Legacy Of Violence

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Because the lower boundary of the “aristocratic” class was poorly drawn in the early nineteenth century, especially on the cotton frontier of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, pretenders and outsiders sometimes persuaded themselves they could join the circle of the elect by fighting a duel. Timothy Flint, a Northerner who lived in the Mississippi Valley for many years, described how honor could become a commodity purchased with blood: “Many people without education and character, who were not gentlemen in the circles where they used to move, get accommodated here from the tailor with something of the externals of a gentleman, and at once set up in this new- Iy assumed character. The shortest road to settle their pretensions is to fight a duel. Such are always ready for the combat.” Fittingly enough, the published insult constituted the only American contribution to the ritual of the duel; the affronted party printed his “card” in a newspaper so that as many people as possible, including strangers, would know of his willingness to defend his honor—and know also that he possessed honor worthy of defense. An ambitious young man might make a name for himself just by challenging the right opponent in the fluid society of the Old Southwest.

Joseph G. Baldwin characterized with scorn and sarcasm the business of the courts of the cotton frontier of Alabama and Mississippi in the 1830s: “The major part of criminal cases, except misdemeanors, were for killing, or assaults with intent to kill. They were usually defended upon points of chivalry. The iron rules of British law were too tyrannical for free Americans, and too cold and unfeeling for the hot blood of the sunny south.” A young lawyer from Alabama engaged in a revealing exchange with Alexis de Tocqueville, who asked: “Is it then true that the ways of the people of Alabama are as is said?”

“Yes. There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes. At the slightest quarrel, knife or pistol comes to hand. These things happen continually; it is a semi-barbarous state of society.”

“But when a man is killed like that, is his assassin not punished?”

“He is always brought to trial, and always acquitted by the jury, unless there are greatly aggravating circumstances…. This violence has become accepted. Each juror feels that he might, on leaving the court, find himself in the same position as the accused, and he acquits.”

The young lawyer then admitted that he too had fought, and exhibited four deep scars on his head. Tocqueville, incredulous, asked, “‘But you went to law?’ … ‘My God! No. I tried to give as good in return.’”

Honor did not reside only within the South’s planter class. While some men faced each other under elaborate ritual on dueling grounds, many more combatants fought in obscure taverns and streets. The elite wrapped their violence in calm and detachment, directing one shot at their foes; the poor, on the other hand, gloried in boasting, improvisation, and inflicting as much damage as they could on their adversaries. Whatever the class of combatants, violence was not the product of mere impetuosity. It often began when men were stone sober, after a long period of frustration or series of conflicts. As one observer noted, “in by far the greater number of ‘difficulties’ it is known beforehand just what is about to happen, intimations of an impending struggle being whispered on the streets or in the country store, and everybody is listening for the reports of firearms that are to send one or more citizens into eternity.” Southern violence possessed its own rules and unfolded on its own schedule.

White women played crucial roles in a society based on honor. A man who blustered his way into a duel might win honor among his male compatriots, but women would decide the full meaning of that honor. It was often women who defined the boundaries of who was and was not admitted to proper society, who determined whether a man’s wife and family belonged. Many women refused to marry men who would not or could not defend their honor; no woman wanted to share in a dishonored name. And women’s chastity and behavior played a crucial role in maintaining a family’s honor, no matter how that honor had been won and no matter what class that family occupied.

Slavery constantly fed Southern honor among whites. It was slavery that systematically demeaned all black people, regardless of their character. It was slavery that inflated white people’s sense of themselves, that allowed them to consider themselves benefactors, champions, and fathers to their slaves. It was slavery that allowed wealthy whites to consider themselves the heirs to the manners and pretensions of the English gentry. It was slavery that put violence and coercion behind moneymaking, that joined all white people in the domination of all black people. It was slavery that sealed off large parts of the South from the power of law, as slaveowners took the punishment of their slaves into their own hands.