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The Price of Honor

The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s–1880s

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
University of North Carolina Press, 412 pp., $55.00 cloth; $19.95 (paper)

Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Oxford University Press, 597 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Honor and Slavery

Kenneth S. Greenberg
Princeton University Press, 224 pp., $40.00; 176 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Few words in any language carry such a load of meaning as “honor.” It is an old word, unchanged even in its spelling from classical Latin to modern English. Spoken or written it does not seem to require much explanation; most people think they know what it means. But why have Latin scholars suggested that it derives from onus, meaning burden, a concept not usually associated with it? Why do dictionaries need so much space for it? The Oxford English Dictionary in 1901 listed eight meanings, Webster’s in 1996 fifteen. The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences in 1931 devoted a little more than three columns to it, the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences in 1966 gave it fifteen. And in the past twenty or thirty years the number of books exploring its application to different things at different times and places and in different situations has grown exponentially. Those examined here on the American South have to be seen as part of a larger development in the study of social relations that has placed honor in a central position.

It seems to have begun quietly in 1950 with a little book by Marcel Mauss called, as translated from the French, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.1 In brief, the book argued that there has never been a free lunch. In archaic or premodern societies what appeared to be free gifts were never quite that. Every gift, though it might have seemed to be offered freely, indeed had to seem so, always had strings attached, always required reciprocation. The honor of both parties depended on the exchange. Failure to answer one gift or favor with an equal or better one was a badge of dishonor. In some cases, Mauss says, “the punishment for failure to reciprocrate is slavery for debt.” Gifts were, in fact, the principal mode of exchange in societies that had not, or had not yet, developed market economies. In these societies the sacredness of honor served the purpose that the legal obligation of contracts serves in modern ones.

In response to Mauss, anthropologists began to see the force of honor not merely in the economies but in practically all the social transactions of undeveloped societies from Melanesia to Alaska. More particularly, led especially by Julian Pitt-Rivers, they began to examine the role of honor in social enclaves close to home, especially around the Mediterranean, in Sicily, Spain, Morocco, Greece.2 As they did so, the complexities of the concept grew. Honor was the opposite of shame but could also accrue to the shameless. It was at once the reward of virtue and of violence, of hospitality and hostility, of acquiring property and of giving it away. It was one thing in an upper class and another in their dependents, one thing in men and another in women, one thing in Greece and another in Cyprus.

But it retained a solid core. Wherever it could be found, in whatever situation, it defined and limited behavior, for it marked the intersection of a person’s view of himself and the estimation of his peers. As Pitt-Rivers put it in 1966, “Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society…. Honour, therefore, provides a nexus between the ideals of a society and their reproduction in the individual through his aspiration to personify them.”3 That does not mark much of a change from the definition that the political philosopher T.V. Smith offered in 1932 before the proliferation of studies began: “Honor is an open acknowledgment of external demand but an acknowledgment which through pride has become enthroned in the very citadel of the self.”4

Honor has operated in all its permutations as a form of social control. In archaic societies it may be the only form, while in modern ones it has to do its work alongside written codes of law, laid down by governments that have all the means of compulsion at their command. Honor too has its codes, but they are not, like laws, the product of an assembly’s deliberations or a sovereign’s dictate. They are unwritten and exist only in the public opinion of the societies or social groups where they are recognized. They cannot ordinarily be enforced by the courts that enforce laws and may even prescribe behavior contrary to law. Honor violated requires direct personal action, sometimes violent, for its recovery, as in a duel. But in the ordinary course of things honor guides social behavior outside the reach of law, ordering daily life by the force of reputation, a force that few resist.

