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Mastering Emotions

Mastering Emotions examines the interactions between slaveholders and enslaved people, and between White people and free Black people, to expose how emotions such as love, terror, happiness, and trust functioned as social and economic capital for slaveholders and enslaved people alike.

Mastering Emotions
Feelings, Power, and Slavery in the United States

Erin Austin Dwyer

Oct 2021 | 320 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History / African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction. The Emotional Politics of Slavery
Chapter 1. "To Change Their Sentiments"
Chapter 2. "Born and Reared in Slavery"
Chapter 3. "The Pursuit of Happiness"
Chapter 4. "Breach of Confidence"
Chapter 5. "Fear No Lash, nor Worse"
Chapter 6. "Enjoying Freedom"
Epilogue. "The Sentiment Left by Slavery Is Still with Us"
Selected Bibliography

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

The Emotional Politics of Slavery

As an enslaved man in the antebellum South, Charles Ball was keenly aware that being fluent in the verbal and physical language of emotions was a critical survival skill. The narratives of formerly enslaved people reveal a widespread belief that reading, performing, and masking emotions could help them navigate the power-laden affective relations between enslaved people and members of the plantocracy. When several slaveholders interrogated the enslaved man about how his owner treated him, Ball recalled in his narrative that he grew flushed as his anger bubbled to the surface, but he knew he could not express that feeling. Instead he "forced a sort of smile" upon his face. Writing primarily for White, Northern, abolitionist readers, Ball explained that "a slave is often afraid to . . . divulge all he feels" and must never "manifest feelings of resentment"; rather, they should feign less threatening and more marketable emotions like "humility." His description of the rapid succession of physical and emotional responses that he experienced while being questioned hints at how cognizant enslaved people were that counterfeit feelings had to be summoned immediately, and fully embodied, in order to adequately cloak their true sentiments. The speed with which he quashed his initial disdain speaks to how adept enslaved people became at this routine. Nevertheless, Ball made clear that it was no small feat to enact a feeling on command. Compelled to display emotions that were at odds with how he felt, the best he could muster was the simulacrum of a grin, a rictus of false joy that was all too familiar for enslaved people.

In a period steeped in sentimental culture, the ability to restrain one's emotions was considered a key component of self-control and character for middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans. One Southern woman of the planter class wrote in verse about emotional management:

The passions are a numerous crowd
Imperious positive and loud . . .
If they grow wild and rave
They are thy masters, thou their slaves.

In the poet's view, failure to contain "wild" or excessive "passions" rendered a person enslaved by their own emotions. The metaphor of being enslaved by unruly emotions appeared in everything from magazine columns to advice books for young people, with one 1842 etiquette guide for men warning that "the passions are . . . excellent servants, but dreadful masters; and whoever is under their dominion, will have [to] obey their dictates." Thus ambitious members of the planter class were counseled to make their feelings their subordinates, lest those sentiments come to rule them.

In the antebellum South, a society in which the master-slave relationship structured all other social dynamics, slaveholders and enslaved people were not merely using the language of emotional mastery in a figurative sense. Nor did it suffice to simply achieve self-government. Rather, antebellum etiquette books, diaries, agricultural journals, and slave narratives indicate a popular understanding that one must exercise emotional self-mastery to effectively dominate other people. For slaveholders this meant suppressing some sentiments in order to be viewed as respectable members of the planter class. Examining how people strived to master their own emotions while exerting control over the feelings of others underscores how important emotions were to maintaining, negotiating, and challenging slave society. Studying the double standard of affective censorship for enslaved people and slaveholders exposes how closely freedom of emotional expression was linked to one's status as free or enslaved.

