IN THE GROWING LITERATURE ON SOUTHERN HONOR, one of the thornier issues that remains relatively neglected has to do with relationships between Southern ideas and larger social concerns in antebellum America. Certainly, honor took a distinctive shape in the South during the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly in such violent manifestations as dueling. Nevertheless, in important respects, the cultural underpinnings for Southern ideals of honor were very similar to cultural concerns expressed elsewhere in the United States. The powerful sense of the instability of social relations many historians find at the heart of Southern honor, for example, was not so different from the Northern middle-class anxiety about order, discipline, and status documented by such historians as Karen Halttunen. (1)
That similarity appears all the more striking when one explores the links between the South's rhetoric of honor and the rhetoric of sentiment and sensibility that, as such scholars as Halttunen, Ann Douglas, and Andrew Burstein have shown, served to express anxieties about social and political life in antebellum America. Despite honor's well-known insistence on independence and self-assertion and the emphases on mutuality of feeling and affection evoked by ideals of sensibility, both rhetorics addressed similar doubts about social ties and political unity, doubts exacerbated by the continuous reshaping of American society in the nation's early years. Stressing the essential importance of honesty, sincerity, and reciprocity in social and political relations, both rhetorics expressed deep misgivings about whether people could be trusted to live up to such ideals. (2)
Links between the languages of sentiment and honor have never been entirely ignored. Adam Smith, whose 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments did much to place moral ideals on a foundation of sentiment and sensibility, also did much to develop such links, arguing that honor was a measure, in men, of that sensibility which served as the basis for right action. (3) This connection was carried forward through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the sentimental literature that dramatically tied a concern for social relations to those issues of moral sense and human affection forming the tradition's core. (4) What historian Hendrik Hartog has described as a "sentimentalized notion of honor," drawing on conventions of that literature, continued to play a role in the American legal-realm, North and South, as late as the 1850s. (5)
The significance of such links for understanding Southern ideas of honor becomes more fully apparent, however, in light of an episode in which the rhetorics of honor and sentiment came strongly together, the Kentucky Tragedy. One of the best-known and most complicated episodes from the antebellum period, it involved the murder of Colonel Solomon Sharp, one of Kentucky's most prominent politicians, by Jereboam Beauchamp, a young lawyer. Expertly analyzed by such historians as J. Winston Coleman, J. W. Cooke, and David Brion Davis, the episode inspired literary works by writers from Thomas Holley Chivers and Edgar Allan Poe through Octavia Barnes and Julia Ward Howe to Robert Penn Warren. Since the early 1960s, there have been at least three republications of major documents from the episode, intended for undergraduate literature courses. (6)
The main outlines of the story are fairly familiar. Beginning in 1821, Sharp, running for political office, was accused of having about two years before seduced Ann (sometimes spelled "Anna") Cooke, who had subsequently given birth to a stillborn baby. Shortly thereafter, she began a relationship with Beauchamp, a young man sixteen years her junior--he was eighteen; she, thirty-four. The two were married in 1824. On November 7, 1825, at about two in the morning, Beauchamp went to Sharp's home and stabbed Sharp to death. Beauchamp was arrested a few days later. Protesting his innocence, he was nevertheless tried, convicted and, in May 1826, sentenced to die. He subsequently acknowledged his guilt.
Beauchamp's execution was as spectacular as his crime. After his conviction, Ann Cooke Beauchamp joined him in his cell, where they formulated a suicide pact. During the night before the scheduled execution, they took laudanum. However, the drug failed to work, and, on the following morning, they stabbed themselves, each imposing a self-inflicted wound. Ann Beauchamp's proved fatal; Jereboam's did not. Around noon on July 7, 1826, after being attended by physicians, he was taken from his cell and hanged. According to their wishes, the Beauchamps were buried in each other's arms in a single grave.
The case attracted great attention in and outside Kentucy, and became entangled with some of the most violent political divisions in Kentucky history. As was true then, it remains the case that no one can be exactly sure to what extent the murder was the result of a private vendetta involving mainly the Beauchamps and Sharp and to what extent it was an assassination organized by Sharp's political opponents, including, perhaps, Beauchamp. (7)
From the beginning, however, almost everyone recognized the role of honor in Beauchamp's killing of Sharly--his protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears--and as people debated his possible motivations for the crime, their understanding of honor served as the primary basis for the scenarios they created to explain it. For those who believed the killing had been the result of a private vendetta, honor provided an obvious key. In the year following the Beauchamps' marriage, Sharp's alleged seduction of Ann Cooke Beauchamp had become a matter of renewed interest in Kentucky. Having served as the state's attorney general since 1821, Sharp had resigned the orifice in the summer, 1825, to nm for the legislature. During the campaign, rumors of the earlier seduction had resurfaced. So had another rumor. Sharp, it was said, not only denied having seduced Cooke but also suggested that he could not have been the father of her stillborn child, because the child had been a mulatto. Given the power of such a charge, many people were prepared to believe that Beauchamp had killed Sharp to avenge his wife's honor, the honor of their family, and that of their marriage.
