“It Is Better to Die”

Abbé Rousseau and the Meanings of Suicide

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Jeffrey Merrick University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

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As he explained in his suicide note, abbé Jean-Baptiste Rousseau could not marry and would not seduce the young woman he loved, so he shot himself on 18 May 1784. Witnesses deposed by the police claimed that he was not in his right mind and therefore not legally responsible for his actions, but the authors of contemporary reports about the case accepted his lucid account of his dilemma. Nouvellistes and journalists provided multiple versions of his note and multiple judgments of his motives, options, and actions. This analysis of the sources from 1784 and the following years shows how they reworked the story of Rousseau’s life and death against the background of larger issues. Changes in jurisprudence during the last decades of the ancien régime culminated in the decriminalization of suicide and other religious, moral, and sexual crimes in 1791. Debates about the causes and meanings of self-destruction continued, but in the press rather than the courts.

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