Honor in the Old South

Honor, called by one historian the “keystone of the slaveholding South’s morality”, (Wyatt-Brown vii) was a major and primary force that drove and directed–consciously or subconsciously– southern action and perception.  Whatever the issue, honor permeated through all matters of life and was always a factor to be considered.  Honor, as defined by Wyatt-Brown in Southern Honor, “is essentially the cluster of ethical rules, most readily found in societies of small communities, by which judgments of behavior are ratified by community consensus.” (Wyatt-Brown xv)  These small communities, created and agreed upon the requirements, conditions and behaviors embodied within the “ethical rules” and, in the process, prescribed how much, if any, honor a person is capable of receiving as well as how to act honorably, gain and retain honor, and how to lose honor.  Wyatt separates these “requirements” into three areas: family integrity, clearly understood hierarchies of leaders and subordinates, and ascriptive features of individuals and groups.  Ascriptive features, Wyatt defines, as “biological determinants as race and color, gender, bloodlines, physique and physical skill, age,

and inherited position.” (Wyatt Brown xv)  Southern society imbibed its own “code” of honor and it became the “moral property of all who belong[ed] within the community, [and] determine[d] the community’s own membership.” (Wyatt-Brown xv)  Therefore, honor was an artifact of the community.  It was created, respected, validated, and legitimized by those who consisted of its ranks.  Wyatt notes that, “even those who rebel[led] against society and its conventions or who [stood] outside or below the circle of honor [had to] acknowledge its power.” (Wyatt-Brown xv)  For these reasons, Southern concepts of honor affected all who resided within its boundaries whether they agreed with the concept or not.  As you will see, to be affiliated with southern culture meant to abide by its social order, institutions, and conditions which were all heavily influenced, perpetuated and structured around honor.

The concept of honor, however, was not an innovation of the American South, but rather a tradition of values, an ethical code “traceable to the Indo-European tribes that created Homeric Greece and destroyed the power of Rome.” (Wyatt-Brown xi)  A form of this “feudal” system of hierarchy, bloodlines, birthrights and precepts of honor, glory and valor was inherited through the generations and was uniquely embedded into Southern culture and morality.  Honor was so vital to the Southern way of life because it structured, supported, validated, and affirmed the institutions that were peculiar to Southern life: racial bondage, social and racial hierarchy, and a patriarchal system.  Furthermore, these institutions reinforced each other, reciprocated honor and assured the perpetual success of the system.

Slavery is practically synonymous to the antebellum South.  However, many do not realize that it was inevitable that slavery and honor be intimately and inexorably tied to each other.  Although honor could survive without slavery, slavery could not survive without honor.  As Wyatt-Brown makes clear in Honor and Violence in the Old South, “not all honor societies were slaveholding. Yet no slaveholding culture could casually set aside the strictures of honor.  The very debasement of the slave added much to the master’s honor…” (Wyatt Brown ix)  By subjugating blacks, whites were able to assert dominance and power, reinforcing masculine values and the patriarchal social order that permeated throughout the South.  The very nature of slavery assumes that those who are free are in power and are superior to those who are being oppressed. Therefore, slavery supported the system of hierarchy that extended from the southern elites to the yeoman to the lowliest slave.  Wyatt makes note of this saying, “since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement, defense of family blood and community needs.  All of these exigencies required the rejection of the lowly, alien, and the shamed.  Such unhappy creatures belonged outside the circle of honor.  Fate so had decreed.” (Wyatt-Brown 4)  In essence, the institutions peculiar to the Old South (slavery, social/racial hierarchies, and male dominance) had a symbiotic relationship with the other.  They supported and reinforced each other, cemented together with notions of honor, so that challenging any particular one meant challenging them all.  The strength of the system was found within its unity and the fact that it was inexorably and inseparably tied into all faucets of southern life gave it incredible power and legitimacy.

A map of the modern definition of the Southern...