The desire for complete self-mastery was critical to the development of the affective norms and expectations of the antebellum South for members of the slaveocracy, enslaved people, and free Black people, albeit for different reasons. Notions of emotional mastery dictated which feelings were to be personified or tamped down, and in what situations. In order to maintain the affective norms of the antebellum South, slaveholders and enslaved people were required to repress emotions, including rage, jealousy, and sadness, and to feign others, all while paying close attention to the feelings of the people around them. Planter periodicals like DeBow's Review, Southern Planter, and American Cotton Planter advocated for emotional restraint as a plantation management strategy, urging slaveholders to quell their feelings, especially anger, particularly when disciplining enslaved people. Slaveholders who were unable to govern their own emotions risked public scrutiny as well as the potential loss of capital, status, and reputation. For enslaved people the stakes of failing to fake or censor their feelings were even higher. Enslaved women and men like Charles Ball learned from a young age that if they were unable or unwilling to camouflage certain emotions and perform others, they risked the whip, the auction block, or even death.

In the antebellum South, felt and expressed emotions were fundamentally constructed by the institution of slavery and by enslaved people. The writings of enslaved people and slaveholders, as well as those of proslavery authors and abolitionists, demonstrate that in the antebellum South feelings were a currency of power in master-slave relationships. Such sources show that emotions were central to how members of the slaveocracy legally, politically, and culturally perpetuated slavery, as they wielded feelings like love, terror, and jealousy to maintain and justify the institution. Enslaved people also strategically employed feelings at times, selectively performing devotion, loyalty, or fear in order to avoid punishment, seek benefits, survive, or even resist enslavement.

The daily negotiations and contestations that occurred between slaveholders and enslaved people, through and about feelings, in conjunction with larger debates about race, freedom, and affective norms, are the basis of the emotional politics of slavery. Though conflicts over slavery and emotions in the antebellum and postwar South had a profound impact on policy, including manumission laws, Black Codes, and Jim Crow-era legislation and contracts, this definition of emotional politics is predicated on the idea that power flows in multiple directions, rather than resting solely in the domain of "high politics" or electoral politics. By analyzing the interactions between slaveholders and enslaved people, and between former slaveholders and free Black people, one can see how power operates through emotions and how before and after the Civil War Black Southerners and elite White Southerners deliberately deployed feelings or sought to compel them.

Though slavery is a subject wrought with emotion, historians of emotion have neglected antebellum American slavery and racial politics more generally. Meanwhile, scholarship on slavery has often addressed affective relations among the slaveholding class and among enslaved communities, but without considering the complex emotional interactions and power plays taking place between the two groups, or the legacy of those racialized affective practices and expectations. Even histories centered on master-slave relations have traditionally been written from the perspective of the master, accepting proslavery propaganda that these relations were mutually affectionate and that paternalism was a reality rather than an inherently violent ideal. By peering more deeply into the hearts of slaveholders than those of enslaved people, such works fail to explore how emotions functioned in the realm of vastly unequal power that existed between slaveholders and enslaved people. The history of emotion has focused on how feelings are collectively learned and socialized, but by combining that field with the history of slavery Mastering Emotions illustrates that the affective norms of slavery were not produced in a unidirectional fashion by elites; rather, they were forged by enslaved people and slaveholders together in the crucible of slavery.

The affective norms of slavery that emerged in the antebellum period were based on a philosophy of racialized emotional difference: a White supremacist belief that people experienced emotions differently depending on their race. Thomas Jefferson's famed Notes on the State of Virginia explored the idea that race was both externally visible and internally legible. He catalogued what he perceived as physical disparities between the races, including skin pigmentation, which he surmised might stem from differing amounts of "bile, or . . . some other secretion," before enumerating differences in hair texture and perspiration. But Jefferson also hypothesized that race was more than skin (or bile) deep, positing that Black people did not feel emotions like love the same way White people did. He claimed that men of African descent were "more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation," implying that Black people experienced lust rather than the nuanced "mixture of sentiment" felt by White people. Jefferson also asserted that Black people's sorrow was more muted and temporary, observing that "their griefs are transient."

