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The Primal Code

Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Oxford University Press, 597 pp., $29.95

By viewing the past from the present, historians know full well (or they should) the risks they run of distorting the vision of what they describe. The greater the contrast between present and past, the greater the risks of distortion. The dangers are further intensified when the moral foundations of the present order rest, even remotely, on the ruins of the old order being described.

The modern American perspective on the pre-modern South is susceptible to all these fallacies. One reason is that the old order is a great deal more remote from the present culturally than it is temporally, even when we grant that some features of it extend into our own time. Another is the prominent place in the current American credo occupied by the dramatic legend of repudiation and destruction of the old order in the South. Given these conditions it is little wonder that paradox, irony, scorn, and the attribution of guilt have figured prominently in the modern picture of the pre-modern South. How could modern ethics otherwise view a vaunted “code of honor” that legitimized oppression, slavery, racism, violence, and all manner of practices now held abhorrent? Surely the Southern defenders of the code were inveterate liars or hopeless victims of self-delusion, just as the abolitionists said.

On the assumption that “we need a better strategy to reach the heart of the past,” Bertram Wyatt-Brown undertakes in Southern Honor the admittedly difficult task of attempting to divest himself of modernism in order to explore the Old South on its own terms. But his is not a sophisticated exercise in nostalgia or apologetics.

This historian enters the wilderness of the South’s past with the borrowed license of an anthropologist. His purpose is to understand and explain rather than to expose and deplore what he finds—be it cannibalism, incest, valor, parricide, heroism, human sacrifice, or whatever. He does not plunge through the wilderness intent on tracking a thesis or stalking a theme. Instead he settles in with the natives to share their loneliness and their obsessions, their convivialities and satisfactions, their alcoholic stupors, their fears, and their murderous rages—the grace along with the horror. National events, politics, wars, and foreign affairs are distant rumbles. Chronology figures little here, and so does the process of change. Famous public figures enter only to illustrate a point. Tidewater gentility remains remote. The peculiar institution and blacks are present but never the center of attention. This is white—largely plain-white—history. But through the daily lives of these people move the real game and object of the quest, a creature of archaic origins called “honor.”

Archaic it was, for it preceded slavery and long antedated settlement of the South itself. The primitive origins were pagan as well as Stoic-Christian (not readily distinguishable) and evolved through many forms. Not merely Janus-faced, “honor had always had many faces,” and most of them were brought along from the Old World to show how men and women should behave. References to the Germanic tribes of Tacitus come naturally (if a bit often) in Wyatt-Brown’s account of the antique ethic, and he makes a good deal of the prominence of settlers from the “Celtic Fringe” of Great Britain in the Southern population—Scottish, Scots-Irish, Welsh, and Irish stock, and their common heritage of hardship and rough ways. Along with the darker aspects of primal honor came brighter modifications called “gentility” cultivated by English humanists and cherished by the upper ranks of Southern society. Harshness and gentility, however, were never sharply distinguishable aspects of honor. With reference to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 the author says, “It was no easy matter to tell villains from worthies; both made claim to honor.”

Of course these codes of honor were imported in the North too, as is shown by Hawthorne’s story of colonial New England, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” with which this book begins. But in the North the modern ethic took over a century and more earlier, and the code of honor was gradually converted into respectability or civic and domestic virtue. Conscience and guilt ruled, and the rude traditional code and those who practiced it earned scorn and contempt. The fateful moral cleavage widened between sections. “Honor, not conscience, shame, not guilt, were the psychological and social underpinnings of Southern culture,” according to Wyatt-Brown, and he believes that they continued to be long after the change took place in the North. But it was not so much a difference from the North as a distinction from modernism that characterized the antebellum South.

Wyatt-Brown shows that the circle of honor was much more inclusive in the Old South than in other and older traditional societies. This was made possible by the white democracy that professed to be a racial brotherhood. It excluded blacks and those whites who broke the code, but it was not confined to any rank of society, and embraced yeomen as well as rich planters. As Wyatt-Brown briefly defines it, honor was a set of ethical rules “by which judgments of behavior are ratified by community consensus.” The code applied to family integrity and protection, hierarchy and allegiance, patriarchy and its demands, to status and property, including slaves, to the behavior of male and female, parents and children, superior and inferior. People assumed the code would make life more predictable, give it meaning and order and structure, and confine violence. These ends the code of honor often effectively served, but it prevailed over a society whose contradictions could produce the nightmarish opposite of these results.

