The color of sympathy: Biology, race, and feeling in republican and antebellum culture

Edward M. Williams, University of Rhode Island


This dissertation explores the relation between sentimentality, racial essentialism, and abolition. In the introduction, I explore how contemporary theories of sentimentalism and liberalism have served to prevent contemporary literary scholars from 'seeing' the particular ways in which the assumption of 'Negro racial difference' anchored the sentimental condemnation of 'Negro slavery.' In chapter one, I argue that Thomas Jefferson considered the institution of 'Negro slavery' as an affront to the 'moral sentiments' not because it refused to acknowledge the essential equality of 'Negro slaves,' but because it refused to acknowledge that 'Negro slaves' are 'biologically inferior human beings' endowed with certain God-given rights. In chapter two, I propose that the 'death' of 'Charlotte Temple' elicited a huge outpouring of 'sympathy' from late eighteenth and mid nineteenth-century Americans because her body signified the aesthetic, moral, and emotional superiority of 'Anglo-Saxon women'---a 'truth' that served to bolster the defense of 'Negro slavery.' Chapter three focuses on the 'plasticity' of both 'sentimentalism' and 'racism,' suggesting that the 'literary' and 'critical' efforts of Edgar Allan Poe, Beverly Tucker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe exemplify the fact that 'sentimentalism' and 'racism' could be put in the service of either 'socially pernicious' or 'politically emancipatory' ends. And the final chapter problematizes the contemporary desire to figure 'racial justice' as a category that ought to transcend history, culture, and politics. ^

Subject Area

American Studies|History, Black|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Edward M. Williams, "The color of sympathy: Biology, race, and feeling in republican and antebellum culture" (2006). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3225332.