Suicide, Rhetoric, Social anxieties
In We Shall Be No More, Richard Bell explores the myriad ways in which Americans in the decades after the Revolution used suicide as a rhetorical tool. In the midst of an apparent suicide epidemic, alarmed Americans saw suicide as symptom of a breakdown in the personal, social, and civic virtue critical to a republic. Rather than a comprehensive history of suicide in the early republic, We Shall Be No More uses suicide as a lens through which to study a half dozen largely disconnected topics ranging from the literary habits of young adults to death-penalty reform to Universalist theology. In each of these chapters, suicide provides critical insight on a pressing social or cultural issue during the early republic. For instance, in the chapter on death-penalty reform, those seeking to abolish the death penalty pointed to death-row suicides as one of the reasons to end the practice. In the chapter on Universalism, Universalist theologians such as Hosea Ballou engaged with religious leaders of rival denominations to prove that Universalism wasn’t a suicide cult. In each chapter, Bell deftly deploys a wide range of sources to explore the myriad ways in which suicide opens a window on a significant social issue. Bell concludes that “suicide became not simply a terminus for hysteria but also a locus for contesting some of the consequential questions facing the new Republic during a cultural crisis as severe as any in American history” (249).
In one of the more original chapters, Bell explores the rise and decline of lifesaving humane societies. Boosters such as Dr. Benjamin Rush placed preventing suicide, along with drowning, as one of this movement’s central objectives. Growing out of the republican ethos that placed the needs of the society above those of the individual, humane society members sought to prevent suicide in order to maintain social order. Humane societies trained their members in rigorous lifesaving techniques including how resuscitate drowning victims and how to purge those who had overdosed on arsenic or opium, trusting that “they could turn back the tide of self-destruction that many humane society leaders . . . believed was sweeping the new nation” (95). Assuming that all suicides were the product of insanity, humane societies also played a significant role in the creation of insane asylums, most notably McLean Hospital in Charlestown.
Bell’s sources create a heavy New England bias, as almost none of the book examines suicide south or west of Philadelphia. The chapters on lifesaving, death-penalty reform, and Universalists draw almost exclusively from sources on New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Even [End Page 162] the chapter on slave suicides is primarily about the ways in which New England abolitionists used slave suicide as a rhetorical device to highlight the barbarity of human bondage rather than how and why actual slaves took their own lives. It would be interesting to know more about how Americans in different regions viewed suicide. What effect, for instance, did the frontier have on suicidality and social attitudes toward suicide? Similarly the voices of women and minorities are largely absent. While we learn some about the ways in which suicide was gendered and colored, we do so primarily from white male sources.
These criticisms aside, We Shall Be No More presents an insightful and largely novel approach to the cultural history of the early republic. It deserves a wide readership, not only by those historians interested in suicide but also by scholars interested in the social anxieties Americans struggled with in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.
David Silkenat is an assistant professor of History and Education at North Dakota State University. He is the author of Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011).