Jefferson's writing provides a glimpse of how racialized theories about emotions could be used to justify slavery, particularly in his discussion of Black people's limited feelings of "grief" and love. Contending that Black people's sorrows were short-lived, and that they felt physical lust in lieu of "tender" love, could easily be used to rationalize raping enslaved people, selling enslaved family members, and prohibiting legal marriage for enslaved couples. In this way, White supremacist musings about racialized emotional differences took cruel, concrete form on plantations and on auction blocks. Henry Box Brown remembered that when his wife and children were being sold and he begged to be bought with them, their buyer was unmoved, advising Brown to "get another wife . . . so [he] need not trouble [himself] about that one." Nor was that slaveholder an anomaly; Brown noted that among slaveholders it was a "common expression . . . that 'niggers have no feelings.'"

Arguments about racialized emotional difference, and slaveholder practices based on those White supremacist ideas, became more frequent in the sentiment-obsessed antebellum period as debates over slavery intensified. Other members of the planter class dismissed the emotional capacity of Black people, and they justified selling enslaved children in particular by comparing the familial bonds of enslaved people to those of animals. For example, Lewis Hayden's owner, a Presbyterian minister, announced from his "pulpit that there was no more harm in separating a family of slaves than a litter of pigs." It is impossible to say how wide an audience the minister reached, but Hayden's story suggests that ideas about the animal nature of Black emotions circulated beyond proslavery literature and impacted countless enslaved families.
Confronted with White supremacist propaganda that stated that Black people felt emotions less intensely, or lacked familial affection altogether, formerly enslaved people and abolitionists responded with their own ideas about the relationship between emotional difference and slavery in order to oppose the institution and repudiate proslavery arguments. However, while proslavery authors accentuated how emotions differed by race, authors of slave narratives attested that emotional difference was instead tied to slave status. Slave narratives implicitly discredited claims of emotional inferiority with descriptions of falling in love, close-knit families, and the heartbreak of being torn away from loved ones. Some more explicitly rejected the idea that race determined their feelings; Charles Ball declared that "there is no difference between the feelings of the different races of men." Josiah Henson also scoffed at proslavery theories that Black people were inherently emotionally limited, decrying the separation of enslaved families, vowing that familial "affections . . . are as strong in the African as in the European."

To refute beliefs that they possessed limited or animalistic feelings based on race, authors of slave narratives argued that enslaved people in fact felt emotions more acutely, having experienced profound sentiments that were unknowable by those who had never been enslaved. This became a recurring trope in slave narratives, with Henry Bibb averring that "no one can imagine my feelings . . . but he who has himself been a slave" and with Harriet Jacobs confessing "reader, if you have never been a slave you cannot imagine the acute sensation of suffering at my heart." The idea that any emotional differences were rooted in the conditions of slavery, and thus were not biological or fixed, jeopardized proslavery ideology and individual slaveholders, as it meant that emancipated enslaved people expected the same affective rights that free people enjoyed, including the ability to exercise a full range of feelings without restriction or censorship.

Many antebellum slaveholders may have balked at the notion that their emotions and affective practices were based on slavery and constructed by enslaved people, but they would have agreed that feelings were worthy of study. This would not have been the general consensus a century earlier. The emotional politics of antebellum slavery and an ensuing set of specific affective norms had developed at the turn of the nineteenth century due to four factors: the end of the international slave trade, the rise of sentimentalism, the growth of organized abolitionist and proslavery movements, and the western expansion of slavery. After the United States closed the international slave trade in 1808, slaveowners could no longer legally turn to the international slave market to increase their labor pool. Though slaveholders vehemently denied engaging in "slave breeding," sources from enslaved people document how slaveholders compelled enslaved people to reproduce through rewarding new mothers, punishing infertile women, and rape. Slaveholders bolstered these practices by promoting theories about racialized emotional and physical differences, including conjecturing that giving birth was easier for women of African descent and that Black mothers did not feel maternal bonds like White mothers did, all of which justified selling enslaved family members.

