Manly Honor Part V: Honor in the American South

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 26, 2012 · 74 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

Welcome back to our series on manly honor. Today we tackle Southern honor in the 19th century. Now, be prepared: this is and will be the longest post in the series by far. The complexity of traditional honor and its various cultural manifestations cannot possibly be underestimated, nor can the difficulty in distilling these complexities into an accessible, coherent narrative. We have done our best with that task so far, and here as well; however, understanding Southern honor requires a more in-depth exploration. We could have just sketched out the very basics, but truly grasping those basics necessitates an understanding of the framework which underlies them. Also, as we shall see, because the South’s culture of honor still influences that region today, it’s a good subject to become knowledgeable about if you want to understand the country. Plus, it’s just really interesting!

We didn’t set out to do it, but I’m proud of the fact that this series has turned into a resource unlike any other that is out there. I don’t imagine there’s a huge audience among blog readers for 7,000-word posts about Southern honor, but those who are interested in the subject will hopefully really dig it, and anyone who girds up his loins and reads the whole thing will be rewarded.

Southern Honor: An Introduction

In our last post about the history of honor, we took a look at how honor manifested itself in the American North around the time of the Civil War. Yet when most folks think about honor in the States, both then and now, what first comes to mind is invariably the South.

There’s a reason for that. While honor in the North evolved during the 19th century away from the ideals of primal honor and towards a private, personal quality synonymous with “integrity,” the South held onto the tenets of traditional honor for a much longer period of time.

Unlike the Northern code of honor, which emphasized emotional restraint, moral piety, and economic success, the Southern honor code in many ways paralleled the medieval honor code of Europe — combining the reflexive, violent honor of primitive man with the public virtue and chivalry of knights.

The code of honor for Southern men required having: 1) a reputation for honesty and integrity, 2) a reputation for martial courage and strength, 3) self-sufficiency and “mastery,” defined as patriarchal dominion over a household of dependents (wife/children/slaves), and 4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight to his reputation as a man of integrity, strength, and courage, as well as any threats to his independence and kin. Just as in medieval times, “might made right” in the American South. If a man could physically dominate or kill someone who accused him of dishonesty, that man maintained his reputation as a man of integrity (even if the accusations were in fact true).

Anthropologists and social psychologists believe this form of classical honor survived and thrived in the American South and died in the North because of cultural differences between their respective early settlers, as well as the North’s and South’s divergent economies.

Herding, the Scotch-Irish, and the South’s Culture of Honor

To understand why a more primal and violent culture of honor took root in the American South, it helps to understand the cultural background of its early settlers. While the northern United States was settled primarily by farmers from more established European countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and especially England (particularly from areas around London), the southern United States was settled primarily by herdsmen from the more rural and undomesticated parts of the British Isles. These two occupations — farming and herding — produced cultures with starkly different notions of honor.

Some researchers argue that herding societies tend to produce cultures of honor that emphasize courage, strength, and violence. Unlike crops, animal herds are much more vulnerable to theft. A herdsman could lose his entire fortune in one overnight raid. Consequently, martial valor and strength and the willingness to use violence to protect his herd became useful assets to an ancient herdsman. What’s more, a reputation for these martial attributes served as a deterrent to would-be thieves. It’s telling that many of history’s most ferocious warrior societies had pastoral economies. The ancient Hittites, the ancient Hebrews, and the ancient Celts are just a few examples of these warrior/herder societies.

As it happened, the Scotch-Irish settlers that poured into the Southern colonies from the late 17th century through the antebellum period were genetic and cultural descendants of the war-like and pastoral Celts. Hailing from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the English Uplands, these Scotch-Irish peoples made up perhaps half of the South’s population by 1860 (in contrast, three-quarters of New Englanders, up until the massive influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, were English in origin). As the Celtic-herdsmen theory goes (and it is not without its critics), their influence on Southern culture was even larger than their numbers. These rough and scrappy Scotch-Irish immigrants not only brought with them their ancestors’ penchant for herding, but also imported their love of whiskey, music, leisure, gambling, hunting, and…their warrior-bred, primal code of honor. Even as the South became an agricultural powerhouse, the vast majority of white Southerners – from big plantation owners to the landless — continued to raise hogs and livestock. Whether a man spent most his time working a farm or herding his animals, the pastoral culture of honor, with its emphasis on courage, strength, and violence — characterized by an aggressive stance towards the world and a wariness towards outsiders who might want to take what was his — remained (and as we will see later, continues even to this day).