That such an explanation virtually typified Southern ideas of honor, as normally understood, is dear, and has been noted by such historians as Bertram Wyatt-Brown and J. W. Cooke, the Tragedy's leading student. In the South, as in many honor cultures, husbands took on the obligation to uphold and defend the honor of their wives. It was an obligation Beauchamp would have assumed upon his marriage to Ann Cooke. Thus, because the rumors of Sharp's seduction and defamation of Cooke were widely known, if also widely contested, suspicion did fall almost immediately on Beauchamp. There was a story that, rushing to the dying victim, Sharp's brother Leander shouted, "My God! Beauchamp has done this." Beauchamp himself, when initially denying his guilt, knew that honor would implicate him. In a letter to the prominent Kentuckian John J. Crittenden one of the very few of Beauchamp's comments to survive from the time between his arrest and his conviction--Beauchamp acknowledged the obligation honor had imposed. But he had decided, he said, not to make the "wounds" of his wife's family "bleed afresh, by reviving unpleasant feelings which time had measurably consoled." (8)
But even those who saw political motives behind the killing constructed a scenario with honor at its heart. Again, the Kentucky political arena of the 1820s was fiercely divided, and had been since the onset of a severe depression in 1818. The division resulted from a conflict over legislative efforts, beginning by about 1820, to provide assistance to Kentucky farmers and landholders who, suffering from falling agricultural prices and tight credit, faced foreclosure and eviction from their properties. With powerful interests on both sides, the effort was also marked by the emergence of two strongly antagonistic "Relief" and "Anti-Relief" factions. (9)
This division was exacerbated, moreover, in 1823, when the state's high court declared major relief measures unconstitutional. The pro-relief governor, Joseph Desha, and the legislature responded by abolishing the offending court and creating a new one. Sharp was an ally of Desha, identified with the Relief party, and a New Court leader. According to the political scenarios for his death, certain Anti-Relief, Old Court figures had fed Beauchamp rumors of Sharp's seduction and defamation of Ann Cooke Beauchamp, playing on honor's demands to goad him into killing Sharp. Here, too, it was honor that made such a scenario seem credible. It was honor, after all, and the obligations Beauchamp had assumed with his marriage, that made him so easy to manipulate. (10)
For all the obvious ties with honor, however, there were also connections, no less obvious, between the main lines of the Beauchamp case and those of sentimentalism, especially in their common motifs of seduction, betrayal, and revenge. Here was, for example, the key plot structure framing virtually every sentimental work from Clara forward--even if, to be fair, many sentimental writers were at least ambivalent about violent revenge as a response to even the vilest seduction. (11)
But the real strength of these connections was to be revealed in one of the most significant early accounts of the Tragedy. This was the account created when, following his trial and conviction, Beauchamp, having admitted his guilt, composed a lengthy confession of what he had done. Beauchamp's Confession, as it came to be known, was a work with complex origins and purposes. Written with the court's permission, it was completed several weeks prior to Beauchamp's death. The final version, with an account of the execution appended, appeared in August 1826, about a month after Beauchamp's death, edited, perhaps even rewritten, by Beauchamp's family and the publisher, W. H. Holmes: according, to the document's leading student, Fred M. Johnson, the surviving manuscript is not in Beauchamp's hand. Much of the delay had to do with an initial attempt in the document to implicate Sharp's political opponent--particularly the lawyer and editor Patrick Henry Darby--in the murder. This was left out of the published version in response to Darby's threat to sue the family and others for libel, although the final document did accuse Darby of offering false testimony in Beauchamp's trial, testimony that was crucial in getting Beauchamp convicted. (12)
The story is important because there is evidence Beauchamp initially composed the Confession in the belief that its publication, if accomplished before his death, might prevent his execution. Subsequent to his sentencing, when he admitted guilt for the first time, Beauchamp never ceased begging for a pardon or, at the very least, for commutation of his sentence to "exile." His effort to implicate Darby was part of that quest, the hope being that by implicating one of Sharp's political opponents in the crime, he could persuade the governor, also an enemy of Darby, to act on his behalf. At the same time, Beauchamp hoped to build public sympathy by proving that "he had received a deadly injury from Col. Sharp." As the drama unfolded, however, the purpose of the document changed dramatically, especially as it became apparent that Beauchamp was not to escape the gallows. Increasingly, Beauchamp, his family, and his editors appear to have focused on creating a legacy for both Beauchamps, one that could, perhaps, serve political purposes while also giving the couple a measure of dignity in death. (13)
In its content no less than its purposes Beauchamp's Confession was also a complex document. Much of it recounts the trial at which Beauchamp was convicted as well as his claims that perjured testimony had brought him down. Much also describes his motivations, an important point since at least one reason the court may have permitted him to write the document was a desire, widely expressed, to have rations mysteries surrounding Sharp's death resolved. The trial itself had done little in this regard, beyond affirming Beauchamp's guilt.