The second factor shaping views on emotions in the antebellum period was the popularity of sentimentalism. Sentimental novels, poetry, theater, and art modeled how contemporary American audiences should feel and express emotions. Beyond serving as templates, these cultural portrayals of emotions also highlight that people in the first half of the nineteenth century were preoccupied with how the people around them felt, whether those sentiments were sincere, and how emotions could be made visible. This meant that slaveholders and formerly enslaved people were encouraged to ponder feelings, their own and those of others, and to describe them in effusive detail. As a result, there is a greater set of firsthand accounts about the emotional lives of individuals in the nineteenth century than there were for slaveholders and enslaved people from the eighteenth or seventeenth centuries, and people had more motives to articulate, explain, and feign feelings.

Third, the affective power dynamics of slavery were fundamentally shaped by the abolitionist movement and the attendant proslavery backlash. As the American abolitionist movement became more mainstream, there were increasing numbers of antislavery publishers, newspapers, and meetings that provided formerly enslaved people with forums for discussing their time in bondage. This in turn spawned a vocal proslavery movement that sought to repudiate their ideological enemy with the same rhetorical tools, producing romanticized texts that reconfigured master-slave relationships as mutually affectionate to counter sentimental slave narratives depicting the heartbreak of bondage. Sentimental proslavery literature proliferated markedly after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, as slaveholders scrambled to critique her antislavery novel and to outdo her florid descriptions with their own maudlin defenses of slavery. Against a broader backdrop of industrialization and class tensions, defenders of slavery honed their emotional arguments not only in response to abolitionists, but also in opposition to free labor as a system, in no small part by claiming that enslaved people were happier than free workers. Finally, if increasingly organized abolitionist and proslavery movements gave each side an adversary, and if sentimentalism gave the argument a vocabulary, the western expansion of slavery following the Mexican War raised the stakes of the debate for all involved.

Because of these multiple, intersecting factors, emotions in the early nineteenth century were given tremendous weight, and it was believed that one could, in the words of Charles Ball, actually have "died of grief." As such, slaveholders and enslaved people aimed to provoke, perform, or conceal emotions for a variety of purposes. First and foremost, emotions served as barometers. For slaveholders in particular, enslaved people's feelings were a metric of productivity and one's reputation as a master, were portents of possible danger, and held monetary value. For enslaved people emotions and affective performances functioned as social capital in negotiations with slaveholders, as survival mechanisms, and as a possible avenue to freedom. Because emotions were so loaded, mastery of emotions was paramount for enslaved people and slaveholders, though their motives differed. Members of the planter class had to enact or repress some sentiments for the sake of propriety, in order to be seen as competent slaveholders. For enslaved people, complying with affective norms could be a matter of life or death, as enslaved people who failed to abide by those norms could be verbally or physically reprimanded, sold, or even killed.

In an era in which affective control was akin to domination, and lack of emotional restraint was perceived as disempowering, slaveholders sought solace in the belief that feelings were legible on the face and body. Many turned to phrenology and physiognomy, the study of the skull and face, in an effort to decipher enslaved people's feelings and intentions. Throughout the antebellum South, reading faces helped both enslaved people and slaveholders navigate their daily interactions. Slaveholders often inspected enslaved people's facial expressions in the hopes of understanding what they thought or felt, scrutinizing any emotions that might be at odds with their words or actions. Sources including scientific texts and agricultural journals promoted surveillance as a key component of emotional mastery. The authors posited that with constant vigilance slaveholders and overseers could identify any "discontented" enslaved people who might be lowering worker productivity and suss out who was "sulky and dissatisfied" and therefore, it was theorized, more likely to run away. In her diary, actress Fanny Kemble repeatedly alleged that she could discern enslaved people's authentic feelings based on her time on her husband's plantations. She boasted about being able to read enslaved people's true desires and bragged that she could easily read in a cook's face that she was lying because the enslaved person's deceit was "child-like, and transparent." Kemble's confidence in her abilities indicates that slaveholders were equally certain that they could read enslaved people's body language and facial cues and that enslaved people were incapable of fully masking their emotions.