Agrarian Economics

While the South’s ethno-cultural background may explain the origin of its primal and sometimes violent code of honor, it doesn’t explain why it remained so entrenched in Southern life for so long while contemporaneous Northerners were quick to adopt the more modern, private notion of honor. To answer that question we simply need to look to the divergent economies of the two regions.

While industrialization transformed the Northern landscape in the 19th century and sparked the rise of urbanization, the antebellum South remained largely agrarian and rural. This created two important effects in the region: economic opportunities were fewer in number and less diverse, and kinship ties remained very strong.

Land Ownership and Class

While for many, slavery is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the Old South, only 25% of the white population owned slaves, and 73% of those who did held fewer than ten. In other words, three-quarters of the white population were nonslaveholders. While it is common to imagine there were only two white classes in the South — rich, slave-holding planters and poor whites — there was actually a middle-class majority of non-slaveholders (around 60-70%) who owned their own land. All told, about 75% of all white males in the South owned land. Another number were professionals and artisans, and the remaining percentage were “poor white trash” (yes, this derogatory term originated way back in the 19th century). Alternately referred to as “squatters,” “crackers,” “clay/dirt-eaters,” and “sand-hillers,” these poor whites eked out a subsistence living in isolated settlements nestled in the hills and mountains, planting perhaps a few crops and raising a few animals, but mainly getting by through hunting and fishing.

The richest planters might own thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves, while a yeoman farmer worked a hundred acres and held no slaves; 90-95% of all agricultural wealth in the South was in the hands of slaveholders by 1860. Despite this deep inequality, the culture of the South was quite different than the walled-off oligarchy of the Old World nobility. Whereas Europe’s landed aristocracy held a monopoly on power and claimed honor as exclusively their own, because of the accessibility of land in the South – even if men’s holdings vastly differed – a common bond between the two groups existed.

Yeoman farmers typically lived close to plantation owners, and the two groups frequently intermingled through both trade and kinship. While entering the upper echelon of Southern gentlemen depended partly on family lineage, there was a degree of social and economic mobility; non-landowners acquired land, non-slave owners acquired slaves, and non-planters married into planter families. Yet, most yeoman farmers sought not great wealth, but being a “good-liver” — attaining a simple, comfortable self-sufficiency surrounded by one’s family and enough land to pass onto one’s sons. Striving to get ahead was too much work; while industry was perhaps the sine qua non of honorable virtues both in Victorian England and the American North, Southerners valued leisure in their lives. In this they harkened back to their Celtic forbearers, who had employed the least labor-intensive method of herding — the open range system – and used the rest of their time for feasting, fighting, and merriment.

This satisfaction with self-sufficiency was rooted in both cultural ideals and practical considerations. While industrialization in the North had opened up a new stratum of diverse professions, options in the South outside of agriculture were far fewer; the only other honorable professions were law, medicine, clergy, and the military, but even then, many men hoped these positions would simply serve as stepping-stones towards becoming a planter. And while Northern men were celebrated for having the pluck and initiative to leave home in pursuit of personal goals, Southerners wished to stay close to hearth and home, and some saw such pecuniary striving as crass. Again, this viewpoint derived from both cultural and utilitarian considerations; the ability to move into professions and politics in the South relied less on the egalitarian boot-strapping that defined the North, and more on personal and familial connections.

Honor in the South

The differences between the industrialized North and agrarian South led to differences in their honor codes. While the North equated honor with economic success, and economic success with moral character, honor in the South hinged on hitting a more basic threshold.

The Southern ideal, in theory, if not always in practice, was that the rich man was no better than the poor man; all whites of all classes considered themselves part of the same honor group. As all traditional honor groups are, it was a classless hierarchy not of wealth, but of rank. The military makes a good comparison. All soldiers are equals as men of honor, but there are higher and lower ranks; each strata has greater or lesser responsibilities and privileges, and its own culture.

