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. 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 …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Sentimentalism and Honor in the Early American Republic: Revisiting the Kentucky Tragedy. Contributors: Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. - Author. Journal title: The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 55. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2002. Page number: 185+. © 1998 Mississippi State University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.