'The Indignation of Freedom-Loving People': Emotion, Politics, and the Brooks-Sumner Affair

Michael Woods, University of South Carolina


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.