Every white man acknowledged the personal equality of every other – horizontal honor – while also acknowledging that some, because of blood and talent – had risen higher than others and achieved greater vertical honor. Most who occupied a position below the top respected that setup as proper and natural; differences in status did not hold moral significance. Southerners also did not see hierarchy as incompatible with democracy, but rather as a necessary way of bringing order to what would otherwise be a society dominated by chaos and mob rule.

While the poorest whites were seen as dishonorable and despicable because they did not contribute anything to society, and just as importantly, chose to live in isolation from the “tribe,” such a label was only possible for those who could perhaps be members of the honor group, but failed to meet the code. While some Northern gentlemen did not even acknowledge the common manhood of “the roughs” because of their failure to meet any of the requirements of the Stoic-Christian honor code, poor whites in the South had the potential to be included because basic Southern honor was not dependent on gentility (clothes/education/manners), but things that were accessible to every man. While poor whites weren’t generally concerned about the integrity part of the Southern honor code as much as the farmers and planters were, all were united in honoring independence (not working for another man and being master of one’s own “little commonwealth”), strength and personal valor, and a man’s willingness to use violence to defend his reputation. Men from every rank in the South believed that honor required a man to take an aggressive stance to the world – a constant readiness to fight for what was his against the encroachments of outsiders and the insults of scalawags of all varieties.

What About Slavery?

When discussing the differences between North and South in the 19th century, obviously the huge elephant in the room is slavery. Slavery definitely affected the honor code inasmuch as it shaped the South’s economy and was part of the way of life whites wished to defend. It influenced it in other ways as well, but historians disagree on exactly how. Some think the fear of a slave uprising made Southerners more prone to engaging in reflexive violence – demonstrating strength as a warning against would-be mutineers. Some say that by including all whites in the Southern honor group, rich and poor alike, they pacified possible resentment from the lower class, and thus headed off the possibility of their teaming up with slaves in a rebellion against rich plantation owners. Slavery helped solidify the Southern hierarchy, and traditional honor thrives in an environment of “us vs. them.”

It’s obviously a complex subject, which sits outside the purview of this article. Since an honor group can only consist of those who consider themselves equals, for Southern whites, blacks were obviously excluded. Thus, honor for whites in the South was something generally only judged, jockeyed for, and mediated amongst each other (with the exception of black on white crime, in which a white man’s honor necessitated his meting out justice himself, sometimes in the form of a lynch mob.)

As with the North, we know that just because one group claims exclusive right to honor, doesn’t mean those left out don’t have their own code (i.e., the gentlemen and the roughs). Slaves assuredly had their own code of honor too, but unfortunately no one has tackled that subject yet that I know of. A Ph.D. dissertation waiting to be written…

The Public Nature of Southern Honor

That a man’s public reputation remained the basis of his honor, as opposed to shifting towards private conscience as in the North, was due to the close communities and kinship ties in the South. In the North, waves of immigration, coupled with urbanization, created a diverse society dominated by impersonal relations, making agreement on a single honor code difficult, and sparking the development of personal codes of honor. The South, on the other hand, remained agrarian and sparsely populated; at the start of the Civil War, the North had 10+ million more residents.

Southerners preferred to live physically close to their relatives, and the foundation of every community was one’s extended family. One of the interesting signifiers of the way Southerners were more tied to tradition and familial interests versus Northerners can be found in the diverging naming practices of the two regions. For example, at the beginning of the 1800s, only 10% of boys in a typical Massachusetts community were given non-familial names, but that jumped up to 30% by the time of the Civil War. In contrast, Bertram Wyatt-Brown reports that as late as 1940, a rural sociologist in Kentucky “discovered that only 5% of all males had names not affiliated with traditional family first and middle names. Over 70 percent of the men were named for their fathers.” Giving sons familial names symbolized the patriarch’s important position in Southern families, tied grandparents and grandchildren together, and imparted to sons a sense of pride and place in a long lineage – a lineage he was charged with honorably upholding.

