Synopses & Reviews
Suicide is a quintessentially individual act, yet one with unexpectedly broad social implications. Though seen today as a private phenomenon, in the uncertain aftermath of the American Revolution this personal act seemed to many to be a public threat that held no less than the fate of the fledgling Republic in its grip.
Salacious novelists and eager newspapermen broadcast images of a young nation rapidly destroying itself. Parents, physicians, ministers, and magistrates debated the meaning of self-destruction and whether it could (or should) be prevented. Jailers and justice officials rushed to thwart condemned prisoners who made halters from bedsheets, while abolitionists used slave suicides as testimony to both the ravages of the peculiar institution and the humanity of its victims. Struggling to create a viable political community out of extraordinary national turmoil, these interest groups invoked self-murder as a means to confront the most consequential questions facing the newly united states: What is the appropriate balance between individual liberty and social order? Who owns the self? And how far should the control of the state (or the church, or a husband, or a master) extend over the individual?
With visceral prose and an abundance of evocative primary sources, Richard Bell lays bare the ways in which self-destruction in early America was perceived as a transgressive challenge to embodied authority, a portent of both danger and possibility. His unique study of suicide between the Revolution and Reconstruction uncovers what was at stake--personally and politically--in the nation's fraught first decades.
Though suicide is an individual act, Richard Bell reveals its broad social implications in early America. From Revolution to Reconstruction, everyone--parents, newspapermen, ministers and abolitionists alike--debated the meaning of suicide as a portent of danger or of possibility in a new nation struggling to define itself and its power.
and#147;Suicide,and#8221; writes Terri Snyder, and#147;is central to the history of slavery in early America,and#8221; and slave suicide is itself central to the history of suicide. Snyder digs deep into horrifying contemporary accounts, exploring when and why captured Africans chose suicide, how their captors chose to respond, and the roles of class and status in early American suicides more generally. Over the course of the slavery era, Snyder finds, American society developed a new ambivalence about suicide. The harsh treatment of suicides lessened in the white populationand#151;bodies were no longer desecrated, forfeiture was not enforcedand#151;while on plantations the question of whether dead slaves were primarily property or people heightened awareness of slaveryand#8217;s contradictions and cruelties. Snyder shows how slave suicide pressured slave society to change not only its attitudes toward slaves but its approach toward suicide in all its forms.
The history of slavery in early America is a history of suicide. On ships crossing the Atlantic, enslaved men and women refused to eat or leaped into the ocean. They strangled or hanged themselves. They tore open their own throats. In America, they jumped into rivers or out of windows, or even ran into burning buildings. Faced with the reality of enslavement, countless Africans chose death instead.
In The Power to Die, Terri L. Snyder excavates the history of slave suicide, returning it to its central place in early American history. How did peopleandmdash;traders, plantation owners, and, most importantly, enslaved men and women themselvesandmdash;view and understand these deaths, and how did they affect understandings of the institution of slavery then and now? Snyder draws on shipsandrsquo; logs, surgeonsand#39; journals, judicial and legislative records, newspaper accounts, abolitionist propaganda and slave narratives, and many other sources to build a grim picture of slaveryandrsquo;s toll and detail the ways in which suicide exposed the contradictions of slavery, serving as a powerful indictment that resonated throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world and continues to speak to historians today.
About the Author
Terri L. Snyder is professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia. She lives in Pasadena.