At one level, the Confession does emphasize the importance of honor as the framework in terms of which Beauchamp and his editors hoped the crime would be understood: Fred M. Johnson has rightly described it as a document impelled by "honor-driven anger." Thus, the Confession sought, in a variety of ways, to cast Beauchamp, and the killing, in honorable terms. This was not easy, and the effort, in itself, illuminates how Beauchamp and his editors believed their readers would have understood issues of honor. (14)
In attempting to put Sharp's murder in the context honor entailed, Beauchamp and his editors framed the Confession as, above all, the story of a young man trying to behave honorably in a dishonorable world. Describing his crime as more than "justifiable," as a "duty," Beauchamp's work reported that he neither regretted what he had done nor feared the death that awaited him. "And if my death," he wrote, "teaches a respect for the laws of my country, my example will be not less serviceable, in teaching a respect for those laws of honor, to revenge the violation and outrage of which, I so freely die." Representing Sharp as a worse than conscienceless seducer, Beauchamp wrote of his own love for Cooke that "When ever I had contemplated a marriage with her, I had always esteemed the death of Col. Sharp a necessary consequence. I never for a moment could feel that I could suffer a vilian [sic] to live, who had been the seducer of one I pressed to my bosom as a wife." True or not--and Beauchamp's account had many problems--the story showed a confidence that such an explanation of his crime would at least seem credible in a world aware of honor's ideals and obligations. (15)
So did the account of the series of decisions leading up to Sharp's murder. According to Beauchamp's account, vengeance had always been at the core of his relationship with Ann Cooke. Even before he met her, he said, he had heard about the seduction; it was a knowledge that had led him to her--a wronged woman--in the first place. Living in retirement from society, she had initially spurned his approaches because of her feelings of disgrace. When she finally did agree to see him, it was only after she had told him, herself, of her shame. When she finally agreed to marry him, it was only on condition that he kill Sharp, a condition which, as a man of honor, he understood.
That he chose to kill as he did, moreover, Beauchamp also explained in honor's terms. According to Beauchamp, he initially sought to confront Sharp openly as a seducer, and, turning to what so many historians have seen as the quintessential expression of Southern honor, to challenge him to a duel. Sharp, however, refused to for his life, falling to his knees, pleading for mercy.
Whether the confrontation took place is impossible to say. As Beauchamp admitted, no one witnessed it, and there were inconsistencies between his story and other evidence in the case. But for Beauchamp's Confession, the account of Sharp's refusal to fight was what counted. Beauchamp had tried, the account indicated, to face up to Sharp as a true man of honor, and Sharp had let him down in a way contrary to honor's demands.
This was an important point in the narrative. As so many historians have stressed, the ethical standards of Southern honor called for any violence to take the form of a public act; it was also to be an act that put a willingness to face death over a desire to do harm. Beauchamp's crime had contradicted those standards. As everyone, including Beauchamp, recounted the murder, he had gone to Sharp's home in the middle of the night, used a false name to gain admittance, then stabbed the unprepared Sharp to death. The surreptitiousness of the crime was widely condemned. As one newspaper commented, "To invade the sanctuary of a man's private and family residence: to call him up from the bosom of his wife, and gain admittance by a successful claim on his hospitality, to stab him to the heart, is an act of atrocity and crime that strikes us with more horror than any thing we have ever felt." (16)
Sharp's refusal to fight honorably, Beauchamp contended, made such a surreptitious act necessary since, he suggested, pointing to ambiguities in the concept itself, revenge was no less demanded than publicity where honor was at stake. "It is vain to say," he wrote, "the laws of society provide adequate redress for all injuries of one citizen towards another" (KT, p. 22), redress remaining an essential goal, despite the cowardice Sharp had earlier displayed. Thus, Sharp's refusal did not relieve Beauchamp of the oath he had taken to Ann Cooke, and several things conspired to force him to act when he did. Most important was his marriage to Cooke in June 1824. Again, as a husband, Beauchamp formally took on the role of protector of his wife and of their relationship.
What really forced Beauchamp's hand, however, was the resurfacing, during the heated campaign of 1825, of rumors about the seduction. Even more important was a letter Beauchamp said he received from an unimpeachable source informing him that Sharp had begun to spread the rumor about the mulatto child. As his wife's protector, Beauchamp contended, such a slander could not go unavenged.
It was within this framework that Beauchamp described his final decision to act quietly and surreptitiously to kill Sharp. Not surprisingly, the Confess/on placed great emphasis on the seriousness with which Beauchamp took his role as avenger. It reiterated often the extent to which he saw that as a role compelled by honor's imperatives and the sacredness with which he took his oath to his wife. The document described a Beauchamp who felt continuing compulsion to use violence to purify both his wife's reputation and their relationship to each other--a common theme in honor-based cultures. (17)
No less important, however, was the document's account of the role of reciprocity in Beauchamp's understanding of honor's web of rights and obligations. This issue of reciprocity, of exchange, is one which historians of honor have studied extensively, and the Beauchamp document placed great emphasis on it. It often cites various episodes from Sharp's life and career to illustrate the colonel's failure to live up to honor's obligations of reciprocity. Sharp's refusal to fight was an example of this. So was his defamation of Ann Beauchamp. By spreading the mulatto story, Beauchamp declared, Sharp had voided all claim to "the reciprocal conduct of men of honor" (KT, p. 22). Toward the end of the Confession, Beauchamp also claimed that the Cooke family had assisted Sharp's rise to prominence, only to be rewarded, in return, with the seduction and defamation of a daughter. Sharp was, Beauchamp wrote, guilty of the most base dishonor and ingratitude, in the seduction of Miss Cooke, of which the villiany [sic] of man is capable" (KT, p. 81). (18)