As a result of the close-knit, more homogenized nature of Southern society, two fundamental requirements of traditional honor remained in place: a cohesive honor code that everyone in the group understood and ascribed to, and frequent face-to-face interactions that allowed members to judge each other’s reputations. This also left in place traditional honor’s mechanism for dealing with social deviants: public shame and group justice.

Honor acted in tandem with the formal legal system in the South. For Southern men, some matters of honor could not possibly be justly settled in a court of law; the matter had to be resolved mano-a-mano, sometimes in the form of a duel. On her deathbed, Andrew Jackson’s mother (Scotch-Irish herself, and an immigrant to the Carolinas) told him: “Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always. Never bring a suit in law for assault and battery or for defamation. The law affords no remedy for such outrages that can satisfy the feelings of a true man.” Jackson took his mother’s advice to heart, participating in at least 13 “affairs of honor.”

Crimes and disputes that did end up in court were discussed in the taverns and parlors about town, and judges were swayed by the public’s opinion of the crime and of the accused when rendering their sentences. Southerners wanted it this way; impersonal justice seemed too Northern — a justice system which incorporated local circumstances preserved local autonomy.

When the community felt that justice, according to the dictates of honor, had not been served by the court, they believed it within their rights to step in and mete out the proper punishment themselves. This often took the form of lynch mobs, which frequently went after blacks, but sometimes fellow whites as well. Whites in need of shaming were more likely to be on the receiving end of a “charivari”, which was an ancient ritual that dates back at least to the Middle Ages in which the townspeople would gather outside the home of one who had violated the community’s norms – perhaps through adultery or wife-beating – and beat on pots and pans, hoot and holler, and sometimes give the accused a tar and feathering. The duly shamed would quickly get the message and high-tail it out of town.

For Southerners, these extra-legal forms of justice were not a substitute for the court system, but a supplement; as Wyatt-Brown puts it: “Common law and lynch law were ethically compatible. The first enabled the legal profession to present traditional order, and the second conferred upon ordinary men the prerogative of ensuring that community values held ultimate sovereignty.”

Yet it was the threat of simple, informal shunning — being made an outcast — that was enough to get most Southerners to conform to the code. As in all traditional honor societies, a Southerner’s relations with others and their inclusion in the community were the heart of life; one could not separate their personal identity and happiness from their membership in the group. What Moses I. Finley said of the world of Odysseus was true of the South as well: “one’s kin were indistinguishable from oneself.” Thus to be abandoned was the worst possible fate. Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer who was popular in the American South, described this tribal mindset well:

“Isolation is the sum-total of wretchedness to man. To be cut off, to be left solitary: to have a world alien, not your world, all a hostile camp for you; not a home at all, of hearts and faces who are yours, whose you are! … To have neither superior, nor inferior, nor equal, united manlike to you. Without father, without child, without brother. Man knows no sadder destiny.”

These strong bonds with kin, along with their deep connection to the land, created an honor culture extraordinarily rooted in people and place.

The Three Pillars of Southern Honor Culture

While it is true, as Wyatt-Brown asserts, that “honor in the Old South applied to all white classes,” it was still lived with “manifestations appropriate to each ranking.” If you remember our military analogy above, it can be compared to the way officers and privates are equals as men of honor, but each group has its own culture and way of interacting with each other.

For example, the code of honor of the upper middle class and the wealthy was tempered by gentility. Their aggressive stance to the world was refined and balanced by an emphasis on moral, dignified uprightness, clothes and manners, and education. The latter was typically devoted to classical literature from ancient Greece and Rome; The Illiad and The Odyssey were instruction manuals on living a life of honor, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was considered second only to the Bible in importance.

There were, however, three pillars of Southern honor culture that transcended socio-economic status, even if they sometimes manifested themselves differently according to class. For all white Southern men, these three pillars were public, ritual encounters which served to test a man’s honor, and Wyatt-Brown argues, “helped Southerners determine community standing and reaffirm their membership in the immediate circle to which they belonged. In all of them honor and pursuit of place muted the threat of being alone and provided the chance to enjoy the power in fellowship.”

