Legacy Of Violence

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Explanations for Southern violence have never been lacking. As early as the 1790s Thomas Jefferson observed that the unbridled authority wielded by slaveholders tended to breed impetuous behavior and shortness of temper, characteristics passed from one generation of masters to the next. Emily Burke, a New England schoolteacher who taught in Georgia in the 1840s, also located the origins of slaveholders’ violence in the patterns of their upbringing: “At that tender age when the earth is in its most plastic state, no attempts are made to subdue his [the Southerner’s] will or control the passions, and the nurse, whether good or bad, often fosters in her bosom a little Nero, who is taught that it is manly to strike his nurse in the face in a fit of anger.” The wife of a Georgia planter told C. G. Parsons that “slaveholders’ children, instead of being taught to govern their tempers, are encouraged to indulge their passions; and, thus educated, they become the slaves of passion.” But while slaveholders might act with impetuosity, they accounted for only one strand of Southern violence. Non-slaveholding whites were, if anything, more violent than their wealthier neighbors. There has to be more to the phenomenon.

The frontier’s corrosive effect on the power of the law has often been offered as another explanation of Southern violence. The frontier, this argument runs, breeds lawlessness, and the frontier was, in effect, built into the South in the form of plantations. Our national mythology assumes violence to be a natural outgrowth of the frontier; the explanation seems almost commonsensical to most Americans. But in other British colonies, such as Canada and Australia, frontier challenges similar to those of the United States did not breed notoriously high levels of violence among the settlers. Moreover, recent studies of the American West and Midwest challenge the stereotypes of rampant violence on these frontiers as well. The violence that did erupt in Western cattle towns and on the open range in the post-Civil War years may well have been Southern violence transplanted, especially by way of Texas. If earlier Southern frontier areas did suffer from violence—and from all accounts, they did—then we need to look beyond the mere locale to explore the character of the people who lived and died there. Bloodshed was the product of a culture Southern frontiersmen brought with them, not something they found waiting in the wilderness. The frontier of the South did witness violence, but primarily because the frontier exaggerated cultural traits already in existence.

And those cultural traits bring us back to the explanations Southerners themselves gave. They said they fought for honor’s sake. The word honor , though, now puts many of us on our guard. It is an anachronism and conjures up images as archaic as jousting knights or, in our own history, of aristocratic planters facing each other at dawn with leveled pistols. From the perspective of modern culture, honor that must continually be fought over has no resonance or meaning, when values antithetical to it rule. Middle-class children today are taught to shrug off insult, to avoid violence if at all possible. Yet, just as Southerners claimed, many of them recognized the dictates of honor, a system of values within which you have exactly as much worth as others confer upon you.

A society that is so concerned with the perceptions of others is also likely to be subject to extreme patterns of behavior. Contemporaries who described Southerners as gracious and hospitable described men who adhered to honorable conduct, but so did those who described Southerners as touchy and belligerent. Honor led people in the South to pay particular attention to manners, to ritualized evidence of respect. When that respect was not forthcoming between men, no matter how small or imagined the slight, satisfaction would be demanded by the offended party. The most common way of obtaining it was through fighting a duel, an “affair of honor.”

But this most famous expression of Southern honor was merely the visible tip of the iceberg. In fact, the duel came to the South long after the code of honor; it was not until the 1770s, when English and French army officers made it the fashion within the American army, that duels appeared with any frequency in the New World. For a few decades Northerners as well as Southerners fought on the field of honor, but by 1830 dueling and the South had become virtually synonymous. By the last antebellum decade the South stood alone in the Anglo-American world in its toleration of dueling.