A map of the modern definition of the Southern United States, Oklahoma red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It should not be underemphasized that when the North was first being colonized and developed these institutions were also held in high regard and regularly utilized.  However, they were quickly phased out due to a different evolution of Northern society.  In general, the North became a predominantly industrial, urban society with a heterogeneous population (compared to the South being mostly rural and homogenous).  The rapid influx of immigrants and the industrialization/urbanization that characterized Northern society allowed them to place less emphasis on slavery and become indifferent to the notions of honor.  Thus, honor (and all the institutions that went with it) became an outdated, outmoded, and ineffective way to run Northern society. If, again, you look at Wyatt’s definition of honor, it stresses the necessity for honor to exist in a society that is 1) consisted of small communities (which are almost always homogeneous) and 2) that these communities all agree on what definitions of behavior should consist of (Northern metropolises had too many people of too many different backgrounds to reach consensus on moral, social, ethical, and racial boundaries which are required for honor to exist).  Southern society fit these two requirements because it was both composed of primarily small rural communities and had an overwhelming majority of white (homogeneous) southerners who all agreed, accepted, and defended their peculiar institutions as it was intimately linked with their honor.  Southerners, because they lived in a small and intimate community, were, “worried much more about their status in the eyes of their neighbors and their own sense of physical power than about the acquisition of goods, lawful or not.  In the Northeast, the opposite preferences commanded human aspirations.” (Wyatt-Brown 368)  The reason for this fundamental difference is that a person in the North could become an anonymous and unknown character in a metropolis, free from the judgment, scorn, and ridicule of an entire society.  He/she could be less concerned with the morals and ethics of honor because the size, scope, and heterogeneous nature forced Northern society to evolve into a culture indifferent to honor. (this also affected how the criminal justice system evolved as well; more emphasis on legal forms of justice: policing, courts, and corrections)  However, in southern society a person was intimately tied to the community.  He/she knew everyone and everyone knew them.  To offend, challenge, or defy these, almost sacred, principles and institutions made that person subject to being humiliated, injured, and even killed by the community.  Through this generalized and perhaps oversimplified layout of the socioeconomic differences between Southern and Northern societies, one can begin to imagine how honor, slavery, and justice were intimately tied to each other and how they ultimately shaped and dictated the fate of Southern society.

            As mentioned above, southerners were more intimately tied to their community and the morals and ethics that it had dictated to them.  For this reason, southerners vigorously and ferociously defending their honor and, often feared dishonor and shame more than death.  Much like the Japanese Samurai and their code of honor, “Bushido,” dishonor was a fate far worse than death.  To bring shame upon oneself also brought shame and dishonor upon one’s kin and bloodline.**  You would be subject to ridicule and scorn by the whole

community, debased and stripped of honor.  In a society where, “honor was a highly valued commodity, shame itself was a deterrent.” (Hindus 102) The recipient of shame represented, fundamentally, a person who had lost some aspect of control in their life (loss of control over one’s wife, one’s slave, one’s children, one’s morality, etc).  In the patriarchal realm that Southerners existed in, when one had been stripped of honor his masculinity as well as morality were suspect for scrutiny and attack by the community.  “The moral problem was built into the Southern ethic.  One simply could not be made to look inept, powerless or squeamish,” in any faucet of life.  (Wyatt-Brown 372)  Once shame was dealt, it forced the receiver to acknowledge, endure, and live with that fact that they had been tried and convicted, by the community, as a failure.  Shame attacked the very worth of a person’s being whereas honor reinforced and elevated it.  For these reasons, honor was such an extremely powerful force.  With shame functioning as a deterrent and its compliment, honor, being a highly valued and defendable commodity, it is no wonder why many Southerners would preferably die (and many did) than to be stripped of all honor.

**It should be noted that even today, “crime in Japan is deterred more by shame and embarrassment to one’s self, family, and friends than by legal punishment.” Furthermore, the “U.S. murder rate is approximately 16 times that of Japan.” (Hickey 332)

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