Reciprocity was to be a continuing theme in Beauchamp's Confession, whether talking about Sharp's behavior, the witnesses whose perjured testimony brought him to his sad fate, or, especially, his decision to try to get away with his crime. Beauchamp constantly conveyed his sense that too many men in 1820s Kentucky were, like Sharp, indifferent to honor's web of reciprocal rights and obligations. Because he could not count on them to live according to honor's demands, his decision to kill Sharp surreptitiously and to assert his innocence had less to do with his failings than with those of his persecutors. (19)
It is in this emphasis on reciprocity that Beauchamp's Confession does most to highlight links between the rhetoric of honor and the more general themes evoked by sentimentalism in antebellum America. As a number of historians have indicated, concerns about reciprocity were also a part of those anxieties about social stability and order widespread in the early American republic. Because it derived from a theory of virtue placing sympathy and sensibility at the core of social and political relations, sentimentalism focused on both the possibilities and dangers of trusting in the feelings and affections of oneself and others. Creating vivid scenarios of insincerity and betrayal, sentimentalism no less than honor portrayed reciprocity as the necessary foundation for social and political life. Beauchamp's Confession was to draw heavily on those scenarios in its effort to put Beauchamp's crime in its most favorable light. (20)
Herbert Ross Brown, in his survey of early American sentimental fiction, described suicide, seduction, and sensibility as the "tearful triune of sentimental beauties," identifying them as the key conventions of the sentimental tradition. Evoking ideals of faithfulness, courage, and sincerity, Beauchamp's Confession framed much of its treatment of honor's web of reciprocal rights and obligations in terms of those conventions and resonated with them. This was certainly the case in its presentation of the principals, including that of Sharp as a seducer. The Confession offered no details of the seduction. Nevertheless, as it drew in its portrayal of Sharp connections among ambition, ingratitude, and a willingness to dishonor and defame a "worthy" young woman through dishonesty and dissimulation, it strongly suggested sentimental imagery. The seducer was commonly described, for example, as a man who, according to one story, brought together "an engaging person," "an insinuating address," and an array of false promises to rob a young woman "of her only portion--her innocence." (21) Worse, the seducer perverted love itself. Describing one libertine, the prominent novelist John Neal, in 1823, had one of his characters say, "Men that love truly, can no more trifle in that way, with the sacred and beautiful relationship of love, than they could stand and assist in dishonouring their own mother." (22) Readers would have needed no details to know, from the act of seduction itself, the kind of man Sharp must have been. The portrayal was only enhanced, moreover, by the account of Sharp's craven refusal to answer for his actions, an oft-told tale in sentimental works. (23)
No less firmly rooted were the portraits of the Beauchamps. Ann Cooke Beauchamp, as a victim of seduction, was presented in ways that would have enabled most readers to view her as a young woman (and the issue of age was simply evaded) vulnerable to a seducer's charms as a result of her own sincerity and innocence. Indeed, as most writers in the tradition suggested, that a young woman was vulnerable to seduction was testimony to that very innocence. As one put it in "The Sorrows of Amelia"--a story published at the close of the eighteenth century and reprinted as late as 1825--to be "unversed in the secret villainies of a base degenerate world" was a "fatal credulity" leaving one open to the "persuasive flattery, and external charms of the vile seducer." (24) Moreover, when the Confession reported that, following the seduction, she had "retired to a romantic little farm" (KT, p. 8) where, with only books for company, she refused all society, the account put her in company with classic sentimental heroines from Charlotte Temple to Eliza Wharton and beyond.
In Beauchamp's character, the links between honor and sensibility were no less clear. At one point, stressing his protective role, Beauchamp's act was likened to what a "father of any sensibility or honorable feeling" (KT, p. 22) would have been impelled to do. Beauchamp himself was presented as a young man whose passions were strong, yet true. Declaring, as did many a sentimental hero, an "utter contempt and abhorrence" (KT, p. 7) for what Sharp had done, Beauchamp described his determination to kill as the product of both his hatred for the seducer and his love for Cooke. He described that love as the "sweetest of all passions, which reciprocated, hapily [sic] turns Earth into a Heaven" (KT, p. 11). Beauchamp's recognition that love implied commitment contrasts strongly with Sharp's willingness to play on Cooke's affections for his own gratification. (25)
There was even much in the sentimental tradition to anticipate Beauchamp's crime. Although, again, most sentimentalists were ambivalent about violent acts of revenge, believing, as Susannah Rowson wrote in Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, that one should "wrest not the power from the hand of omnipotence," (26) most--including Rowson--resented episodes of vengeance in their works with not entirely concealed satisfaction. Duels, formal and peremptory, figured prominently in sentimental fiction. Even Beauchamp's confrontation with Sharp, the cowardly seducer refusing the peremptory challenge of a young man "swelling with passion," as a Richmond, Virginia, novelist wrote in describing a similar episode, would have been familiar to Beauchamp's readers. (27)
But the force of sentimentalism was most clearly dramatized in that portion of the Confession relating events leading up to Beauchamp's execution. The dosing pages of the Confession were testimony to the courage of both Beauchamps in the face of death and to the depth and sincerity of their love. it was a testimony, moreover, suggesting that sentimental conventions, in their own right, helped shape the Beauchamps' behavior, even in their desperate circumstances. The very decision to commit suicide replicated one of Herbert Ross Brown's "sentimental beauties," but the power of those convention was especially evident in the final farewell to which the suicide and portending execution led. As Beauchamp was about to be taken from his cell and as his wife was suffering her final agonies, he told of leaving a note for her, proclaiming, "Your husband is dying happy! For you I lived, for you I die!" (KT, p. 91). Then, being led away, he spoke a final farewell: According to most accounts, "`Farewell,' said he, `child of sorrow--Farewell child of misfortune and persecution--You are now secure from the tongue of slander--For you I have lived; for you I die'" (KT, p. 108). And, maintaining a persona that owed much to conventions of both honor and sentimentalism, Beauchamp went to the gallows with great composure, even forgiving his persecutors at the end.