There were, for example, the discrepancies between the demands of honor as obedience to superior rank and the demands of the code regarding family. Toward the end of the Civil War, the ranks of the Confederate army melted away under that contradiction. Familial tensions and pride were the source of many conflicts. The patriarchal order multiplied ordinary Oedipal resentments of fathers and sons, and frustrations built up when independence and responsibility were postponed. The mystique of names intensified family allegiance and fealty. Surnames regularly replaced Christian names, and the practice was not confined to upper ranks: to such grandees as Peyton Randolph, Langdon Cheves, Preston Brooks, Otway Byrd, Beverley Tucker. As late as 1940 only 5 percent of all men in one rural Kentucky community did not bear family first and middle names, and over 70 percent were named for their fathers. Names were talismanic obligations. This from a distinguished North Carolina judge in Scots-Irish western territory:

Hear all you people present; when you go home, tell your wives and neighbors to name no more children after me. Consider the situation in which I am placed; compelled in discharge of my duty, to pass sentence on this poor wretch to receive thirty-nine lashes on his bare back, and he is a man bearing my full name, Romulus Mitchell Saunders.

Planters were not the only patriarchs. One illiterate Alabama farmer fathered seventeen children and eventually held sway over 234 descendants in one community. He was known to be a Unionist, and Confederates dared not touch him; nor did Ku Kluxers afterward. Patriarchal authority of slaveowners was extended to include the master’s “black family,” whether of any blood relation or not. Among the gentry, piety and patriarchy could be reconciled: one could be both Christian and honorable, with courtesy demanded by family pride if nothing else. Too often, however, the more archaic demands of honor went uncurbed and released dangerous and darker promptings of the code.

Raising children under the code could be hazardous. Evidence of spontaneous and natural outpouring of parental affection is plentiful. But the old precepts of honor were part of the experience of childhood and internalized at a very early age. Under burdens of moral demand, as the author says, children “could be torn between love and shame, respect and rebellion.” Yet parental discipline was typically lax, suppressed discontent among couples with the role of parent was common, and the frustrations of raising children were shifted to the self-effacing “black mammy” when she was to be had. Ambivalence and inconsistency of parental discipline and pride and permissiveness of childish “manliness” and aggression against peers and underlings, white or black, fostered violent self-expression. Younger siblings and slaves were available as scapegoats, and the latter were especially useful in testing the childish limits of conduct and the boundaries of aggression. Jefferson’s comment on the consequences is well known, and John Randolph of Roanoke remarked that too many planters’ sons “early assumed airs of manhood; and these premature men remain children the rest of their lives.” The hunt was ritualized as a rite of passage, and teenage duels were not uncommon. The military academy and career were frequent choices.

All these hazards had to be accommodated by intensified family bonds of astonishing complexity. Intermarriage among cousins has never been adequately studied, but its frequency is undeniable. At the upper level 38 percent of slaveholding couples in a rich district of Alabama were first cousins in the two decades beginning in 1861. Thomas Nelson Page’s parents were first cousins and so were his maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, and six of his fourth-generation ancestors had the same father, King Carter. The pairing of sisters in one family with brothers in another appears to have happened as frequently among yeomanry as among the wealthy. “My three daughters married Ed’s three sons,” sighed a Tennessee mother who was related to Ed herself; “ain’t nothin’ that brings a family together like that.” In one backwoods community of Kentucky there was no kinship between only 54.5 percent of the couples, and in another community, 22.7 percent of them were first cousins.

For the upper crust, intertwining families meant enhancement of status and influence, reinforcement of honor and wealth. For lesser folk they could stop property from being dispersed and stave off abject poverty. As one poor white explained, “I just felt practically every body not related to us, all those that wasn’t related to us and mixed up with us, was against us.” One despairing genealogist called the resulting confusions and complications of kinship “a tangle of fishhooks.” The tangle was probably no greater than those cousinly marriages of the British nobility or the early merchant princes of Massachusetts. But numerous circumstances peculiar to the region combined to make the situation more explosive and deadly in the South.

