sectional tensions, and, eventually, mobilizing for civil war. Woods situates his text at the historiographical crossroads of the history of emotions and Civil War history in order to illustrate how emotions were inextricably tied to national politics and sectional identity in the antebellum period, and how diverging feelings were both cause and symptom of a dividing nation. From this intersectional vantage point Woods offers a nuanced critique of revisionist histories of the Civil War, building on their assessment that feelings played a dominant role in the origins of war, while also employing history of emotions theory to establish how emotions are culturally constructed. Woods also counters a number of misperceptions about the relationship between emotions and politics, challenging the false dichotomy that pits emotions against reason, and debunking attendant claims that emotions are deployed only in extremist politics. By focusing on a few specific emotions, primarily happiness, jealousy, and indignation, Woods demonstrates how those feelings were expressed and defined in increasingly different ways in the North and the South, and how they contributed to rising sectional tensions and ultimately war.

Part I chronicles how emotions delineated sectional identities. Woods focuses primarily on emotional rhetoric, including differing perceptions in the North and South of feelings like happiness and jealousy. The prologue lays out Woods’ compelling ‘‘affective theory of the Union,’’ using extensive documentation to prove that emotions created a shared national identity in antebellum America. In the words of Stephen A. Douglas, America should be ‘‘not only a union of states, but a union of hearts’’ (23). This prologue effectively sets up the problem addressed in [End Page 200] Part II: How could a nation united by affective bonds be divided by sectional hatred?

Chapter 1 examines how certain emotions were differently defined in the North and South, delving into contrasting philosophies about the perceived relationship between happiness and labor systems. Conflicting ideas about whether enslaved people or free laborers were happiest reflected larger debates about northern and southern political economy, and created progressively antagonistic sections. Chapter 2 focuses on how slaveholders viewed affective relations with the enslaved. While Woods offers a useful discussion of how prescribed emotions diverge from expressed emotions, this chapter could have been clearer about how relations between slaveholders and the enslaved contributed to sectional tensions. Woods then turns to a discussion of changing views of jealousy in Chapter 3. While jealousy was deemed a ‘‘virtue’’ in the South, vital to maintaining liberty and patriarchal order, in the North jealousy was perceived as a divisive, elitist, and feminine emotion. This view facilitated a circular critique. Why was the South different from the North: because of the primacy of jealousy. Why was jealousy a negative emotion? One had only to see the ‘‘emotion’s vicious impact’’ on the South to understand (108). Over time polarizing feelings were seen as signs of an emotionally incompatible nation.

In Part II Woods delves into how individual and collective feelings, along with regionalized emotional norms, contributed to sectional tensions and war. In Chapters 4 and 5, Woods contends that indignation was expressed differently in the North, where it was viewed as a moral anger, ‘‘associated with social reform’’ (120). His discussion of the underexamined indignation meetings, which took place primarily in the antebellum North, is particularly interesting, and provides compelling evidence of how emotions directly impacted politics. By describing the variety of events that spurred such meetings, and the responses by participants, Woods demonstrates how indignation meetings ‘‘channeled] shared emotions . . . to achieve tangible results’’ (128). Chapter 5 articulates how the Republican Party skillfully harnessed mass indignation over slavery, riding that shared outrage to success in the 1860 election.

The book’s final chapters detail how emotions facilitated secession and war. Chapter 6 counters claims that fear drove disunion...


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pp. 200-202
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