Moreover, the Beauchamps appear to have gone out of their way to ensure that they would be remembered in sentimental terms. As their final hours approached, both wrote farewell poems representing their deeds and deaths in a manner familiar to anyone acquainted with the sentimental tradition. Ann Beauchamp composed a lengthy verse epitaph calling to mind the verses William Hill Brown placed over the companion graves of his star-crossed lovers in The Power of Sympathy, the 1789 novel that pioneered the tale of seduction and suicide in American letters. Presenting the epitaph as a final instruction to his readers, Brown had urged anyone coming upon the grave, "0 pass not on-if merit claim a tear. / Or dying virtue cause a sigh sincere." (28) Ann Beauchamp drew on similar language to write:
Reader! If honor's generous blood E'er warmed thy breast, here drop a tear And let the sympathetic flood, Deep in thy mind its traces bear (KT, p. 97).
In accord with Beauchamp's original hopes for the Confession, she apparently sent the poem to a local and not too friendly newspaper, Amos Kendall's Argus of Western America, for publication, though it was not to appear there. Following the execution, however, the poem was to be widely publicized. (29)
The Beauchamps thus orchestrated their legacy along lines defined by sentimental traditions. Their efforts were to prove highly successful. Within hours, they were on their way to becoming legendary figures. Jereboam's final words to his wife, like her epitaph, were made known almost immediately through newspaper accounts of the execution. Their final moments were such that, as Robert Bamberg has noted, Henry Clay could comment that "The manner of the death of the unfortunate Beauchamp and his still more unfortunate wife must awaken a public sympathy which even his crime and her vices cannot smother." (30) In an account of Beauchamp's trial published soon after the event, a New York commentator wrote that "Their parting scene was a touching one, and could not fail to excite the sympathy of those who witnessed it, however they must have abhorred the crimes which led to the premature separation." Even Darby, whom Beauchamp had sought to implicate in the crime, suggested that "In the midst of all their vices, which were numerous and strong, there is still, something of heroism and devotedness which we cannot help admiring." (31)
But the response of Thomas C. Clarke, editor of the Philadelphia women's magazine, The Album, and ladies' Weekly Gazette, was especially telling. Indicating, like the New York report on Beauchamp's trial, the national interest the case evoked, Clarke published several accounts of the Beauchamps' deaths within weeks of the execution. Toward the end of August, Clarke acknowledged the impact of the case when condemning an apparently widespread tendency to represent the couple as "martyrs." He noted that "the most touching and sympathizing appeals" had been used to justify what were really "black and infamous crimes." (32)
At the same time, Clarke was not above contributing to the representations he so condemned. Only a week before denying the Beauchamps their martyrdom, he had published a poem, written especially for the magazine, "On the Grave of --. "The first stanza began "Fare thee well, poor child of sorrow," adding, "the sun can wake to no morrow, / Nor calumny disturb thy rest" The second continued the refrain: "Child of misfortune, none will spurn / Thy humble mansion with contempt" This poetic rendering of Beauchamp's last words---words the Album had earlier reported---went on to put Ann Beauchamp in the framework of a sentimental heroine as "fair virtue's child." (33) Perhaps it was his magazine's own treatment that Clarke had in mind in condemning, only a short time later, the sentimentalizing tendencies in reactions to the affair.
But the strength of the affair's sentimental legacy is particularly well illustrated by an anonymously written volume of letters, purportedly by Ann Cooke, published very shortly after the Beauchamps' deaths, and one of the more elaborate early literary transformations of the event--the first after, arguably, Beauchamp's Confession itself. Long taken as real, these letters have been proven fictional by such scholars as Fred M. Johnson and Jack E. Surrency. Johnson, in particular, has called attention to their literary character and their heavy reliance on the conventions of the epistolary, sentimental novel. (34)
Presented as letters from Cooke to the wife of the volume's editor, one W-- R--of Charles County, Maryland, they were published, like many sentimental works, with overt moral purposes. Even as William H. Brown had intended to "expose the fatal Consequences of Seduction" to the "Young Ladies, of United Columbia" in The Power of Sympathy (p. iii), this editor hoped Cooke's "letters" would exhibit "the dreadful effects of seduction and treachery, and the consequences which flow from the first fatal aberration from the paths of virtue and innocence." The lesson was aimed particularly toward young women "who suffer themselves to be too much under the influence of feeling and passion; or, who repose too confidently on their own strength, and honour of man," as the letters were intended to show Cooke had done. Still, the editor saved the greatest scorn for "Sharpe," as the volume spelled it. On him, the editor suggested, should rest the "odium and censure of society" for his destruction of "the peace and happiness of a young, innocent, and helpless woman." And, though condemning the Beauchamps' act of revenge, the editor still suggested, in familiar terms, "we cannot but sympathize with the fate of those who executed it, and feel inclined to cast over their guilt and their frailty the mantle of extenuation" (KT, pp. 113-114).
The letters themselves maintain the images of Cooke and Sharp presented in the editor's introduction, and draw heavily on sentimental conventions. Cooke is made to testify to her own strong passions, the difficulties she has restraining them, and their noble character. She is also portrayed as a lover of literature, her feelings too strongly influenced by the novels and poems she has read--a common source of weakness, as G. J. Barker-Benfield has noted, in the world of sentimental heroines. (35) The letters are filled with portents of things to come, including one episode in which Cooke, again revealing how far she had allowed herself to fall "too much under the influence of feeling and passion," confronts and shoots (albeit not fatally) a seducer of her own sister!
