Laura McCoy, Northwestern University
Monticello-McNeil Dissertation Fellow
“In Distress: Family and a Marketplace of Feeling in the Early American Republic”
Laura McCoy is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Northwestern University, specializing in women’s, gender, and family history in the Anglophone world during the 18th and 19th centuries. Her dissertation provides an emotional history of capitalism in the early decades of the United States. As Alexis de Tocqueville saw it, aspiring Americans were “restless in the midst of abundance,” striving desperately for wealth but also fearing destitution in the turbulent, credit-based economy. McCoy’s dissertation introduces the concept of a marketplace of feeling to capture how middling American families saw emotions and economics as intertwined, and thus labored to produce cheering and soothing emotions to compete with the uncertainties and frustrations of an unpredictable economy. Gender shaped people’s emotional responses and responsibilities within this marketplace of feeling. Male family members formed a network of sympathy and support to ease the market’s emotional trials, and patriarchal power solidified within the family as fiction and advice literature urged wives and children to prioritize the male breadwinner’s emotional state over their own. In financially struggling families, women often bore the brunt of the difficult, draining, and uncompensated work of making happiness in the face of financial instability. Overall, McCoy’s dissertation demonstrates that middling American families saw an abstract marketplace of feeling as a necessary complement to the material market with which historians are more familiar, and that the production and exchange of feeling was crucial for the expansion of American capitalism.