The Heart of the Sectional Conflict: Emotion, Politics, and the Coming of the American Civil War

Michael Eugene Woods, University of South Carolina


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.