In the dark and rancorous years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War a growing number of commentators, including Abraham Lincoln, had mustered the rhetoric of self-destruction to characterize the gathering storm. Whether in literary or polemical contexts, whether from pulpits, in the pages of the press, or in private correspondence, a steadily increasing number of northern pundits had taken to likening the burgeoning prospect of violent disunion to the individual act of committing suicide. The newspapers published by Fredrick Douglass between August 1848 and September 1855 illustrate the general pattern. The North Star equated proposals to extend slavery into California and New Mexico to “moral suicide.” To withhold support from the Free Soil Party was “morally to commit suicide" and the senators who had blocked the passage of the Wilmot Proviso "may have committed suicide.” The Fredrick Douglass’s Paper described the dissolution of the Whig Party over the slavery question as a felo-de-se and the use of popular sovereignty to determine the fate of the Kansas Territory as ‘the suicide of Slavery.” In 1858 Massachusetts congressman Eli Thayer told his Democratic opponents in the House that their efforts to repeal the Missouri Compromise amounted to “a suicidal act,” an overreach into once-neutral territory that compelled the Free States to respond and retaliate.
The object of such purposefully provocative language was to persuade stakeholders that disunion was to be avoided at All costs. Similar motifs even inflected the language of the minority of slave owners who issued public warnings about the extremity of secession. Maryland congressman Henry Winter Davis argued that constitutional separation “would be an act of suicide, and sane men do not commit suicide. The act itself is insanity . . . Dissolution means death, the suicide of liberty, without hope of resurrection.”
Despite its striking and insistent ubiquity in public discourse throughout the 1850s, 1860, and, most especially in 1861, such restraining rhetoric, however visceral and emotive, proved wholly insufficient to diffuse the sectional crisis. It never became a transforming force. On the contrary, when war came Douglass and men like him felt overwhelming pressure to embrace the Union’s martial aims and soon turned their oratorical talents to the business of recruiting volunteer soldiers and buttressing northern morale. Here, too, suicide motifs provided useful ammunition, as boosters for the war effort promoted images of noble, romantic self-sacrifice in which the battlefield slaughters of volunteer soldiers were reconfigured as acts of selfless martyrdom for a righteous cause. While the use of this sort of language had long been standard practice in western warfare, the scale of the Civil War, and the attendant push to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young men, was unprecedented. Even as northerners continued to understand all but a handful of noncombat suicides as selfish, antisocial deaths that denied their subjects the prospects of salvation, the romantic rhetoric of heroic self-sacrifice that began to spread as America went to war recast the meaning of one species of self-destruction, promising every volunteer soldier who succumbed to a martial death a glorious remembrance and the eternal comforts of heaven.
As the Confederacy’s early offensives made the prospect of Union victory appear even more remote, clergymen across the Free States took to arguing that the blood of the fallen was necessary atonement for the sin of slavery. The blood sacrifice of “cheerful,” God-fearing soldiers was required if the Union was to prevail and if America was to be cleansed, sanctified, and renewed. Through repetition, such claims soon became instinctual and reflexive. “A republic for which such sacrifices have been made,” Albany, New York, pastor Rufus Clark declared at a memorial sermon delivered in July 1864, as the war finally began to turn in the union’s favor, “and upon whose altar such noble and precious lives have been laid, must live, must triumph over all its foes, and shine with new splendor in ages yet to come.” In this absolutist moral crusade, even Lincoln’s assassination was an essential - and some how voluntary – sacrifice for the larger cause.
There was no place in this emerging civic religion for soldiers who drew knives across their throats of hanged themselves from tent poles. Unlike the tens of thousands of troops who surrendered their lives in the line of duty, soldiers who did so by other means seemed like cowards, deserters, or even traitors to the Union cause. In the midst of total war., their deaths seemed to telegraph a disconcerting dearth of self-discipline and mental vigor, a lack of faith in the power of prayer or the belief that God was on their side, and a deficit of honor and manly fortitude in the face of discomfort, privation, and atrocity. Their fatal disillusionment seemed also to signal their apparent surrender to childish, selfish fears, as well as their willingness to desert their comrades and disregard their place in a military hierarchy that, like a strict patriarchal family, rested on unquestioned obedience.