1. Sociability and Hospitality

Generosity, friendliness, warm-heartedness, and expressive sociability were points of honor for a Southerner and one of the primary ways in which he “distinguish[ed] himself from the Yankee.” If the watchwords for the Northerner gentleman were “coolness and detachment,” the watchwords for his Southern counterpart were “passion and affability.” While Southern men honored the Stoics for their apathy towards death and centered calmness in times of both crisis and fortune, they made more allowance for joviality in social situations than their more restrained Northern brethren. Even today, Southerners take pride in their region’s friendly and big-hearted ways.

To combat the fear of solitariness discussed above, Southerners looked for any excuse to get together with friends and kin and held frequent dances, corn huskings, barn raisings, picnics, and militia musterings, amongst many other types of gatherings.

But it was the ancient ritual of hospitality that held the most central role in a Southern man’s sociability and acted as a test of his honor. Wyatt-Brown defines hospitality as “the relationship of an individual and family to outsiders on home turf.” But it started with taking care of one’s own kin. Southerners contrasted their generous approach in aiding their relatives to that which they perceived as the impersonal and tightfisted way in which Northerners more frequently relied on public assistance – leaving the job to asylums, poorhouses, and charitable organizations.

And of course when it came to strangers and visitors, Southerners felt duty-bound to show hospitality to whomever showed up. An element of competition existed in Southern hospitality – households which pulled out more of the stops in entertaining won status in the eyes of the community.

The honor-bound obligation to show hospitality to everyone who appeared on your doorstep could lead to financial distress. When Jefferson returned to Monticello after serving in the White House, even folks who had simply voted for him felt entitled to swing by and say hello; having to entertain this constant stream of well-wishers contributed to the large debt with which the president died.

2. Gambling and Drinking

While Southerners were a religious people – often Baptist or Methodist in their faith – the Second Great Awakening that swept the Northeast did not have as transforming an effect in Dixie. In the North, a revival in evangelical Christianity led to an emphasis on seeking moral perfection – both individually and as a community. This desire for purification sparked the creation of reformation groups, such as temperance societies, and led some gentlemen to believe that abstinence from things like alcohol and gambling were requirements of a man’s code of honor.

While such things fell out of favor with Northerners (and some Southerners as well) most Southern men continued to heartily believe that drinking and gambling (what one contemporary referred to as a “generous and manly vice”) were not incompatible with their faith or morality, and greatly contributed to maintaining a social, honorable culture. Their piety on Sundays with their families and the rowdy good fun they had with each other could be compartmentalized, like two different roles in their life. As has famously been said, “The South votes dry, and drinks wet.”

In a time before basketball, football, and hockey, horse racing was America’s most popular sport. Especially anticipated were races that played up sectional hostilities — pitting a Southern-bred horse against a Northern one

Southern men felt that vices like drinking and gambling didn’t make them less of a man, but more of one, because they, just like their Scotch-Irish ancestors, saw its role in building and managing the honor group. As we’ve discussed, in honor groups men challenge and test each other to earn status, and also to prepare each other to face a common enemy. In peace-time, men use games, sports, and drinking to accomplish this. Such diversions give men a chance to best their rivals without rocking the social boat. And through all this friendly competition, camaraderie is built and bonds between men are strengthened.

The “gander pull” was a popular Southern pastime. An old tough male goose (gander) was strung up and its neck slathered with grease. Male contestants, fortified with whisky, would ride under the goose, reach for its neck, and attempt to pull the head off. The ladies would cheer for their “knights,” and hope their man would be the one to present the head to them as a trophy.

Sports gave Southern men a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess — gambling, one’s strategic skill. Even in games of chance, winning boosted a man’s status. Johann Huizinga explains that a lucky win “had a sacred significance; the fall of the dice may signify and determine divine workings.” Winning meant God favored you and deemed you worthy of praise from your brethren. That’s why cheating constituted the ultimate dishonor and was worthy of death; it was an attempt to unfairly gain status and thwart the will of the gods.

Cheating was sometimes punishable by death.

Fathers in the Old South initiated their sons into the “manly art” of gambling at an early age so they would be ready to take part in the world of men. “Betting,” according to Wyatt-Brown, “was almost a social obligation when men gathered at barbecues, taverns, musters, supper and jockey clubs, race tracks, and on steamboats.” To not ante up was to deny your equal standing with your fellow men, and thus refusing to play “implied cowardice, differentness, unwholesome and even antisocial behavior.”  However, compulsive gambling, which consumed one’s inheritance, and the failure to pay a gambling debt were seen as very shameful.

