We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States
Suicide is a quintessentially individual act, yet one with unexpectedly broad social implications. Though seen today as a private phenomenon, in the uncertain aftermath of the American Revolution this personal act seemed to many to be a public threat that held no less than the fate of the fledgling Republic in its grip.
Salacious novelists and eager newspapermen broadcast images of a young nation rapidly destroying itself. Parents, physicians, ministers, and magistrates debated the meaning of self-destruction and whether it could (or should) be prevented. Jailers and justice officials rushed to thwart condemned prisoners who made halters from bedsheets, while abolitionists used slave suicides as testimony to both the ravages of the peculiar institution and the humanity of its victims. Struggling to create a viable political community out of extraordinary national turmoil, these interest groups invoked self-murder as a means to confront the most consequential questions facing the newly united states: What is the appropriate balance between individual liberty and social order? Who owns the self? And how far should the control of the state (or the church, or a husband, or a master) extend over the individual?
With visceral prose and an abundance of evocative primary sources, Richard Bell lays bare the ways in which self-destruction in early America was perceived as a transgressive challenge to embodied authority, a portent of both danger and possibility. His unique study of suicide between the Revolution and Reconstruction uncovers what was at stake―personally and politically―in the nation’s fraught first decades.
capable of dramatizing a learning curve in stories of those who made multiple attempts at suicide before finally completing. In 1791 Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser reported the death of Daniel Pearson of New London, Connecticut. Pearson had made several prior attempts to hang himself, but his wife had repeatedly intervened. This time, the paper noted, he had learned from his mistakes, suspending himself by a bridle to a tree several hundred yards distant from his property. An item in a Pennsylvania
have heard of 4. The man that cut his throat, one that shot himself in prison and another who took a large dose of La[u]danum, also a woman who had been married a few months, that hanged herself.”13 In Manhattan, Rev. Samuel Miller was hardly the only resident keeping count. In August 1800, Judge Samuel Bayard wrote to Rush with the 8 We Shall Be No More disturbing news that “there had been 24 instances of suicide in New York . . . since last spring, 3 of whom were servant girls.” Between
mid-1780s as he and many other like-minded parents of adolescent children displaced their growing disillusionment about the atomizing changes reshaping early national society onto Werther’s slender shoulders. Yet even as Rush washed his hands of sentimental novels, content to decry romantic reading as a contributing cause of many of the suicides that now glutted city papers, the doctor still refused to surrender the new nation to the dislocating forces that imperiled it. Unbowed and
unspeakably valuable and dear.”20 The most expansive articulations of this position revealed that many members considered the imperative to maintain “life’s station” to encompass a social meaning. To leaders and rank and file alike, anyone who did not nourish and cherish his own life not only challenged God and nature 94 We Shall Be No More but also seemed to shear the already fraying ties of fellow feeling and common interest that were supposed to bind citizens to one another in the new
stricken man he found inside. It made for gruesome reading: The windpipe is cut entirely off, the gullet half off. He breathes at the wound. There he also receives nourishment. No large veins were cut. He is able to sit up and walk the room. I saw in him the most shocking sight I ever beheld. He gives no reason for his conduct, but that he tho’t he should never be much in the world, and so had better be off, and such like reasons. He may live some days. There were probably hundreds, if not