For these reasons, most northern newspaper editors paid little heed to the mounting evidence that Union soldiers unable to cope with the debasement of the war were committing suicide in ever-greater numbers. Indeed, when stories of self-destruction in the Union army first began to surface in the northern press in 1861 and 62, their authors typically declined to speculate as to the deceased’s motives, or pointed instead to purportedly preexisting conditions such as intemperance, trouble at home, or ill health as the prime causal factor. Only as the war ground on and as pockets of opposition to forced conscription developed did some of the more critical Union newspapers begin to assert that the prospect of the draft, the trauma of combat, to toll of camp life, and disillusionment with the cause at hand had, in fact, driven many young men to suicide.
After the war, the War Department would calculate that only three hundred enlisted men and twenty-four officers had taken their own lives during the fighting. This too seems like the result of under-counting. If the grim reportage collated from dissenting journalists and from piecemeal manuscript sources is anything to go by, it seems likely that almost every company in the Union army was touched by self-destruction or the threat of it. It was not until after the war that the majority of the reading public came to properly understand the true extent of soldiers’ daily struggle to fight off the inclination to surrender to starvation, fear and despair. . .
In retrospect, there is little doubt that both sides sustained heavy numbers of self-inflicted casualties in the course of waging the Civil War. Yet while the mainstream northern press seemed reluctant to offer a full account of the many Union suicides committed during the five years of fighting, the same editors had no such qualms about reporting on the situation behind Confederate lines. Throughout the war, the pages of the most northern papers were often stocked with news and hearsay claiming that self-destruction attributable to the ongoing war was ravaging every rank of the Confederate army. . .
Between the Revolution and Reconstruction Americans engaged in an all-consuming ideological struggle to reconcile the expansion of individual liberty with the imperatives of coexistence and mutual obligation. To document the distinctive role that suicide politics played in this dynamic story is to understand how that politics came to shape and be shaped by all manner of related transformations in American society. Over the course of this crucial, formative period in the nation’s early history, wide-ranging, intangible processes such as secularization, democratization, and medicalization altered how the reading public understood the meaning of suicide, even as these processes were simultaneously influenced by assumptions about self-destruction. By the same token, the rise of the novel, the twinned ascension of liberal and evangelical Christianity, the multifaceted development of the antislavery movement, and the growth of sectional interests drew strength and momentum from an evolving cultural politics of self-destruction, and, in turn, remade that politics.
The same dynamic exchanges inform our present moment. The vestigial traces of early American efforts to leverage decisions to die for political purposes linger on in many of today's headlines. The early national crusade to police sentimental novels deemed to be a deadly influence on weak and waxen young minds corresponds closely with modern assumptions about the copycat consequences of listening to expletive-laden rap music or playing violent video games. The same concerns that fired suicide prevention campaigns at the dawn of the nineteenth century are now manifest in attempts to overturn assisted suicide laws recently passed in Oregon and Washington. Likewise, the demagoguery and political gamesmanship first heard in debates over abolition, capital punishment, and revivalism now accompany news reports of the suicides of bullied students and ruined executives, as well as war veterans, cult members, terrorists, and hunger strikers.
From this perspective it seems that moral crisis over self-destruction never entirely dissipate. Instead, they evolve and metastasize to serve the needs of those who stand to profit by them. Americans live in the midst of a seemingly unending series of suicide panics, each one more urgent and alarming than the last, and each one a damning “proof” that the country is benighted by ever more crippling social dislocations and by unprecedented extremes of atomization and alienation. If we are to better understand why opportunists in politics and the media continue to exploit certain species of suicide and the rhetoric of self-destruction more generally, we must attend to the origins of this morbid inclination in the decades after the Revolution, an era when the expansion of print culture made the fraught relationship between the self and society the subject of general conversation for the very first time.