Drinking served the same purpose as gambling. It brought men together and acted as a sorting mechanism for status within the group. The man who could drink the most and hold his liquor showed hardihood and earned the admiration of his peers. Intoxication also heightened the chances that men would provoke or dare each other into fights or hijinks – opportunities for a rollickin’ good time and further tests of manhood.

3. Fighting and Dueling

“The Palmetto State: Her sons bold and chivalrous in war, mild and persuasive in peace, their spirits flush with resentment for wrong.”  — toast of J.J. McKilla, at Independence Day militia banquet in Sumterville, South Carolina, 1854

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, traditional honor began with your own claim to honor, but then that claim had to be ratified by one’s peers. If one of your fellows disavowed your claim, and said the image you projected was false, this was a grave insult; if you tolerated the insult, you essentially let another man dominate you, and thus lost status in the group. Fighting the accuser allowed you to maintain your honorable reputation; if you beat or killed him, you demonstrated that he was wrong, whether his insult had been true or not.

An accuser knew when he was intentionally drawing a man into a fight; calling another man a coward (or in the parlance of the time a “poltroon” or “puppy”) was essentially a declaration you wanted to duel or duke it out. Insulting a man’s honesty in the South, known as “giving the lie,” had the same effect and was sure to provoke instantaneous rage. Ditto for doing wrong to a man’s wife, mother, or daughter; Southerners prided themselves on their chivalry. But whether it was a man’s courage or his integrity that was questioned, the recourse was always the same: violence.

While childrearing in the North emphasized the cultivation of inner conscience, and the feeling of guilt in wrongdoing, Southern parents instilled in their progeny a sense of honor, and feeling shame for violating the code. Young boys were encouraged by both their parents and the community to be aggressive and manly, and to fight to defend one’s honor from an early age. And it wasn’t just fathers who sought to impress upon their sons the importance of personal valor; mothers were equally adamant on this point. For example, Sam Houston’s mother urged him to fight in the War of 1812, and when he decided to join up, she gave him a plain gold ring with “Honor” engraved inside it, and then handed him a musket saying, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn his back to save his life.”

Boys were taught that even if you got creamed, simply showing your willingness to fight demonstrated your manhood. A story recalled by James Ross, born 1801, illustrates this well. When he was six, Ross bought a knife, but then lost it, and in his naivety, returned to the storekeeper who had sold it to him for a refund of his money. The boy argued with the shopkeep for a while, and some other boys in the store began laughing at him, making him feel ridiculous. When Ross saw a boy he already disliked among the laughing crowd, he fell upon him, and the two proceeded to engage in a long and unmerciful scuffle as the other boys gathered in a circle to watch. When he could no longer go on, Ross was told he had been whipped, and began to make his way home, thoroughly dejected and humiliated. But then an older, more respected boy who had witnessed the fight came over and offered him this advice: “I must cheer up—adding that I had done exactly right; every man ought to fight when insulted; being whipped was nothing; he had been whipped twenty times and was none the worse for it; I had fought bravely; all the boys said so; and he thought a great deal more of me than he did before. This talk comforted me wonderfully and all my troubles soon vanished. It is true my ribs felt sore for several days, but I cared little for that.”

Seldom did a boy of any class make it to adolescence without getting into a fight, or several. For poor boys, as they grew into men they were expected to begin to participate in what was called the “rough and tumble.” A rough and tumble was a no-holds-barred fight where the first man to cry “uncle” lost, and opponents sought to disfigure and maim each other to claim victory; fights often ended when one employed “The Gouge” – scooping the other man’s eyeball out of its socket.