European historians readily took up the challenge that anthropologists presented them with to search out the development, decline, and persistence of honor in the transformation of gift economies of the past into the market economies and legal systems of the present. American historians were slower to rise to the task. Bertram Wyatt-Brown seems to have been the first. Impressed by Pitt-Rivers’s redaction of Mauss, he perceived that the American South before the Civil War could be seen as a distinct enclave like those that anthropologists had discovered in Mediterranean countries. In the South honor had retained its force outside the law (and sometimes even in the law’s own courts) much longer than in the North. In Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982), he surveyed the manifestations of honor among white Southerners in a wide range of social customs, showing how they reflected ancient Celtic and Germanic practices. By contrast, in contemporary New England evangelical religion and contract law eroded the authority of the older code. For example, he found that white Southerners honored aggressive male behavior and therefore encouraged it in their young sons to the point where “boyish battles were the effective Southern substitute for the religious revival experience” (which he posits, I think gratuitously, as a rite of passage in New England). Southerners attached honor to large landholdings and preserved them in arranged marriages, frequently between cousins, more often than Northerners did. Family ties were stronger, women more subordinate, gambling, hunting, dueling, and debt more common and more honorable than in the North.

In Southern Honor Wyatt-Brown deliberately omitted consideration of the role of honor in two aspects of Southern life, each of which might have required a book in itself: politics and slavery. He gave some consideration to the opportunities for miscegenation that slavery provided and the extent to which it violated honor (not much for white males, provided sexual relations were with one’s own female slaves and not someone else’s). But slaves, being nonpersons, could not ordinarily be admitted to have anything to do with the honor of whites except as possessions, like land. Wyatt-Brown was familiar with Jefferson’s famous diatribe against the influence of slavery on the character of Southern children who were “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.” But he dismissed that influence as of less consequence than the general parental encouragement of male aggressiveness. “White Southerners,” he acknowledged, “seldom forgot the presence of blacks; nevertheless, what mattered most to them was the interchanges of whites among themselves.”

Such interchanges, heavily charged with issues of honor, lay at the heart of Southern politics, in which slavery and honor joined in a marriage that could be broken only in war. Wyatt-Brown allowed that if Southerners “had been able to separate it [honor] from slavery, there would have been no Civil War.” But he did not dwell on the complexities of the connection. Nor did he attempt to follow the role of honor in the politics leading to the war that separated the two. He envisaged his next volume, already in preparation, as a discussion of “honor, race, and slavery.”

The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s–1880s cannot be that volume. It is directed neither to the politics of slavery nor to any further consideration of the way slavery or race affected the day-to-day relations described in Southern Honor. The new book is a collection of discursive essays, most of them previously published as articles in professional journals. They offer a number of new perspectives on honor, but they are only tenuously connected with one another: one on slave life and the limited validity of Stanley Elkins’s comparison of it to life in Nazi concentration camps5; one on honor as a factor in the American Revolution; one on Andrew Jackson as an exemplification of Southern honor; four on the growth of churches and evangelical religion in the nineteenth-century South and the challenge they posed to the existing code of honor among whites; and five on the coming of the Civil War and its aftermath.

The most original essay in the book is the one on the American Revolution. In recent years study of what the revolutionaries wanted has made much of their devotion to republican virtue in the face of British monarchical corruption; but little attention has been given to the “sacred Honor” that they so resoundingly committed to their cause in Jefferson’s Declaration. Wyatt-Brown emphasizes the violation of honor that Americans detected in the parliamentary measures directed against them in the 1760s and 1770s. Particularly striking is his explanation of their view that submission to parliamentary taxation would be dishonorable. Americans asserted again and again in formal resolutions that taxes were supposed to be considered as “free gifts,” and as such could be offered only by the elected representatives of those who possessed the property thus given. In the light of the new understanding of gifts, the assertions take on added meaning, for in the code of honor derived from gift exchange, “taxation and honor have always been incompatible. Coerced payment signifies abject disgrace.” It signifies that the people who unwillingly make the payment are inferior to those who collect it. It was not that the Americans received nothing in exchange for their taxes: they received the protection of the British army and navy. But the exchange could not be honorable unless both sides gave voluntarily. In depriving them of the sole right to tax themselves, the right to offer whatever they gave in taxes as a free gift to their king, Parliament deprived them of honor.