But the letters, unlike Beauchamp's Confession, also pay particular attention to the seduction. They begin by tracing the meeting between Sharp and Cooke at a ball and her instant, ardent attraction to him. When, on a walk together, Sharp "imprinted a burning kiss" on her lips, Cooke was hopelessly infatuated (KT, p. 141). From there, it was only a few short months until she fell "victim of the basest treachery" (p. 145). "Trusting to the honour of the being she loved," she quickly found herself betrayed. This, "while he, the cold blooded villain, who, without one principle of honour, one glow of generous feeling, one impulse of love, with his senses clear, and his heart unagitated by passion, calmly and coolly puts in practice all his shameless machinations to deceive the heart, and betray the confidence of her, whose warmest affections he has excited and blasted" (p. 146). Moving to an account of the meeting with Beauchamp, of his genuine love for her, and finally, of the vengeance compelled when Sharp compounded the sin of seduction with that of defamation, the work concludes with an account of the Beauchamps' final hours. Appropriately, it does so by quoting both the poem Ann Beauchamp wrote to be their epitaph and the words Jereboam spoke as he was led out to die.
Again, such portrayals proved to be highly effective, one measure of this may be seen in the extern to which the Sharp family, seeking to vindicate the Colonel's reputation in an 1827 pamphlet, not only challenged the evidence that had been alleged against him but also denied that Cooke and Beauchamp could have fit the sentimental model. Stressing Cooke's age, for example, the pamphlet described her as "in no way a handsome or desirable woman," and as "an avowed disciple of Mary Woolstonecraft [sic]" (KT, p. 334), hardly characteristics of a sentimental heroine. No less important to note is the role of both the Confession and the Letters in later literary treatments. Virtually all those who have been inspired by the Tragedy have been drawn to the Confession. Poe, in his unpublished dramatization of the event, "Politian," also made extensive use of the Letters, using both texts not only for elements of plot and characterization but even for some of the dialogue. (36)
The impact of accounts framing the Kentucky Tragedy in the lance of sentimentalism helps to emphasize the links between honor and sentiment in antebellum America and the underlying concerns linking them together. Each held up ideals of honesty, sincerity, and reciprocity in social affairs. Each betrayed anxiety about whether such ideals could be realized. And each gave meaning to what had happened on November 7, 1825, when Jereboam Beauchamp killed Solomon Sharp. (37)
These links may even suggest a formative influence for sentimentalism, as such, in defining honor's role in the early republic. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown and others have noted, aggressive forms of honor, including the duel, became far more significant in the early republic than they had been in the colonial era, the rise of honor matching, to some extent, the rise of sentimentalism in American literature. It may not be too much to suggest that the frequency with which duels and honor killings appeared in sentimental fiction would have heightened the awareness in many people of violence as an option when faced with a breakdown in social relations. Such fiction could not have been the only source--ideas and customs of honor were cultural imperatives that, in themselves, had deep roots in English and European traditions. But it did provide one of the most public and influential presentations of the ethical ideals and personae on which honor so heavily drew, publicizing both at a crucial time in the nation's history. (38)
But it is no less important to explore what these considerations may indicate about Southern honor itself. First, it is important to remember that honor was never wholly a Southern moral imperative, even during the antebellum period. Honor killings took place in the North and were common in the West, as well. Still, the antebellum South did tend more toward violence than other regions, and it was the home of such increasingly distinctive forms as dueling; its hierarchies of violence, moreover, took shape in ways not entirely duplicated outside the region. What the links between sentimentalism and honor illustrated by the Kentucky tragedy may indicate is that what set the South apart was not so much the basic cultural underpinnings of honor as it was the conditions encouraging white Southerners to take their social anxieties in more aggressive directions. To approach this tendency it is useful to note, therefore, some of the major characteristics of Southern honor, as such, in terms of those issues of reciprocity, obligation, and sincerity highlighted by the Beauchamp case. (39)
Virtually every historian who has written about honor in the antebellum South has stressed its important class dimensions, especially for white Southern men. As historians have emphasized, members of the planter elite saw honor as one of their leading attributes, and observed a carefully graded hierarchy of behavior--including violence--in their dealings with others. As many have also noted, practices such as dueling were closely related to efforts to display class attainment. Since dueling, for example, was to be confined to gentlemen, having one's challenge accepted was a visible way of demonstrating membership in the elite. Along these lines, Bruce Baird, seeking to explain the rise of dueling in the early republic, suggests that elite anxiety in an increasingly democratic order reinforced any other factors leading men to such an ostentatious display of status as the so-called affair of honor. (40)
Issues of class and status were not entirely absent from the Beauchamp-Sharp affair. Beauchamp's Confession at one point described Ann Cooke's family as one that was "wealthy and in great influence"; it branded Sharp as, at best, a parvenu by noting that he had grown up "in poverty and obscurity," (KT, p. 81). No less significantly, in 1825 and 1826 questions of status and leadership were in the air in Kentucky, heightened by the state's political divisions. At the time of Sharp's murder, one of Kentucky's more conservative leaders, Joseph Underwood, described the democratic governor Joseph Desha as "a man destitute of the finer feelings of our nature devoid of any generous emotion, selfish, ambitious, & uninformed." Doing so, he betrayed anxieties about status, honor, and sensibility that many Kentuckians acknowledged at the time, and that were widely known throughout the South, as well. (41)