Enslaved people believed that their emotions were readily discernible, as evidenced by their widespread concerns that they had affective tells. In his narrative Josiah Henson related being so worried that his face would divulge his intentions and feelings that even after he decided against murdering several slave traders he was consumed by "fear" that his companions would "detect it" in his face. His fear was not unfounded; Frederick Douglass corroborated that escape plans of would-be fugitive slaves had been uncovered before because slaveholders monitored enslaved people "with skilled and practiced eyes" so as "to read, with great accuracy, the state of mind and heart of the slave, through his sable face." According to Douglass, when slaveholders peered questioningly into enslaved people's faces, they checked for "unusual sobriety . . . sullenness and indifference," seeking "any mood" that appeared atypical. If Douglass was correct, then slaveholders needed to observe enslaved people's emotions over time in order to recognize what feelings were "unusual" or out of place.

Reading emotions from facial features was a critical survival skill for enslaved people as well. From the vivid descriptions in slave narratives of slaveholders' emotional states, it is evident that enslaved people were constantly scanning their owners' faces to decode their feelings. The ability to differentiate emotions was incredibly useful to enslaved people awaiting sale. Ball encountered one potential buyer that he would not soon forget as he swore that he "never saw a human countenance that expressed more of the evil passions of the heart than did that of this man." Ball added that the slaveholder's language "corresponded with his physiognomy," confirming his reading of the man, as the customer's speech dripped with "profanity . . . and his eyes" betrayed a well of inner "cruel[ty]." Ball's scathing portrait of the potential purchaser showcases Ball's trust in the power of physiognomy to externally reveal internal qualities, and that he believed such information would help him appraise, and perhaps appeal to, would-be buyers.

Enslaved people also had to be attentive to subtle fluctuations in their owners' moods, because slaveholders' feelings could have significant impacts on the people whom they enslaved. Another passage from Kemble's diary illuminates how enslaved people perceived and reacted to slaveholders' feelings and exemplifies how sources from the planter class provide insights into how and when enslaved people performed emotions. Almost four thousand miles from her London home, isolated on her husband's remote Georgia plantation during the winter of 1839, Kemble took to her journal to chronicle her loneliness, her quandaries about slavery, and her increasing quarrels with her husband. In doing so, she left a record of more than her own mixed feelings about her predicament; she exposed how she felt about enslaved people and how she thought they felt about her, as she detailed how emotional politics played out on those plantations. This was apparent as Kemble remembered a fishing trip with an enslaved man named Jack, who had become a sort of companion and guide for her. She noted that while unsuccessfully trawling for fish, she "was absorbed in many sad and serious considerations," until, as she stated, "after I know not how long . . . without the shadow of a nibble, I was recalled to . . . my ill success by Jack's sudden observation, 'Missis, fishing berry good fun when um fish bite.' This settled the fishing for that morning." As they paddled home Jack changed the subject by asking her about England and by telling her about Mr. Butler's other plantations, which they would soon visit. Jack praised the St. Simon's plantation in particular, and Kemble remarked that "he appeared very glad that we were going," and she in turn "was very glad to hear, that it was a beautiful place for riding." This passage delineates the nuanced emotional negotiations taking place between enslaved people and slaveholders each day. Based off Kemble's recollection it is clear that Jack perceived that Kemble was unhappy and decided to subtly address the matter.—— Regardless of whether the "many sad and serious considerations" that "absorbed" her were about her time in Georgia, her ambivalence about slavery, her husband, or the lack of fish, Jack could tell that she was upset. He proceeded to try to console her by letting her know that fishing could be "good fun" when one had more luck, insinuating that he knew she was sad. His subsequent questions about her past could be construed as an attempt to dispel her gloom by provoking thoughts of her homeland and of happier times. This could also be why he extolled the virtues of the plantation they planned to visit. Perhaps he hoped to comfort her because they had become friendly during their almost daily boating trips. Or perhaps he recognized how he might benefit in the long run from any efforts to remain in her favor.