What can one say of the other essays? The four on religion, grouped under the heading “Grace: Southern Religion in Transition,” pursue disparate aspects of a subject that several historians have treated more systematically and in greater detail. The five concluding essays, not previously published, have more coherence. They recount the resort to secession as the ultimate answer of Southern whites to Northern insults and then describe the despair and depression, psychological as much as economic, that followed defeat. Despite Northern soldiers’ willingness to minimize the outward symbols of dishonor in surrender, despite the laments that “all is lost save honor,” honor was in fact lost. It could only be redeemed, as was so often the case, by violence. It was not coincidental that the state governments that ended Reconstruction and prepared the way for the degradation of former slaves came to be called “Redeemer” governments. Southern whites recovered a degree of honor by putting blacks in something like their former place, not only by law but also by the violence that honor demanded outside the law, in the Ku Klux Klan and in lynchings conducted as grisly ceremonies.

In these concluding essays Wyatt-Brown makes good use of letters and diaries to show what it meant in human terms to lose. But this is not a new story. Nor is it quite what we had hoped for from the historian whose work has been the starting point for all subsequent treatments of Southern honor. Slavery remains ominously in the background, as it did in the first book. That was a pathbreaking work of cultural history, defining a field. And it was a tour de force to portray social relations among Southern whites in detail while looking away, as they themselves may have wished to do, from the people under their feet. But Wyatt-Brown knew that slavery lay at the center of Southern history and that Southern honor could not really be separated from it. He was and is better qualified to examine the connection than anyone else. He has chosen not to do it and instead has given us miscellaneous essays on Southern history that any number of historians could have written.

It remains, then, a task for others to fathom the way Southern honor was shaped by its attachment to slavery and then by slavery’s destruction. Kenneth Greenberg in Honor and Slavery (1996) has begun the task by returning to Mauss’s seminal exposition of gift exchanges. “Southern men of honor loved to give gifts,” Greenberg tells us, and “gift exchanges flourished because they were so intimately connected to the values and behaviors associated with the language of honor and slavery.” Southern slave owners continually demonstrated their own honorable status and the corresponding dishonor of their slaves by treating as gifts everything they provided simply to keep slaves alive and productive. Slaves could not reciprocate even with their labor, because the master already owned both them and their labor, which in any case they did not offer voluntarily.

Since gifts carried the association of mastery over slaves, “every gift given to a Southern man of honor was a potential insult.” It had to be given with care to imply, though not to state, the expectation of reciprocity that gifts between equals required. Greenberg extends the meaning of gifts to the point where virtually all transactions between men of honor in the South could be seen as part of “a system of gift exchange” that defined communities and extended families. Southern hospitality was part of the system. It did not apply to strangers, who might be refused or charged for an overnight stay. Only kinfolk and other known persons of honor could expect a welcome for visits of weeks at a time or longer, which they must be ready to return whenever called upon to do so. Borrowing and lending followed the same rules. Even duels were “an extreme form of gift exchange”: trading pistol shots was a way “to reaffirm the equality [and honor] of the principals after it had been disrupted by an insult.”

The principles of gift exchange applied to the gift of freedom when benevolent masters bestowed it on a slave. There came to be substantial numbers of such beneficiaries in the South, but they remained in the position of disgrace occupied by all recipients of an unreciprocated gift. Orlando Patterson in his comparative study of slave societies throughout the world (published in the same year as Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor) found the same prescriptions to prevail in some way in virtually all of them.6 Gift exchange affected not only the relationship of masters and slaves but also the manumissions by which masters might give slaves freedom. In slave societies, ancient and modern, the emancipated generally retained in freedom a subservient client relationship to their former masters. In the American South before the Civil War, however, manumitted slaves enjoyed no such relationship. The gift conferred a dishonor, aggravated by racist fears, that consigned them to a lower status than their counterparts in other slave societies. They became what Ira Berlin has designated as “slaves without masters” in his book of that title.7 Greenberg explains:

Because one of the distinguishing characteristics of a master was the ability to give gifts, and one of the distinguishing characteristics of a slave was the inability to give gifts, an emancipation that assumed the form of a gift paradoxically reconfirmed the master-slave relationship.

