- We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States by Richard Bell
Is this a history of American suicide, a psychological panorama of the new Republic from independence and Federalism to the abolitionist movement, or simply a cleverly framed biography of Benjamin Rush? It’s all three and more, a synthetic history of suicide unanimously voted “best book of the semester” by a persnickety group of Irish post-graduate students. Bell weaves patterns of moral panics into a compelling narrative recounting the fledgling nation’s collective fears of individual self-destruction from the 1780s to the Civil War. The ominous threat of suicide to collective survival mirrored popular apprehensions over tensions between social unity and individual liberty, between control and rebellion. Methodologically, the author employs sources from the print news media, romantic novels, philanthropy, criminal justice, religious fundamentalism [End Page 482] and the anti-slavery movement to scrutinize partisan instrumentalization of suicide as a weapon in culture wars during the formative years of American national identity.
In his introduction, Bell raises the capriciousness and opacity of suicidal intent (always open to interpretation as it can never be confirmed), which proved enormously adaptable in the political arena. Suicide could effectively vilify or eulogize in ethnic, political, racial, religious and social terms. The contentious meanings of suicide adapted to specific challenges facing the new Republic over “the proper relationship between private will and public interest” (10). The six thematic chapters then focus on specific moral panics over a broad chronological sweep.
Propagandistically, suicide offered a value-laden space to polarize, unify, focus and divide popular attention by drawing upon traditional religious and demonic associations. For the founding fathers, justifications for suicide threatened to radicalize the nation from a liberal to a social revolution potentially descending into bloody terror. Early newspapers disseminated fears of ethnic impurity, social degeneration and anti-religiosity, reporting a rising epidemic of shocking suicides and contributing to debates on censorship in the public sphere. Subsequently, in chapter two, popular depictions of suicide migrated to fiction as the Werther effect struck America’s youth in a perceived crisis of parental authority and generational conflict. The Power of Sympathy (just one of Goethe’s many imitators) sentimentally depicted the suicides of several youths, leading critics to condemn sympathy as a force too potent to be harnessed. In response to mounting public safety concerns, philanthropists like Rush organized urban humane societies with the explicit intent to cheat death. Based on recent developments in Europe, leading ministers and physicians lent credibility to their formation as they assumed prominent roles in local society. Efforts to save victims of drowning focused on training, rapid intervention and the deployment of tobacco clysters—literally blowing smoke up the victim’sass.
Chapter four’s treatment of suicides among accused criminals considers the bizarre public dissatisfaction with their purported attempts to cheat the hangman (reminiscent of Plato’s original condemnation of suicide, compared to a soldier abandoning their post). Bell channels controversy from several cases into a forum for discussion of the death penalty. As in Europe, the corpse of a convicted murderer could still be liable to punishment, either through age-old popular rituals (an angry mob dragged the body of one convicted self-murderer behind a sled to the banks of the Connecticut) or by the coroner turning the corpse over to local surgeons for training in dissection. Seamlessly, religious opposition to the death penalty feeds into the next chapter on accusations against Universalism as a suicide cult. In the “cutthroat religious marketplace,” the democratization of religion meant that theological debates over predestination and ultimate punishment represented competition for converts—and here, again, Rush enters the discussion as an early convert to Universalism. If ultra-Universalists like Thomas Whittemore (editor of the Trumpet) viewed suicide as an act of insanity to be pitied rather than condemned, then their bitter struggle with the Restorationist branch was also deployed by other sects to discredit Universalism more generally. If, in the previous...