“As far as it can be done, we should live peaceably with our associates; but, as we cannot always do so, it is necessary occasionally to resist. And when our honor demands resistance, it should be done with courage.” –Advice of North Carolinian William Pettigrew to his younger brother

For middle and upper class boys, schoolyard scraps quickly evolved into true “affairs of honor;” teenage duels were not uncommon in the South. Introduced to the US by French and British aristocrats during the Revolutionary War, the Southern upper classes saw dueling as a way to fight and show courage that distinguished itself from the heedless, ugly “rough and tumbles” of their lower class brethren. While theirs were bodily fights of immediate passion, duels were carefully orchestrated rituals between gentlemen who considered each other equals (an insult from an inferior was not worthy of notice). That it required a man to resist the urge to punch a man right on the spot made the duel seem a much more gentlemanly and honorable form of combat. Duels were governed by an elaborate set of rules, and could take weeks and even months to arrange. During that time, the men’s chosen “seconds” (a man’s representative and duel referee) would try to negotiate a peaceful resolution in order to avoid bloodshed.

Even for those showdowns that did make it to the “field of honor,” only 20% of duels ended in a fatality. Gentlemen often aimed for an appendage or deliberately missed. Dueling was much more about demonstrating one’s willingness to literally die for one’s honor, than it was about killing another man; it symbolized the culture’s belief that dishonor was worse than death. Southerners scoffed at the way Northern men used the word honor, but defended an insult with a fist fight or a contemptuous laugh and turn of the heel; an honor not worth dying for was not honor at all.

Dueling was seen by some as a way to head off feuds, and as an incentive for gentlemen to conduct themselves in the most upright manner. But it always had its critics and was the most controversial of the three pillars – even Jefferson Davis condemned it. Yet even as Southern states outlawed the practice and anti-dueling societies arose, gentlemen continued to participate in the ritual without much public censure during the antebellum period. Including violence, even if in a ritualized way, allowed upper class men to hold onto the essential nature of traditional honor; the celebration of personal valor tied all classes of whites together.

Southern Honor and the Civil War

While folks still debate whether the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights or slavery, an argument can in fact be made that it was also largely about something that has subsequently been lost to time: honor.

Both sides saw and referred to the struggle as a duel; as Wyatt-Brown puts it, “for many, the Civil War was reduced to a simple test of manhood.”

In the South, William L. Yancey told the 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston:

“Ours is the property invaded; ours are the institutions which are at stake; ours in the peace that is to be destroyed; ours is the honor at stake–the honor of children, the honor of families, the lives, perhaps, of all.”

In the North, Lorien Foote describes a report in the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly “about the private meeting among some of the leading gentlemen of New York City in the tense days of the secession crisis. When one participant proposed to ‘accede’ to all the south’s demands, others jumped to their feet to denounce such a ‘total, unqualified, abject surrender in advance of all national and individual honor.’ They demanded that the men of the north at least ‘strike one blow for our own honor’ rather than ‘deliberately to relinquish our manhood.’”

The conflict between North and South was depicted by cartoonists as a fist fight between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

While both the North and the South saw the war in terms of honor, what motivated the men to fight differed greatly. In the North, volunteers joined the cause because of more abstract ideals like freedom, equality, democracy, and Union. In the South, men grabbed their rifles to protect something more tangible — hearth and home — their families and way of life. Their motivation was rooted in their deeply entrenched loyalty to people and place.

But what if a man felt allegiance both to the principles espoused by the North, and the honor of the South? The ancient Greeks had grappled with what to do when one’s loyalties to one’s honor group conflicted with one’s loyalty to conscience. Such a conflict has been a struggle for warriors ever since, and is best embodied during this time in the life of Robert E. Lee.

Lee was the perfect example of the South’s genteel honor code and what William Alexander Percy called the “broad-sword tradition:” “a dedication to manly valor in battle; coolness under fire; sacrifice of self to succor and protect comrades, family, and country; magnamity; gracious manners; prudence in council; deference to ladies; and finally, stoic acceptance of what Providence has dictated.” He had also served and greatly distinguished himself in the United States Army for 32 years, so much so, that as the Civil War loomed, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union forces. Lee was torn; in the days before secession, he wrote, “I wish to live under no other government & there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.”  Lee did not favor secession and wished for a peaceable solution instead; but his home state of Virginia seceded, and he was thus faced with the decision to remain loyal to the Union and take up arms against his people, or break with the Union to fight against his former comrades. He chose the latter. Lee’s wife (who privately sympathized with the Union cause) said this of her husband’s decision: “[He] has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State.” In a traditional honor culture, loyalty to your honor group takes precedence over all other demands — even those of one’s own conscience.

