When suicide comes up as a policy issue, as it does today in assisted-dying debates like the recently defeated referendum in Massachusetts, we tend to think of it as chiefly a private matter - a tragic but personal choice whose impact is limited to circles of family and friends.
But suicide hasn't always been seen that way. In his book "We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States," University of Maryland historian Richard Bell argues that suicide was a public preoccupation in the early Republic, where acts of self-destruction were viewed as a threat to the stability of the wobbly union. In a recent interview with the history journal Common-Place, Bell quotes an article in the Pennsylvania Herald, June 1785, which worried, “Suicide is making a most alarming progress in these states.” He goes on to note a number of news reports from the era that claimed suicides rates had tripled or more since independence.
Bell says there are good reasons to doubt those statistics but the point remains: At a time when the country’s prospects were far from secure, suicide was both a potent metaphor for national disintegration, and a practical threat to the all-for-one, one-for-all mentality needed to carry the country forward. (His argument also answers a common question: Why would it be illegal to kill yourself? The answer is because at the time suicide was made a felony, individual self-destruction weighed more heavily on collective fortunes than it does today.)
Suicide is not illegal anymore. Most state laws were repealed beginning in the 1960s and today the act has been completely decriminalized. Bell traces the inflection point to the mid-19th-century, a period that Ralph Waldo Emerson (per Bell) later described as “the age of the first person singular.” By that point the United States had become sturdy enough to support the modern idea that your life is yours to do with as you please.
Image: "Chatterton" by Henry Wallis (1856). Photograph of the painting by Damian Entwistle.
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