If Meriwether Lewis had not died the way he did, would people still be talking about the Lewis & Clark expedition 200 years later? Each person who gets caught up in the great adventure of the Corps of Discovery experiences the shock of learning that Lewis died just three years later, and wonders anew how such a brave man could have come to such a tragic end.
It’s interesting to speculate how people might have viewed Meriwether Lewis’s alleged suicide in the context of his time. From antiquity into the early 19th century, suicide was discussed in terms of philosophy, ethics, religion, and law, rather than as a mental health issue. Religious leaders condemned suicide as a crime against God, and most families tried to cover it up, considering it a shameful secret. However, some thinkers in the 18th century Age of Reason saw it differently, claiming that suicide was a “human right” and the “last act of a free man.”
Suicide was also accepted by some as a legitimate, if extreme, way to avoid dishonor. According to History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture by Georges Minois (there’s some grim reading for you!), suicide-by-pistol was an acceptable “out” for those troubled by gambling debts, thwarted ambition, and other disappointments.
When Meriwether Lewis died in October 1809, he was facing political failure as Governor of the Louisiana Territory, allegations of corruption and the possible loss of his job, financial ruin and disgrace, unsuccessful love affairs, illness, alcoholism and possible drug addiction. While Lewis’s death and the reasons behind it remain a matter of controversy, the sad fact is that people have committed suicide over a lot less.
If Lewis did shoot himself that terrible night at Grinders’ Stand, he would hardly stand alone as the only nineteenth-century political figure to end his life in this manner. The Political Graveyard lists no fewer than 97 politicians who took their own lives. The suicides often seemed to come in waves as men in distress saw others take this dark path to escape their troubles.
For example, in the second presidential election of the Republic of Texas in 1838, Mirabeau B. Lamar won by default after both of his opponents committed suicide before election day. Lamar’s brother took his own life, as did President of the Texas Republic Anson Jones and one of the first U.S. Senators from Texas, Thomas Jefferson Rusk. South Carolina fire-eater Edmund Ruffin died of a self-inflicted gunshot in 1865 rather than face the aftermath of Southern defeat in the Civil War. As late as the 1880′s, six notable Kentucky politicians killed themselves over their own perceived failure to live up to the ideals of Southern honor.
It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that people became interested in the mental health aspects of such a desperate act and began to think about how to cure the physical, psychological and societal ills that led to suicide. Unfortunately, even an increased emphasis on mental health care and a diminishing stigma against seeking treatment for depression has not completely eliminated people from seeking this sad end when they find their pain too great to bear.
Meriwether Lewis, may you rest in peace.