To be sure, class anxiety, as many historians have shown, was also found in the North. What made white Southern anxiety somewhat different, however, was the nature of the region's social and economic environment. While one must be careful not to characterize that environment too broadly, there are several features that may be noted. The North, as many historians have said, was evolving into an increasingly impersonal society. In such a situation, occupation, patterns of consumption, and other external measures became primary criteria for judging the character of the many strangers with whom one came into daily contact, as Karen Halttunen, Richard Bushman and others have emphasized. Political and economic life came to be organized around the impersonal institutions of partisanship and the market. (42)
Though none of these elements was entirely absent from the South, Southern anxieties appear to have rested on a somewhat different set of concerns. In contrast to the urbanizing, industrializing North, it is hard to ignore the largely rural, face-to-face nature of antebellum Southern social and political life. In that world, important encounters among members of the elite, and between them and others depended heavily on personal contact. The impersonal, mediating institutions of an increasingly urban, industrializing North were, as Bertram Wyatt-Brown has said, less significant in the South. (43)
The relative absence of mediating institutions in white Southern society made major demands on its members. Political activity, economic activity, social life, all depended upon networks and interactions that were, essentially, personal. Status was highly personalized, measured less by one's occupation, for example, or what one consumed, than by one's reputation in the eyes of his neighbors. Reputation was open to public evaluation, and comment, every time one ventured forth into the world. (44)
The effect was to enhance any sense of fragility in social relations that people might have had. In the effort to create and maintain reputation, there were always opportunities for error. In the face-to-face society of the South, it was almost certain that those errors would be noticed and would become widely known, and thus would give issues of sincerity, honesty, and reciprocity a weight they need not have borne in the more fluid, impersonal world of the North. The politics and culture of reputation meant that every violation of reciprocity, every act of dissimulation or charge of dissimulation created inescapable issues of trust and standing with huge personal stakes. Every problem of reciprocity carried the possibility of personal, public, and irreparable disgrace. As Joanne Freeman has stressed, where reputation was the core of politics and society, one had to be touchy about honor, its loss being tantamount to a loss of serf. The face-to-face world governing status in the antebellum South helped insure that such touchiness would remain an essential part of Southern life. (45)
Perhaps it was this touchiness that encouraged white Southerners to let their anxieties lead them in violent directions while their Northern counterparts moved in other ways. Whatever the cause of the divergence, however, the connections between sentimentalism and honor indicated by the Kentucky Tragedy, in its earliest representations, may help to deepen our understanding of what was distinctive in antebellum Southern society and culture, and what was not. "Honor," as a concept, undoubtedly had many sources, many resonances, for people living in the South. But this exploration of its sentimental roots may help to further refine our approaches to issues of regionalism as such. And it may help to indicate further why, in the context of the antebellum South, honor seemed a credible imperative for approaching social, cultural, and political life.
(1) See Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). On Southern ideas of social instability, see Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), and Steven M. Stowe, Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
(2) Halttunen, Confidence Men, p. 34; Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 12; Andrew Burstein, Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution of America's Romantic Self-Image (New York: Hill & Wang, 1999), pp. xiv-xv, 305.
(3) Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1976), pp. 243, 254.
(4) See R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974), pp. 77, 103; Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 122, 220.
(5) Hendrik Hartog, "Lawyering, Husband's Rights, and `the Unwritten Law' in Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of American History, 84 (1997), 90.
(6) J. Winston Coleman, Jr., The Beauchamp-Sharp Tragedy: An Episode of Kentucky History During the Middle 1820's (Frankfort: Roberts Printing Co., 1950); J.W. Cooke, "Pride and Depravity: A Preliminary Reexamination of the Beauchamp-Sharp Affair," Border States, 6 (1987), 1-12; David Brion Davis, Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1957), pp. 228-234. The major document collections are Loren J. Kallsen, ed., The Kentucky Tragedy: A Problem in Romantic Attitudes (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963); Robert D. Bamberg, ed., The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966); and Jules Zanger, ed., The Beauchamp Tragedy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963); I have relied mainly on Kallsen's edition for this essay.
(7) J. W. Cooke, in "The Life and Death of Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, Part I: Uprightness and Inventions, Snares and Nets," Filson Club History Quarterly, 72 (1998), 217, argues that the murder was not political; William Joseph Kimball, in "The `Kentucky Tragedy': Romance of Politics,' Filson Club History Quarterly, 48 (1974), 26, says that it was.
(8) Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 306-30 7; Cooke, "Pride and Depravity," p. 2; Spirit of `76, April 21, 1826; Bamberg, Confession, p. 144.
(9) Matthew Schoenbachler, "The Origins of Jacksonian Politics: Central Kentucky, 1790-1840," Diss., University of the Kentucky, 1996, p. 125; Frank F. Mathias, "The Relief and Court Struggle: Half Way House to Populism," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 71 (1973), 156-161.
(10) Schoenbachler, "Origins," pp. 197-198; Sandra Frances VanBurkleo, "`That Our Pure Republican Principles Might Not Wither': Kentucky's Relief Crisis and the Pursuit of `Moral Justice', 1818-1826,' Diss., University of Minnesota, 1988, pp. 283-285.
(11) See Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (1940; rpt. New York: Pageant Books, 1959), pp. 8, 44; See, also, David Grimsted, Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800-1850 (1968; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 175-178.
(12) See Fred M. Johnson, "New Light on Beauchamp's Confession?" Border States, 9 (1993), 16; Jack E. Surrency, "The Kentucky Tragedy and Its Primary Sources," in No Fairer Land: Studies in Southern Literature Before 1900, ed. J. Lasley Dameron and James w. Mathews (Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing, 1986), p. 115; Bamberg, Confession, p. 15; Coleman, Beauchamp-Sharp Tragedy, pp. 4041.
