The Birth of a Union

Theatricality, Sympathy, and Anti-Slavery in the Coming of America’s Civil War, 1830-1860

Michael Amico

How have democratic social bodies taken shape over time? While the American “union” has been studied as a political idea and a set of political institutions, it has not been fully considered as a feeling and a set of emotional relations. This project seeks to understand 1) the feelings and emotions in American history through which people have come to recognize the dignity of, and feel a desire to help, each other, and 2) how these feelings and emotions have generated a larger community that intersects with governmental structures and laws at various levels.

In order to investigate these processes, this project focuses its inquiry on the northern states of America in the mid nineteenth century and asks how a unifying spirit came into being and was catalyzed as a force for social change in the coming of the Civil War. Its central incendiary pivot points include the theatricality of religious revivals and the popular stage performances in theaters across the northeast United States. A close look at the emotions around religious conversion and burlesque performance, including blackface minstrelsy, reveals how these phenomena agitated social structures. The emotions of women who were critical of the patriarchy and the emotions of more egalitarian same-sex relationships further loosened the feel of social hierarchies, as seen in social movements such as abolitionism and in many radical utopian communities. Feelings of self-righteousness imbued frontier and urban life alongside celebratory emotions of joy and happiness. Out of the developing space of sympathy, the most important political issues of the day—fugitive slaves escaping from the south and northerners’ sense of sovereignty over their land and work—emerged in stronger, more aggressive relief. Harriet Beecher Stowe narrativized the potent mix of positive and negative emotions swirling across the land in her bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Finally, a sufficient number of people could feel into the broadening space of sympathy and for the first time unite around the election of anti-slavery politicians that triggered the Civil War.

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