The American Historian

The History of American Emotions

Susan J. Matt

Over the last two decades emotions have become central to explanations of social and political life. In political science, scholars have turned their attention to the feelings of the elected and the electorate. Behavioral economists now discount the idea of the “rational actor” and instead explore individuals’ “nonrational,” emotional motivations. And perhaps most notable of all is neuroscience, whose practitioners promise to answer a range of questions about human behavior and psyche with the aid of technology. Supposedly fMRIs will reveal all there is to know about feelings and their origins. Lately, neuroscientists have offered explanations for questions ranging from why Republicans and Democrats have opposing political views (Answer: Republicans have bigger amygdalae which make them fearful, Democrats have larger anterior cingulate cortexes which make them accepting of novelty) to why some people are more sexist than others (Answer: sexists have denser grey matter in the posterior cingulate cortex than non-sexists). Such studies often make universal claims. They suggest that emotions and motivations are unchanging across time and space; that in the presence of a particular stimulus, a predictable response will always be evident.[1] Among their many problems, these approaches leave little room for human agency or the role of culture and history.

Luckily, historians have also turned their attention to the emotions but have developed a far different way of understanding them. In contrast to neuroscience’s emphasis on biological determinism, historians of the emotions argue that inner, subjective life and feelings are to some degree culturally constructed, and that the experience, meaning, and categorization of emotions differs widely from place to place and era to era.

What is the History of the Emotions?

Historians of the emotions explore the inner lives of past peoples to uncover the way earlier cultures understood themselves and to reveal how private feelings shaped public realities. They base their research on the idea that emotions are variable and historically contingent, an assumption supported by a growing body of psychological research. These findings indicate that emotions are not merely unregulated biological impulses but instead involve cognition and are profoundly shaped by language and culture. When humans feel something, they assess their feelings, identify and name them, and this process affects their emotional experiences. As historian William Reddy observed, the particular words a culture uses to describe feelings “are themselves instruments for directly changing, building, hiding, intensifying emotions, instruments that may be more or less successful.” And these words, and their connotations, can change dramatically. Historian Ute Frevert noted that there are “lost emotions,” feelings specific to a time and place which we would not recognize today. Acedia is an example. That condition of slothful lassitude plagued Christian monks, who described it as a demon that attacked the isolated, lazy, and insufficiently pious. Acedia gradually disappeared, only to be replaced first by melancholia, later by boredom, and today by depression. All of these labels describe states that resemble one another; however, the terms themselves are freighted with meaning that influence how those feelings are expressed and understood.[2]

Building on this perspective, historians are recovering the distinctive ways that past peoples thought about and experienced inner life. This represents a departure from traditional historical approaches, for the discipline generally has attended to external behaviors, discounting subjective experience as frivolous, ephemeral, and inherently elusive.[3] In contrast, historians today argue that the ways particular societies labeled, channeled, and displayed their feelings has profoundly affected both national and individual life; that emotions and the conventions regulating them offer a way to understand a society’s values, identities, and ideological commitments.

The History of the Field

The field has its roots in pre-war Europe. Pioneers include Johan Huizinga, whose 1924 book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, attempted to describe the “vehement pathos of medieval life” and to chronicle “the difference of tone between the life of the expiring Middle Ages and that of our own days.” Another early work, The Civilizing Process, written by sociologist Norbert Elias in 1939, offered an explanation of how medieval Europeans slowly developed modern standards of emotional and behavioral control.[4]

Lucien Febvre, a founder of the Annales school, issued the first formal call for the study of emotions in the late 1930s and early 1940s, observing that historians would find novel perspectives on the past if they turned their attention to inner life. “So many people go around despairing at every turn—there is, they say, nothing left to discover . . . . All they need to do is plunge into the darkness where psychology wrestles with history—they would soon get back their appetite for discovery.” To succeed, Febvre suggested historians abandon modern psychological theories, for “the science of our contemporary psychologists can have no possible application to the past nor can the psychology of our ancestors have any possible overall application to the men of today.” Consequently, historians needed to “establish a detailed inventory of the mental equipment of the men of the time” and then “reconstitute the whole physical, intellectual and moral universe of each preceding generation.”[5]

His call was taken up by French historians but more slowly by scholars in the United States. American-born social historians who studied Europe were leaders in adopting the approach, and they imported some of their French colleagues’ methods and objectives. Scholars in sociology and anthropology also began to explore emotions as cultural artifacts, and their research proved influential as well. Peter N. Stearns and Carol Z. Stearns formally introduced the field to an American audience. Their co-authored 1985 essay in the American Historical Review issued a new call for histories of feelings and encouraged historians to reconstruct the emotional rules that governed the expressive life of past generations. Recognizing that social prescriptions and lived experience often diverged greatly, they also suggested that scholars investigate how individuals conformed to, repudiated, and sometimes disregarded their societies’ rules. Together and separately they wrote a number of books and essays that advanced this agenda.[6]

