In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emotions

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Medicine, Sex, and the Body
  • Language, Gender, and Culture
  • Private and the Public
  • Politics and Revolution
  • Frameworks and Methodological Developments

Atlantic History Emotions
Vicki Hsueh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0249


The study of emotions in the Atlantic context is rapidly expanding. The specific term “emotion” was infrequently used in the historical period typically associated with Atlantic history. Although emotion in the sense of “any vehement or excited mental state” was first cited in the 1660s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, many other terms were significantly more prominent in the vocabularies of 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century transatlantic communities. Thus, scholars in the field tend to investigate emotions via popular period concepts of passions, sentiments, affections, feelings, and sensibilities. These concepts, moreover, do not routinely separate emotion from mind or will. For example, passion had many different connotations, although it tended to refer to strong, intense, or overwhelming emotional or mental states, such as anger and lust. At times, passions were associated with the self and the will and thus were brought into period discussions of reason and morality. However, passions also could be produced as a result of subjection to external forces and action. Meanwhile, although passions were often treated in negative terms (as feelings created by abandonment or stress; or as obstacles to engagement, thinking, or proper conduct), they were also, at various points, more positively associated with power, strength, and action. By contrast, affection tended to refer the mental states brought about by being acted upon, influenced by, or stimulated from outside agents, and not to internal forces. Affection had a generally more positive valence than passions, and particularly in the 18th century, there was frequent discussion of beneficial and transformative affections created by the influences of religion. Affect functioned in a different way and referred to the manner in which one was disposed or tended, as well as to one’s capacity for certain feelings. It should also be noted that affect has now become a popular category of analysis in various fields today, most notably, in cultural theory, neuropolitics, and social/political theory. Yet, in contrast to emotions in the Atlantic context, modern references to affect typically describe the encounter of the senses and stimuli, as well as the quality and quantity of sensory intensity experienced. Other emotions, such as sentiments, tended to have a more reflective status. Sentiments, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, referred to “an opinion or view as to what is right or agreeable.” These were often treated as forms of mental feeling, which linked thought and emotion. Philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume famously tied sentiments to the capacity to make moral judgments. Throughout the 18th century, sentiments were the source of much social, political, and ethical debate by figures such as Smith, Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and others. By the end of the century, sentiment was more commonly linked with an even more refined and meditative emotional state, namely, sensibility.

Introductory Works

Emotions scholarship in the Atlantic region encompasses, but is not limited to: the investigation of emotional repertoires and styles; cultural, racial, religious, and gendered meanings of emotions; conventional forms of affective, sentimental, and passionate expression in text, music, and art; historical categorizations and conceptualizations of emotions; communicative uses and effects of emotions in political, social, and creative expression; possibilities and limits of emotion as part of broader discursive practices; change and continuity in emotional style; change and continuity in emotional standards; and emotion in relation to understandings of myth and religion, witchcraft, and medicine. Focus on the emotions, particularly in the Atlantic (as opposed to a strictly European) context, has spurred much new and innovative research, which often reassesses familiar and important topics in the field (public and private spheres, revolution and war, slavery, colonial-indigenous relations, missionary activity, masculinity and femininity, economic and cultural exchange and systems of interaction, travel, information, and science and technology), while also drawing attention to pressing questions of historical change and causality, rhetorical and textual interpretation, and methodology. There are several excellent works that provide a good overview of developing trends in the field. Eustace provides an excellent lexicon of 18th-century emotion (Eustace 2008). Plamper does a particularly good job of illustrating the multiple regions in Atlantic history that are brought together through emotions scholarship, tracing crucial differences between periods and regions as well as documenting transformations in meaning as ideas and practices travel across the Atlantic (Plamper 2010). A conversation in the American Historical Review illuminates some of the recent intersections between history of science and history of medicine and new avenues of research in Atlantic history.

  • Eustace, Nicole. Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

    Nuanced and evocative treatment of emotions as social communication and marker of status in Revolutionary discourse. Eustace challenges the conventional narrative that divides reason and emotion. Also provides an especially useful and detailed appendix on the various categories of 18th-century emotion. See Eustace, “Appendix: Toward a Lexicon of Eighteenth-Century Emotion,” pp. 481–486.

  • Plamper, Jan. “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns.” History and Theory 49 (May 2010): 237–265.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2303.2010.00541.x

    Interview with Stearns, Rosenwein, and Reddy, three of the leading figures in history of emotion research. Useful narratives on the emergence of the field (especially the relationship between emotion history and social, cultural, and political history) and particularly helpful discussion of debates over critical concepts (i.e., emotive, emotional communities, emotionology) and competing approaches to emotions (constructionist, performative, biological).

  • Schneider, Robert, ed. “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions.” American Historical Review 117.5 (December 2012): 1486–1531.

    Discussion with Eustace, Plamper, Lean, Livingston, Reddy, and Rosenwein. Particularly good treatment of contemporary work in emotions history, especially addressing recent discussion and debate over the use of psychology and neuroscience in the study of emotion.

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