- Historic Sites
Legacy Of Violence
Sociologists continue to be vexed by the pathology of urban violence: Why is it so random, so fierce, so easily triggered? One answer may be found in our Southern past.
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
The violence of honor came to the South along other routes as well. Lower-class English and Scots-Irish emigrants carried to America expectations and tendencies of their own, and these soon combined with the aristocratic ideals of honor to spark violence on every level of colonial Southern society. Philip Vickers Fithian, a tutor from New Jersey who kept a journal of his sojourn in Virginia in the 1770s, described the forms honor took among the common folk. One combatant might have offended another when he “has in a merry hour call’d him a Lubber, or a thick-Skull, or a Buckskin, or a Scotchman, or perhaps one has mislaid the other’s hat, or knocked a peach out of his Hand, or offered him a dram without wiping the mouth of the Bottle; all these, & ten thousand more quite as trifling & ridiculous, are thought & accepted as just Causes of Immediate Quarrels, in which every diabolical Stratagem for Mastery is allowed and practised.”
While Southern planters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries self-consciously modeled themselves on the English gentry, influential people in the North kept alive a sense of themselves directly and self-consciously opposed to worldly honor. Although the Puritans themselves faded away across the eighteenth century even in New England, aspects of their values endured to become known as the heart of the “Yankee” character. Where honor celebrated display, the ideal Puritan called for restraint. Where honor looked outward, the Puritans looked inward. Dignity also steadily gathered strength in the antebellum North because it was inextricably tied to the transformations of society and personality that accompanied the development and growth of a culture built around business. The ideal of the inherent value of the autonomous individual grew up simultaneously with the new ideals of character, of self-control, of discipline and delayed gratification that came to be the hallmark of the commercial middle class.
The North, however, was no more unanimous in its devotion to dignity than the South was in its devotion to honor. The various elements of dignity did not come together to form a coherent set of ideals until the 1830s, and even then dignity was constantly changing and growing. The spread of the gospel of dignity took on the dimensions of a crusade. Through educational and religious organizations, through publications and speaking tours, and through mass migration, New England colonized much of the North with the ideal.
Honor had its enemies in the South as well. From its earliest days evangelical Southern religion defined itself in opposition to the culture of honor. Not merely violence but the entire culture of display, ostentation, worldly hierarchy, sport, and amusement fell prey to its wrath.
Ministers urged women to help destroy the worldly and false system of values embodied in honor. “We would have every Christian young woman speak to these men of blood in the words of the patriarch, ‘Instruments of cruelty are in their habitation. Oh! my soul come not thou into their secret,’” a Charleston pastor cried in the 1850s. “The mothers and daughters of Carolina are involved in a fearful responsibility on this subject. It is in their hands to stop this bloodshed, and in the name of God, I call upon them to do so.”
Southern women embraced evangelicalism in ever-growing numbers and with ever-greater fervor throughout the nineteenth century. In a patriarchal society, piety gave women a system of belief that undermined the secular conception of females as mere bearers of children, household laborers, or mannequins of finery. Piety stressed woman’s ability to discipline herself, to reject the world of fashion and prestige. The evangelical church gave women a new strength by offering them an autonomy found nowhere else, and in turn women constituted the church’s greatest power. Honor increasingly became a male preserve.
Honor faced other enemies in the laws and courts. Honor and written laws against violence were incompatible, as the advice given to young Andrew Jackson by his mother reminded him: “The law affords no remedy that can satisfy the feelings of a true man.” While honor reigned, a man who had taken the law into his own hands had little to fear from a jury. “Almost any thing made out a case of self-defense—a threat—a quarrel—an insult—going armed, as almost all the wild fellows did—shooting from behind a corner, or out of a store door, in front or from behind—it was all self-defense!” wrote Joseph G. Baldwin. And it usually really was self-defense, given the inexorable way insult bred violence. Even Sir William Blackstone, from whom Southern lawyers worshipfully learned their craft, admitted that honor was “a point of nature so nice and delicate that its wrongs and injuries escape the notice of the common law, and yet are fit to be redressed somewhere.” That “somewhere” was the Southern dueling ground, tavern, and street.