Interestingly, Kemble's diary entry hints that she was reading his emotions as well. First, she pointed out that "he appeared very glad" about traveling to St. Simon's. Her perception of his feelings subtly shaped her own as she used identical language to describe his emotional state and to acknowledge that she was "very glad" that she could indulge her beloved hobby of riding on the island. Judging from the passing mention of her "sad and serious" thoughts, the overall tone of the entry, and the fact that she ended the paragraph on a note of hopeful anticipation about St. Simon's, Jack's emotional efforts were successful. Of course, it is unclear if Jack was as "glad" as he "appeared" in speaking of St. Simon's, or if he was adopting the familiar role of "happy slave" in order to alleviate the somber feeling that had settled over the boat. As a person born into slavery, he no doubt knew that how a slaveholder felt could have far-reaching implications for his emotional and physical state, and that feigning happiness could potentially sway her toward contentment.

In the last thirty years pioneers in the history of emotions have demonstrated the critical role feelings play in society and established a theoretical framework for understanding emotions as a category of analysis. Scholars in the burgeoning field contend that emotions are not simply individual, physiological responses; rather, feelings are also socially constructed and historically and culturally contingent. In spite of the excellent scholarship arising from the emotional turn in history, historians of slavery have been slow to embrace those theories. Some of the hesitance to probe into the affective dimensions of slavery stems from general trends in how earlier scholars treated the emotions of slave society, with the pendulum swinging from depictions of enslaved people as contented to portrayals of enslaved people as wholly defined by trauma. The pathologizing histories of that era, combined with the influence of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, gave rise to a generation of historians who dismissed claims of absolute emotional effacement for enslaved people, emphasizing instead the invaluable support provided by loving enslaved families and slave communities. However, these works did little to explore how emotions could be used strategically outside of the family, how affective norms were learned and opposed, and what relationships existed between the feelings and emotional practices of enslaved people and those who enslaved them. Mastering Emotions tackles the emotional power dynamics between enslaved people and slaveholders, detailing the ways that slaveholders and enslaved people mobilized emotions in their daily encounters, identifying how enslaved people and free Black people resisted the emotional politics of slavery, and discussing efforts by White elites to reestablish racialized affective norms during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Mastering Emotions relies on a variety of primary sources, including slave narratives, diaries, plantation account books, and letters, in order to reconstruct the emotional lives of enslaved people and slaveholders. By viewing emotions as both an analytical tool and a site of contestation between the dispossessed and those who seek to dominate them, this study examines the power dynamics, performances, and competing agendas that appear throughout these records. Even seemingly dispassionate legal documents like slave sales, court records, and wills disclose that members of the planter class used enslaved people to express affection, as enslaved people were often given as gifts to children, brides in particular, in documents that framed the sales as acts of love rather than solely commercial transactions.

There are more challenges when one tries to glean the affective experiences of enslaved people from primary sources, as teaching enslaved people to read or write was prohibited in slave states. Because enslaved people were legally barred from recording their own lives, letters, court testimony, travelogues and other sources from slaveholders, and slave narratives by formerly enslaved authors all offer a window into the thoughts and feelings of enslaved people and free Black people. Of course, slave narratives were written by the fortunate few who managed to escape bondage. Edited and printed by abolitionist publishers and peddled to largely White audiences, slave narratives written before Emancipation were consciously abolitionist texts written with the express goal of provoking antislavery readers' sympathy. Historians long discounted slave narratives in part because they were seen as politically biased, but as Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., observe in the introduction to The Slave's Narrative, "No written text is a transparent rendering of 'historical reality,' be that text composed by master or slave."