Over the next decade several American historians turned their attention to emotions, although there still was no recognized subfield. Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage traced soldiers’ changing conceptions and experience of fear and bravery during the Civil War. John Demos explored how New England culture gradually relied less on shame and more on guilt for the moral reformation of its members. Karen Lystra’s Searching the Heart examined how romantic love both fostered individualism and blunted patriarchal power during the nineteenth century. John Kasson’s Rudeness and Civility charted the rise of etiquette rules that governed emotional display.[7]

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, the field has gained momentum, adherents, and new theoretical approaches. Within the United States, notable innovators have been William Reddy, an historian of France, and the medievalist Barbara Rosenwein. Building on the growing body of research and theory, historians of the United States have chronicled the shifting meanings of particular emotions as a way to gauge larger changes. For instance, a recent book on sympathy focused on that emotion’s place in sustaining Puritan communal life. A study of envy traced how consumers transformed the emotion from a sin to an economic stimulant and suggested that the expansion of consumer society depended not just on department stores and advertising, but also on new emotional norms and experiences. An investigation of cheerfulness showed how the imperative to appear cheerful grew in tandem with a capitalist economy in which people wanted to present themselves as successful and fulfilled. The emotion became even more important with the expansion of the service economy in the twentieth century.[8]

Others have focused not on a single emotion but on themes and events in history, using feelings as a way to transform traditional narratives. Historians have demonstrated that the American Revolution was not just a political upheaval but an emotional one, arising as colonists developed new views about who was entitled to express anger, grief, and love. A study of nineteenth-century women focused on the emotional labor embedded in the culture of domesticity. A study of the causes of the Civil War suggested that Northerners and Southerners had different emotional cultures: diverging opinions about what constituted happiness, how and when to express anger, differentiated the regions and exacerbated sectional conflicts. And an increasing number of historians of immigration are examining geographic mobility as an emotional event.[9] Such research reshapes conventional historical narratives by showing how inner life affects outer realities.

Globally, the subfield has attracted so much interest that there are three book series devoted to the history of emotions, numerous conference panels at the American Historical Association’s and the Organization of American Historian’s annual meetings, and a host of other meetings on the subject. Overall, however, the United States lags behind other nations. There are centers for historical research on the emotions in Germany, England, and Australia. As of now, no comparable organization exists in America. And within the field, the United States is still relatively understudied. A growing network of scholars across the globe, however, is beginning to probe America’s emotional history.[10]

The Future of the Field

These scholars are developing new approaches. While early studies focused mostly on prescriptive literature, succeeding researchers have explored lived experience—how individuals conformed to or rebelled against emotional norms and conventions. Historians are also examining a widening range of people. Early investigations explored the feelings of the literate, whose letters, diaries, and memoirs offered a window into their inner lives. Increasingly, however, there are efforts to recover the history of emotions by other means. Some scholars have turned to material culture. Archaeologists of the emotions have used wampum beads and smoking pipes to understand how Iroquois exchanged gifts to create communal feeling. A study of photography revealed the rise of the smile in portraiture. Legal cases provide another way to understand the feelings and preoccupations of nonliterate people and have been used to track changing attitudes towards love, anger, jealousy, and violence. Funerary practices offer clues about grief and mourning. Food can reveal much about homesickness and nostalgia.[11]

With more sources to analyze, historians will be better able to map the diversity of American emotional life—for within a society there are many different and often competing modes of emotional expression. For instance, the literature on heterosexual romantic love is robust, but relatively few studies of same-sex love exist. Another fertile field for exploration is African-American emotional life. Heather Williams’s book Help Me to Find My People is among the first to tackle the subject, exploring the grief of enslaved families separated by sale.[12] Much remains to be done to uncover the variety of emotional experience, however.

The emotions can enrich fields that might normally neglect them. Political and diplomatic historians are slowly getting in touch with their feelings. Frank Costigliola’s work on George Kennan revealed how his emotions about Russia informed his foreign policy. Labor historians, drawing on sociological theories of “emotional labor,” have used it to analyze the changing nature of work. Within the histories of science and medicine, recent studies of neurasthenia and depression demonstrated how social forces shaped psychological diagnoses.[13]

In charting the variety and shifting meanings of feelings, the history of emotions offers a humanistic alternative to the reductionist explanations of social and behavioral science. It can restore agency, nuance, and culture to our understandings of human motivation and action, past and present. In so doing, it reminds us that our personalities and the particular ways we conceive of ourselves are, in fact, products of history.


