In “Legacy of Violence” (October) Edward L. Ayers makes a case for a Southern propensity to violence. The many examples he cites of mayhem and murderous activity make it hard to dismiss Mr. Ayers as bigoted or rash in his judgments.
Nevertheless, the American frontier was always an intriguing interplay between codes of conduct and our more human traits. The viciousness of backwoods battles, using knives, thumbnails, and teeth, is not so far removed from bar brawls in any American city today. From what I gather, the participants do not act so much out of cultural imperatives but simply out of a desire to survive. It’s the Rule of the Knife Fight: in a knife fight, there are no rules.
I am Texan. It has been simply generations since any of my family stabbed, shot, beat, or assaulted anyone. My great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, was certainly touched by violence when he was lynched on Christmas Eve, 1883, in a small Central Texas town. The reason, still a little unclear after all this time, likely had more to do with lawlessness and less with honor. But then, like so much of history, it pretty much depends on the perspective.
The South had a sufficient share of liars, scoundrels, cheats, and psychopaths. So, too, did the North. They are with us still. But honor was an extension of the individual response to the hardships and cruelties of nineteenthcentury life, a ladder out of the mire. There was a passion and commitment to those ideals that is sadly lacking in our own time. People lived lives and made decisions out of a sense of something greater than themselves—or tried to.
A few years ago I interviewed the Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach on the state’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. While talking about the 1836 battle of the Alamo, Mr. Fehrenbach acknowledged that most of the defenders were drifters and adventurers with little actual stake in rebellion from Mexico. Still, 189 or so stayed inside an old Spanish mission to fight against a Mexican army of at least 1,800. They did so, Mr. Fehrenbach said, out of honor and a sense of duty that transcended personal considerations. “It is difficult,” he said, “to explain why someone would be willing to die for honor to a nation of people who relentlessly jog and lift weights out of a fear that they will not live forever.”