Like all forms of literature, slave narratives had their own formulas and genre rules that were familiar to their target audience. It is important for historians to read critically and be transparent about how sentimentalism influenced proslavery and antislavery texts. Read in isolation, a formerly enslaved author reminiscing about the heartrending moment when their mother tenderly explained that they could someday be sold might be portraying the story to appeal to sentimental readers. But taken alongside other slave narratives, the fact remains that many enslaved families had such discussions, while other relatives tried to keep enslaved children blissfully unaware of the cruel fates that might await them. By identifying where slave narratives overlap and diverge, it becomes evident that they are simultaneously historical documents, abolitionist pamphlets, literary works, and individual memoirs.

While formerly enslaved authors were knowingly shaping their texts through an antislavery lens, their accounts are nevertheless corroborated by none other than slaveholders themselves. Formerly enslaved people wrote about slaveowners' perception that enslaved people's emotions were less nuanced, that feelings were a means and a motive for punishing enslaved people, that holidays could be used as an affective release valve, and that trust was both fundamental and difficult to forge, and all of that was substantiated by slaveholders in their own letters, account books, journals, and sentimental memoirs. To read slave narratives alongside documents from slaveholders is to see the same types of daily interactions that played out in homes, fields, and slave markets throughout the South from multiple perspectives. As Walter Johnson advises, scholars should therefore use these documents in "juxtaposition . . . to authenticate as well as interrogate one another."

Scrutinizing texts by slaveholders and enslaved people side by side is also vital to seeing the emotional landscape of the antebellum South in its entirety, because what proslavery authors and planters wrote in defense of the institution did not always reflect their daily practices as slaveholders. For example, the recollections of formerly enslaved people reiterate how frequently and brutally slaveholders and overseers ignored counsel about avoiding emotions while disciplining. Though articles on plantation management, etiquette books, and social pressure might discourage masters from punishing enslaved people in a fit of passion, the law recognized that this occurred nevertheless, sometimes fatally. To that end, South Carolina passed a law in 1821 stating that murdering an enslaved person "in sudden heat and passion is the same as manslaughter," and thus not a felony like premediated murder. Because many planters and overseers did not follow the advice laid out in agricultural journals, it is important to read sources against one another to identify the schism between prescribed feelings and actual emotional practices. Contemporary newspapers and journals, proslavery and antislavery writing, and other forms of prescriptive literature enable historians to compare what slaveholders and enslaved people were advised to do or feel, including suppressing anger, jealousy, or sorrow, with their actual emotional behavior, which was harder to circumscribe.

There is also the question of how to determine the feelings of people who are long dead. Even when writing letters to loved ones or recording thoughts in a private journal, antebellum authors might be performing an idealized self, based on cultural cues and prevailing affective norms. That does not mean that one cannot gain insights from such sources, or that such texts are not capturing authentically felt emotions. Letters and diaries from that era were still meant to be sincere and were intended for an audience of intimates. One cannot know how people genuinely felt in the antebellum South any more than one can know how another person genuinely feels in the present. Instead, using a variety of sources sheds light on the rhetoric used to discuss feelings, what feelings were expected, and what ulterior motives people had to feign in order to conceal specific emotions. Rather than making assumptions about what people felt, or simply highlighting the language of emotions, the study delves into what people thought emotions could actually accomplish.

Emancipation triggered a seismic shift in the emotional landscape of the antebellum South, with long-lasting impacts. The debate over how to emotionally maintain slavery may have been rendered moot with the end of the Civil War, but the conflict over whether or not the emotional strictures governing the South would be based on race or free status had serious connotations, particularly for free Black people. Just as enslaved people chafed against the emotional restrictions of slavery, many free Black people resisted the affective norms imposed during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the postwar rise of legal and extralegal attempts to affectively control free Black people underscored the commitment of elite White Southerners in particular to preserving the legacy and the power dynamics of the emotional politics of slavery, by any means necessary.


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