Cultures of Emotion: Families, Friends, and the Making of the United States

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“Cultures of Emotion: Families, Friends, and the Making of the United States” explores the centrality of families to the new republic’s economy and governing institutions in the post-Revolutionary period. In so doing, my work brings the insights of scholarship on the early modern period to the post-Revolutionary United States, where the literature has tended to focus on men and women as individuals, rather than understanding them as members of far-flung family networks. While focusing specifically on several prominent families based in North Carolina and Virginia, the dissertation shows that during this period, wealthy elites during this period had extensive interests in their states and the federal government. They identified so closely with these bodies that they collapsed their interests with the public interest and used their access to them to advance their families’ interests in the name of the public good. By folding the institutions of federal and state government into their family networks, the new republic’s elites organized their own lives and these developing institutions around the metaphor and idea of family. As this dissertation argues, these dynamics were built into the institutional structure of the new nation, creating a governing system intertwined with the familial networks of the elite.

The focus is on two elite families: the Coles of Virginia and the Camerons of North Carolina. Both families were prominent members of the southern elite with networks centered in the South that extended throughout the country and stretched across the Atlantic. Members of both networks held prominent positions in state and national government, and both networks had extensive and varied business interests.

This dissertation combines the history of the Atlantic World with women’s, women’s, economic, political, and legal history to explore the economic and political implications of the connections between the “private,” domestic world of the family and the “public” world of governance at the federal, state, and local levels. The focus on family and affective labor, combined with the contributions of recent work in legal history, recasts our understanding of economic and political development in this period. Examining the intersections of politics with family business networks in the antebellum United States reveals the limitations of the power of governing institutions, particularly at the state and federal level, and the interdependent relationship between elite family networks and government. Government was not a unified, monopolizing force. Rather, governing authority lay in different arenas—at the local, state, and federal levels, and elite families used their networks to access government at these levels to support their economic interests.

“Cultures of Emotion” uses affective labor as a lens through which to examine a unique blend of sources: personal, business, and political correspondence, as well as ledgers, bonds, and other business and political documents. The personal correspondence allows me to reconstruct the basic outlines of kinship networks by revealing the work that men and women did in creating and maintaining familial ties through performances of specific emotional norms. The personal, business, and political correspondence of women and men in the families I study reveals repeated elements in correspondence that served as performances of emotional kinship bonds, as well as conventions to follow. Following the connections established in this correspondence to the ledgers, bonds, and other statements of credit and debt between the network’s members uncovers the webs of credit and debt that sustained elite families. These business and political records underscore the importance of kinship in maintaining these webs of credit and debt and constitute an important link in understanding the way the network’s political and economic power rested on familial bonds and incorporated the institutions of state and federal government as a member, firmly situating the economic and political networks in the domestic realm. Such an approach recasts our understanding of the nineteenth-century United States, centering families in the work of governance and highlighting women’s central role in their families’ economic and political work.






Cooper, Mandy L. (2018). Cultures of Emotion: Families, Friends, and the Making of the United States. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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