(13) Argus of Western America, June 14, 1826,July 12, 1826; Johnson, "New Light," p. 16.
(14) Johnson, "New Light," p. 15; Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 9-11.
(15) See Kallsen, Kentucky Tragedy, pp. 3, 11, 12; subsequent page references to this source, KT, will appear in the text.
(16) Greenberg, Honor and Slavery, ch.1; Kentucky Reporter, November 14, 1825; Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, pp. 42-43.
(17) See, e.g., Stephen Wilson, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 89-91.
(18) Greenberg, Honor and Slavery, p. 51; Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 21; Julian Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem, or the Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 1; Raymond Jamous, "From the Death of Men to the Peace of God: Violence and Peace-Making in the Rif," in Honor and Grace in Anthropology, ed. J. G. Peristiany and Julian Pitt-Rivers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 178.
(19) Beauchamp's position was not unusual in the context of honor cultures. See Pitt-Rivers, Fate of Shechem, pp. 11-12; for a useful discussion of lying and reciprocity, see also Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 14.
(20) See Davidson, Revolution and the Word; H. Brown, Sentimental Novel; Brissenden, Virtue in Distress.
(21) Lavinia," Juvenile Port-Folio and Literary Miscellany, 1 (1813), 115.
(22) John Neal, Seventy-Six (2 vols., 1823; rpt. Bainbridge, New York: York Mail-Print, 1971), I, 128.
(23) H. Brown, Sentimental Novel, pp. 8, 44, 155; Grimsted, Melodrama, pp. 175-178.
(24) "The Sorrows of Amelia; or, Deluded Innocence--Founded on Fact," Baltimore Weekly Magazine July 5, 1800, p. 87; the story was reprinted in Ladies' Museum 1 (1825), 62-63.
(25) Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, p. 306; Brissenden, Virtue in Distress, pp. 129-130; Grimsted, Melodrama, pp. 180-181.
(26) Susanna Rowson, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (2 vols. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1794), II, 166.
(27) Samuel Relf, Infidelity; or, the Victims of Sentiment. A Novel, in a Series of Letters (Philadelphia: W. W. Woodward, 1797), p. 189.
(28) William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy; or, the Triumph of Nature. Founded in Truth (2 vols. Boston: Isaiah Thomas, 1789), II, 157.
(29) The Trial of Jereboam O. Beauchamp, for the Murder of Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, Together with the Tragical Death in Prison, by Suicide, of the Wife of Beauchamp, the Once Accomplished and Beautiful Ann Cook, of Bowlinggreen (New York: Joseph M'Cleland, 1826), p. 19.
(30) Bamberg, Confession, p. 135; Henry Clay, The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. James F. Hopkins, et. al. (10 vols. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1959-92), V, 537.
(31) Trial of Beauchamp, pp. 21, 37.
(32) Album, and Ladies' Weekly Gazette, August 30, 1826.
(33) Album, August 23, 1826.
(34) Fred M. Johnson, "Letters of Ann Cook: Fact or Factoid?" Border States, 6 (1987), 13-14, 20-21; Surrency, "Kentucky Tragedy," p. 118.
(35) G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 118, 312.
(36) Edgar Allan Poe, Politian: An Unfinished Tragedy, ed. Thomas Olive Mabbott (Menasha, Wisconsin: G. Banta, 1923), p. 52; Richard Beale Davis, "Thomas Holley Chivers and the Kentucky Tragedy," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 1 (1959), 283, 285.
(37) Gillian Brown, The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Burstein, Sentimental Democracy, pp. 147, 222-223; Davidson, Revolution, and the Word, p. 122.
(38) Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), p. 43; Bruce C. Baird, "The Social Origins of Dueling in Virginia," in Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History, ed. Michael A. Bellesiles (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pp. 101-102.
(39) On the wide distribution of honor killings, see Hartog, "Lawyering"; Robert M. Ireland, "`The Libertine Must Die': Sexual Dishonor and the `Unwritten Law' in the Nineteenth-Century United States," Journal of Social History, 23 (1989); David T. Courtwright, Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), e.g., p. 92. On Southern violence, see Bruce, Violence and Culture, pp. 3-6; the classic exploration of this issue is John Hope Franklin, The Militant South, 1800-1861 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956).
(40) Stowe, Intimacy and Power, pp. 18-19; Baird, "Social Origins," p. 105.
(41) Arndt M. Stickles, "Joseph R. Underwood's Fragmentary Journal of the New and Old Court Contest in Kentucky," Filson Club History Quarterly, 13 (1939), 308. See Mathias, "Relief and Court Struggle," p. 163. For the South generally, see Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 17; James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982; rpt. New York: Norton, 1998), p. 67.
(42) Halttunen, Confidence Men, pp. 36-37; Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992), pp. 404405. See Wyatt-Brown, Shaping of Southern Culture, pp. 64-65.
(43) See Wyatt-Brown, Shaping of Southern Culture, p. 65; see also Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 109. For the applicability of these ideas to Kentucky, see Frank F. Mathias, "The Turbulent Years of Kentucky Politics, 1820-1850," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 72 (1974), 317-318.
(44) Bruce, Violence and Culture, e.g., pp. 68-69.
(45) Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. xvi.
DICKSON D. BRUCE, JR. University of California, Irvine…