Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Mark M Smith


My dissertation analyzes how emotions shaped Americans' perceptions of and responses to the sectional conflict over slavery to explain why it culminated in the Civil War. Emotions are not universal and are subject to change over time. To understand the political influence of specific emotions requires placing antebellum political discourse back into its cultural context. Emotions such as indignation, jealousy, and grief were deeply embedded in antebellum understandings of religious piety, political theory, and moral judgment and the ways in which antebellum Americans interpreted these feelings were deeply influenced not only by political ideology, but also by their cultural environment. The arousal of certain emotions in the context of sectional politics encouraged Americans to identify themselves with sectionalized political communities and to view political conflicts in starkly Manichean terms. The persistent experience and expression of highly politicized emotions helped to arrange antebellum Americans into competing polities whose members were willing to fight.

Historians have not entirely neglected the antebellum political history of emotions. During the 1930s and 1940s, proponents of the so-called "revisionist" interpretation of Civil War causation afforded emotions a significant contributory role. But they lacked a theoretical framework with which to analyze emotions in politics and relied on the mistaken assumption that democratic politics are ideally untouched by "emotionalism." The revisionists also failed to situate expressions of emotion in historical context, thus sacrificing the opportunity to understand why particular emotions featured so prominently in sectional politics. For the revisionists, emotions mattered in history but lacked a history of their own. My dissertation fills this void by bringing the flourishing field of emotions history to bear on the question of Civil War causation. I follow the basic premise of emotions history: that emotions have a history and are shaped by cultural norms and practices. By situating politically salient expressions of emotion within their cultural contexts, I show how emotions fostered a political climate in which armed conflict over slavery became possible and explain why, in the spring of 1861, war made sense to so many decent people.