Consequently the “images of Abraham Lincoln and Northern soldiers as great emancipators—as bringers of the gift of freedom to the downtrodden—actually worked both to liberate and to degrade newly freed slaves.”

Greenberg does not expand this insight, and it is not easy to assess the extent to which the degradation of Southern blacks in the century following emancipation can be attributed to the surviving prescriptions of gift exchange. Substantial numbers of Northerners, especially among former abolitionists, would have reversed the application of those prescriptions: the belated gift of freedom was scarcely an adequate return for its long denial. And many Northerners recognized also that blacks had played too significant a part in the war to consider them as mere recipients of a free gift. Moreover, racism or racial prejudice may have been sufficient in itself to account for what happened. Prejudice had already assigned free blacks an inferior position, in both North and South, into which the dominant whites on both sides could comfortably fit the large new numbers after emancipation. But the common, if unspoken, identification of emancipation as an unreciprocated gift may have served to reinforce that placement.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the surviving prescriptions of gift exchange as a force in human relations even today, but they can operate in unexpected ways. Gift exchange can become a contest that borders on the violence so often associated with honor. A deliberately paltry gift can be used to dishonor the receiver, perhaps resulting in the return of an even more demeaning gift and leading eventually to blows (as Shakespeare portrayed in the French dauphin’s gift of tennis balls to Henry V, avenged at Agincourt). Among the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia the contest took the opposite form of progressively extravagant exchanges that could wind up by reducing to abject poverty the persons who won the greatest honor.

The maintenance of honor has been the driving force of gift exchange and can still affect exchanges dictated by law, where it may not seem to be involved at all. Affirmative action has been seen in its application to black Americans as a recompense to the descendants of slaves for the forced labor of their ancestors. Conversely it has been seen, like emancipation, as a free gift that both rewards and degrades the recipients. Mauss himself suggested that modern social security systems should be viewed as a form of gift exchange in compensating labor that the economic marketplace did not adequately reward. Other anthropologists have rejected such an interpretation because the compensation is enjoined by law rather than honor. That objection should not apply to a modern form of gift that would seem to be fully free: the anonymous donation of blood, destined for utter strangers, through a blood bank. There is certainly a degree of honor attached to such a seemingly selfless act. But an extensive study of blood donation and of participation in medical experiments where there is no expectation of personal benefit has found that

There is in all these transactions an assumption of some form of gift-reciprocity; that those who give as members of a society to strangers will themselves (or their families) eventually benefit as members of that society.8

If we consider emancipation as a gift, there is a curious parallel. It too was a gift to strangers with the expectation that the donors or their families would eventually benefit as members of the society that prescribed the gift. The expectation has been fulfilled in the immeasurable political and cultural benefits that slaves and their descendants have brought to the society that embraced them. If affirmative action is a gift, it too is made with an expectation of benefit to society, and that expectation too has been fulfilled in the discovery of talents that would otherwise have been left undeveloped and unhonored. Honor flows in many directions, sometimes in opposing streams, in the world of the free market. But it can still be discerned, however obscured by the cash nexus, moving back and forth along the pathways that Marcel Mauss marked out fifty years ago.

  1. 1

    Translated by W.D. Halls, with a foreword by Mary Douglas (Routledge, 1990).

  2. 2

    J.A. Pitt-Rivers, The People of the Sierra (Criterion, 1954); Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, edited by J.G. Peristiany (University of Chicago Press, 1966).

  3. 3

    Honour and Shame, pp. 21–22.

  4. 4

    Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Macmillan, 1932), Vol. 7, p. 456.

  5. 5

    Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (University of Chicago Press, 1959).

  6. 6

    Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 211–217.

  7. 7

    Pantheon, 1974.

  8. 8

    Richard M. Titmuss, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (Pantheon, 1971), p. 215. The noted medical writer Dr. Richard Selzer pointed out to me in conversation that persons from whom organs are simply harvested after fatal road accidents are generally referred to as donors.

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