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 Most state laws were repealed beginning in the 1960s and today the act has been completely decriminalized.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.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.