Susan J. Matt is Professor of History and Chair of the History Dept. at Weber State University. She is the author of Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society (2003) and Homesickness: An American History (2011). She is currently co-authoring a book on Americans' emotions about technology, from the telegraph to Twitter.


[1]For a discussion of the resurging interest in emotions, see Frank Biess and Daniel M. Gross, eds., Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective (2014). On emotions in politics, see George E. Marcus, “Emotions in Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science, 3 (June 2000), 221–50. “The Neuroscience of Politics,” BrainWorld, April 28, 2015,; Christian Jarrett, “Can Neuroscience Explain Why People Are Sexist?,” Science of Us, Oct. 28, 2015, Though many neuroscientists believe emotions to be stable, universal categories, there is, however, a new movement within neuroscience which examines the role of culture. See Joan Y. Chiao, et al., “Theory and Methods in Cultural Neuroscience,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5 (June–Sept. 2010), 356–61.

[2]William M. Reddy, “Humanists and the Experimental Study of Emotion,” in Biess and Gross, Science & Emotions, 41-66. William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (2001), 105. Ute Frevert, Emotions in History: Lost and Found (2011), 31–36. Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (1995).

[3]Barbara H. Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History,” American Historical Review, 107 (June 2002), 821.

[4]Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought, and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Dawn of the Renaissance (1954), 15. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, trans. Edmund Jephcott (1978).

[5]Lucien Febvre, “Sensibility and History: How to Reconstitute the Emotional Life of the Past,” in A New Kind of History from the Writings of Lucien Febvre, ed. Peter Burke., trans. K. Folca, (1973). Lucien Febvre, “History and Psychology,” in A New Kind of History, 5, 9.

[6]See Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction, trans. Keith Tribe (2015), 75–142. Carol Z. Stearns and Peter N. Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” American Historical Review, 90 (Oct. 1985), 813–36. Carol Z. Stearns and Peter N. Stearns, Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History (1986); Peter N. Stearns, American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style (1994); Peter N. Stearns, American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety (2006).

[7]Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (1987); John Demos, “Shame and Guilt in Early New England,” in Carol Z. Stearns and Peter N. Stearns, Emotion and Social Change: Towards a New Psychohistory (1988), 69–86; Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (1989); John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (1990).

[8]Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling; Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History.” Abram Van Engen, Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England (2015). Susan J. Matt, Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890–1930 (2003). Christina Kotchemidova, “From Good Cheer to ‘Drive-By Smiling’: A Social History of Cheerfulness,” Journal of Social History, 39 (Autumn 2005), 5–37

[9]Nicole Eustace, Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (2008). Martha Tomhave Blauvelt, The Work of the Heart: Young Women and Emotion, 1780–1830 (2007). Michael E. Woods, Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (2014). Hasia R. Diner, “Ethnicity and Emotions in America: Dimensions of the Unexplored,” in Peter N. Stearns and Jan Lewis, eds., An Emotional History of the United States (1998), 197–217; Susan J. Matt, Homesickness: An American History (2011).

[10]Jessica Gienow-Hecht, ed., Emotions in American History: An International Assessment (2010).

[11]On archaeology and emotions, see Sarah Tarlow, “Emotion in Archaeology,” Current Anthropology, 41 (Dec. 2000), 713–46; John Laurence Creese, “Emotion Work and the Archaeology of Consensus: the Northern Iroquoian Case,” World Archaeology, 48 (no. 1, 2016), 13–34. Christina Kotchemidova, “Why We Say ‘Cheese’: Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22 (March 2005), 2–25. Dawn Keetley, “From Anger to Jealousy: Explaining Domestic Homicide in Antebellum America,” Journal of Social History, 42 (Winter 2008), 269–97. Martha Pike, “In Memory Of: Artifacts Relating to Mourning in Nineteenth Century America,” in Rituals and Ceremonies in Popular Culture, ed. Ray B. Browne (1980) 296–315; Peter N. Stearns, Revolutions in Sorrow: The American Experience of Death in Global Perspective (2007). Matt, Homesickness, 141–75.

[12]Barbara H. Rosenwein writes of the many “emotional communities” which coexist within a society: Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History.” Heather Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (2012).

[13]Frank Costigliola, “‘I React Intensely to Everything’: Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan, 1933–1958,” Journal of American History,102 (March 2016), 1075–101. Sabinol Kornrich, “Hiring Help for the Home: Household Services in the Twentieth Century,” Journal of Family History, 37 (April 2012), 197–212. David G. Schuster, Neurasthenic Nation: America’s Search for Health, Happiness, and Comfort, 1869–1920 (2011); Laura D. Hirshbein, American Melancholy: Constructions of Depression in the Twentieth Century (2009).