Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Author's Corner with Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is the Assistant Professor of History at Marshall University. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States. (Cambridge, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States?

MW: This book grew out of my dissertation, written at the University of South Carolina and completed in 2012. I entered graduate school with a strong background, and much interest, in antebellum U.S. politics and the coming of the Civil War. That’s a well-trodden field but when I was introduced to emotions history, I realized that it offered a genuinely new perspective on political behavior. I wrote the book to improve our understanding of the sectional conflict and to show political historians that emotions history can help answer key questions about how people make political decisions and build coalitions. I’d also like to demonstrate to scholars in other disciplines the importance of a historical perspective in the study of emotions and politics.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States?

MW: Specific emotions, including indignation, jealousy, and grief, were deeply embedded in antebellum Americans’ understandings of morality, citizenship, and political allegiance. The regular appearance of these emotions amid the struggle over slavery encouraged northerners and southerners to identify with antagonistic sectional communities, and to believe that the conflicts between them were worth fighting over.
JF: Why do we need to read Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States?

MW: It approaches an old topic from a new angle, one that shows how the sectional conflict was experienced as a visceral part of people’s lives. Emotions are very personal but can bring people together into powerful alliances, while simultaneously dividing them more sharply from their enemies. The book also brings together two older schools of thought about the Civil War: “fundamentalists” see the conflict as all but inevitable because it grew out of profound economic, social, and political differences between free and slave societies. “Revisionists,” on the other hand, see it as the result of human actions and very human failings, like irrationality or greed. Both interpretations contain a kernel of truth. My perspective can reconcile them. There were vast differences between the sections and they did threaten each other’s interests and values – but those differences were also deeply felt. Sectional struggle generated strong emotions because it affected the identities and interests of the participants.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MW: I have been deeply interested in U.S. history, especially its 19th-century history, for as long as I can remember. But my decision to become an academic historian – to transform my hobby into my career – grew out of a specific experience in college. I took a senior seminar, on Chinese history of all things, and enjoyed the experience of delving deeply into a topic with a group of very smart classmates and an excellent professor. This convinced me that I would enjoy graduate school and the academic life that would follow it.

JF:What is your next project?

MW: I’m working on a couple of different articles right now but my next book project will explore antebellum politics from another angle: the rivalry between Democrats Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Both men have been overshadowed by Lincoln ever since the Civil War. But in the 1840s and especially the 1850s they were far better known than Lincoln and provided key leadership in the Democratic Party. They both wanted to hold the party together but they had to make sure that it stood for interests, increasingly defined in sectional terms, which their constituents back home would approve. Ultimately, their struggle over which direction the Democracy should take tore the party in two, and helped to divide the Union itself. Davis and Douglas were both fascinating, flawed, and incredibly influential individuals, and I look forward to exploring antebellum political conflict through their eyes.

JF: Thanks Michael!

Thanks to Allyson Fea for facilitating this edition of the Author's Corner