Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis



First Advisor

Mark M. Smith


This thesis blends emotions history and political history by exploring the role of indignation in antebellum American politics, focusing on the northern reaction to the May 1856 caning of Charles Sumner. The study begins by situating indignation in its nineteenth-century cultural context. A respectable type of anger, indignation was deeply tied to sympathy and to moral judgment. Antebellum Americans valued indignation as a social emotion which helped to ensure that witnesses to evil acts would avenge the victims of wrongdoing. Indignation assumed additional political significance when expressed collectively in a so-called "indignation meeting," a staple of antebellum politics. This political ritual provided a forum for the communal cultivation and expression of indignation, and it brought like-minded citizens together to influence elected officials and to formulate practical responses to pressing political issues.

Following the assault, scores of indignation meetings convened throughout the free states. As they met to express their shared indignation against Sumner's assailant and to demand retaliation against the southern slave power, many northerners experienced an increased sense of sectional unity. Indignation and indignation meetings brought northerners of diverse ideological leanings and party affiliations together in common cause and created the appearance of an emotionally unified North. This perceived unity, coupled with the widespread belief in the need for northern cooperation against the slave power, ultimately aided the emergent Republican Party. By appealing rhetorically to northern indignation, and by holding their own partisan indignation meetings, the Republicans more successfully harnessed northern indignation to their cause than did their rivals. The Republicans did not triumph in the presidential election of 1856, but they won the popular vote in the free states and established themselves as the primary opponents of the Democrats.

Indignation cannot alone explain the growth of northern sectionalism or the rise of the Republicans. But by lending moral nobility to northern outrage, indignation legitimized political activity that had previously seemed radical or disreputable. Moreover, thanks to the institution of the indignation meeting, indignation offered a means of channeling shared emotions into precisely the sort of collective political activity that the ascendant Republicans needed.


© 2009, Michael Woods