According to Wyatt-Brown, one circumstance was the very intensity of all social relationships, especially those within the patriarchal household. That was heightened by the demands of honor, duty, and conformity, the frustrations of delayed inheritance, limited career opportunities, and postponed autonomy—not to mention the risks of saying anything about anybody, when everybody might be kin to anybody. Add to these the risks of hospitality, always a test of status and honor and often competitive and ambivalent. To decline a drink or cut a visit too short was to offer insult. Under the prickly code of honor, violence might also result from sports, races, gaming, and all-night gambling, especially since all these activities were usually accompanied by copious and continuous drinking.

The male ego had to establish “manliness,” virility, honor. Declining to bet, to drink, or to fight meant loss of self-esteem and community evaluation. Dueling served these purposes among the upper ranks, though it was not confined to them, and feuding was common in the hills and back country. Duels, like other rituals of virility and violence, were not assertions of individualism but responses to the demands of community opinion, the Southern variety of the American tyranny Tocqueville deplored. Behind the genial and convivial, behind the hunts, barbecues, and joyful rituals lurked dangerous and unmanageable rages.

Under patriarchal rule and the code of honor woman’s lot was that of subordination. No appropriate alternative to marriage existed for a woman and in its bonds her legal dependency was complete. She did not even have first claim to her own offspring. (It was an untypical decision that sustained the plea of a Tennessee wife accused of multiple infidelities: “My ass is my own and I will do as I please with it.”) Northern wives shared these inequities but not the penalties of Southern male honor and self-image. Under greater subordination and dependency, slaves suffered more than wives from the unleashed violence of the code. Honor figured not only in marital and class relations but in racial subordination and slave discipline. To dominate slaves was not merely a matter of proving “manliness,” but of complying with community will that would not tolerate permissiveness or indulgence. “Even kindly masters were not to be thought weak-hearted.” White supremacy and black subordination as well as the peculiar institution were at stake, and honor was thrown into the front line of defense.

The ultimate expressions of community will and policing in defense of the code were lynch law, vigilantism, and charivaris (or “shivarees”). The latter ranged from benign wedding-day jollity to shaming and punitive rituals of public whipping, riding on a rail, tarring and feathering, and mutilation. Lynchings were charivaris with deadly intent. Of ancient origins, with modern survivals, they enforced the ethic of honor and shame and set community boundaries for deviant conduct. Wyatt-Brown concludes with a chapter recounting in depth and detail an instance of such rituals that took place at Natchez in 1834, a century after the one in Boston related in Hawthorne’s story. In primal horror and brutality—and, for that matter, improbability—the authentic Natchez story of how James Foster, Jr., beat his wife to death and then was whipped, mutilated, and tarred and feathered by a crowd far surpasses the Boston fiction. In these respects, in fact, it exceeds anything conventionally called “gothic” in contemporary Southern fiction.

Realizing that his account sometimes sounds like abolitionist atrocity propaganda, the author from time to time acknowledges that there were brighter and nobler features of Southern honor. But he is right in reproving historians who label the darker features “tragic aberrations,” deny that they were integral parts of a cultural pattern, or forget that the nobler claims were put to the service of primal honor—especially when honor cried out for secession. He does not explore the “causes” of the Civil War but confesses his belief that “a major and unstudied aspect of that struggle was the region’s abiding faith in honor,” and that white Southerners’ ranks rolled into battle “certain their cause was justified by that prehistoric code.”

If history is the study of how societies change, this impressive work may well belong in some other category, perhaps some hitherto neglected branch of anthropology. That discipline, for its comparative lack of interest in change, has earned the reputation (justly or unjustly) of being one of the most ahistorical of disciplines. Certainly the emphasis in Southern Honor falls not upon change but upon the continuities, the constants, the persistent, inbred, timeless customs and traditions of ancient origins. But if historians, because of the moral assumptions of their own culture, ignore or dismiss the realities of an older culture that shaped and determined the behavior of its members from infancy to death and for which they proved willing to die, then the historians are overlooking something that profoundly affected history whether it be properly called history itself or not. Perhaps they might call it the anthropological constants underlying history and get on with their study of change, but they ignore such constants at their peril. All this Professor Wyatt-Brown has persuasively demonstrated and richly illustrated. One consequence of his work is that the history of the South is unlikely to be written again in quite the prevailing way.

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