Legacy Of Violence


Whites recognized no honor among slaves, but the slaves themselves refused to accept that. Without recourse to the power of the law, black men had no choice but to adjudicate conflicts among themselves. As a result, many of them, like many whites, turned to violence, display, boasting, and physical courage. Some whites professed to be unable to understand the causes of violence among black men, but the descriptions of that violence bear a striking resemblance to descriptions of white-on-white bloodshed. One white wrote: “It is utterly confounding for what trivial causes they will take the life of a fellow-slave. Sometimes it is simply a dispute about a game of cards or marbles; sometimes the being supplanted by a rival in the confidence of the master or overseer is the exciting cause; but much more frequently jealousy leads to the fatal deeds.”

Not infrequently, too, slaves of both sexes, pushed to the limit, assaulted white people, including their masters and mistresses. Violence might erupt when a young son of a master used his authority too arbitrarily, when a detested overseer pushed too violently against the wrong person, when a usually lenient owner asserted authority in an arbitrary or cruel way, when a widowed owner remarried and the new partner tried to wield authority unrecognized by the slaves. Honor, in other words, seems to have been working under the surface of slavery. Black Southerners turned to honor not out of imitation of their white owners but in enraged response to the capriciousness, inhumanity, and despair of the slavery in which they lived.

Things were increasingly different above the Mason-Dixon line. By the mid-nineteenth century the North had generated the core of a culture antagonistic to honor. Northerners could only shake their heads in disbelief at Southern violence. “About certain silly abstractions that no practical business man ever allows to occupy his time or attention, they are eternally wrangling,” one observer wrote in the 1850s, “and thus it is that rencounters, duels, homicides, and other demonstrations of personal violence, have become so popular in all slaveholding communities.” Northern culture, for its part, celebrated “dignity”—the conviction that at birth white males possessed an intrinsic value at least theoretically equal. In a culture of dignity men were expected to remain deaf to the same insults that Southern men were expected to resent. “Call a man a liar in Mississippi,” an old saying went, “and he will knock you down; in Kentucky, he will shoot you; in Indiana, he will say ‘You are another.’” Dignity might be likened to an internal skeleton, a hard structure at the center of the self; honor, on the other hand, resembles a cumbersome and vulnerable suit of armor that, once pierced, leaves the self no protection and no alternative except to strike back in desperation.

The conflict between the rural cultures of North and South appeared in antebellum southern Illinois, where migrants from both regions settled. A Southerner who moved to Illinois recalled later that settlers from his native region scarcely saw notes, receipts, mortgages, or bonds until the Northerners arrived, and when the newcomers “sought to introduce their system of accounts, written notes, and obligations, they were looked upon with great suspicion and distrust, and their mode of doing business regarded as a great and unwarrantable innovation upon established usage.” As one historian of the Midwest observes, “To the Southerner his own way of doing business affirmed confidence and personal honor. To the Yankee it was a lack of proper system, a sinful inefficiency.” The Yankee settlers built schools and libraries and founded colleges and newspapers; the upland Southerners just got along. In fact, the Southerners were known among the Yankees primarily for “intemperance, profanity, and fisticuffs on all public days.”

Both honor and dignity had roots in Old World cultures but developed new strains in the bracing environment of the New World. Almost from the very beginning a subtle and reinforcing sifting process created regional cultures in North America. Once British settlers arrived in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they drew upon different elements of their diverse and changing culture as increasingly divergent economies led the Northern and Southern colonies farther and farther apart.

As they grew in power and wealth, the Southern gentry of the colonial era sustained the values of a proud and domineering English aristocracy, a class whose power and authority the Southerners planned to replicate in the New World. Honor and its violence were a part of the culture they regarded as their own, as the only culture worthy of emulation.