Sentimentalism and Honor in the Early American Republic: Revisiting the Kentucky Tragedy

By Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Sentimentalism and Honor in the Early American Republic: Revisiting the Kentucky Tragedy


Bruce, Dickson D., Jr., The Mississippi Quarterly


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. …

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