Many other Southerners of divided loyalties made the same choice as Lee. United in opposition to the encroachment of outsiders, the perceived threat to their autonomy, and simply the necessity of showing honor by adopting an aggressive stance and fighting when insulted, the vast majority of white Southerners, whether slave-owners or not, took up arms for the Confederacy. Because of their shared honor code, there was, at least at first, a great deal of unity in the “solid South,” and less of the socioeconomic clashes that arose between the gentlemen and the roughs in the Union Army. For example, while the average personal wealth for company officers in the Confederate Army was $88,500, for noncoms and privates it was $760 – an incredible gulf. And yet company officers were elected by troops themselves – showing that they saw such men as their natural leaders.

Northerners were long critical of the South’s claims to chivalry, as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.

Greater conflict would arise in the South, as it had in the North, when the Confederacy instituted conscription. Some chafed at this insult to their personal mastery of their lives, as well as Jefferson Davis’ suspension of habeas corpus, wartime inflation, and laws that exempted men who owned 15 slaves or more from the draft. These and other onerous effects of the conflict led some lower class men to grumble that it was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

In some ways, the South’s traditional honor code worked against the Confederacy’s efforts. A man would sometimes only agree to enlist if given a guarantee that he’d be retained in his own county or state – he was interested in fighting to protect his kin, not on some anonymous battlefield a few states over. For that same reason, drafted men, particularly if married, would often desert their unit if they were transferred far from home. And if a family emergency arose, or his wife and children needed help bringing in the crop, a man felt justified in going AWOL. Southern honor demanded loyalty to one’s people and place above all, and devotion to family and home was the highest of those sacred obligations.

Southern Honor Culture Lives On

Although the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, 4 in 10 Southerners still sympathize with the Confederacy. While I won’t wade into the endless debate over whether, and to what extent, this attachment to history is appropriate, I will say that what is invariably missing from the debate, and crucial to fully apprehending it, is an understanding of the culture of Southern honor. The echoes of that culture go far beyond the displaying of the Confederate flag, and still influence the behavior of many Southern men to this day.

Since the end of the war until now, the South has had an overall higher rate of violent crime and of homicide specifically, than the Northeast. Compare, for example, two quintessential Southern and Northern states: South Carolina and Massachusetts. According to the US Census, in 2007 SC ranked first in the country as to the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people (788), while Massachusetts came in at twenty-second with nearly half that (432).

Chart Source: Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South by Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen

However, when you start to analyze the data further, things get much more interesting. Psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen looked at homicide stats for the North and South, and found that once you separate the murders into two categories —  argument/conflict-related and felony-related — the South only has a significantly higher rate when it comes to the former. What this means is that murders in the North are more likely to occur during the course of another crime, like burglary, and involve strangers, whereas murders in the South are more likely to arise from a personal conflict, such as a barfight or love triangle. Other studies have shown that only homicides that involve a victim personally known to the perpetrator are elevated in the South compared to other regions of the country. Most interesting of all is the fact that this effect is correlated to the size of a town or city. In medium-size cities (pop. 50k-200k), Southern white males commit murder at a rate of 2 to 1 when compared to the rest of the country; in small cities (pop. 10k-50k) the ratio is 3 to 1; in rural areas it is 4 to 1. After reading this post, you can probably guess why this is so – a small town provides the intimate, face-to-face relationships that are essential to an honor culture, and creates an environment where everyone knows your reputation, and an insult to it can lead to violent altercations.

Nisbett and Cohen followed up their findings with a study that looked at the differences between the emotional and physiological responses of Northern and Southern white men when faced with an insult. They had both Northern and Southern college-age men come into the lab under the pretense of taking part in an unrelated study. They were asked to take a questionnaire to a room at the end of a long and narrow hallway, and as they made their way down it, a confederate to the experimenters would bump into the subject, and call him an “asshole.” During this altercation, the subjects’ emotional response was recorded, and afterwards their levels of cortisol (which is released from arousal and stress), and testosterone (which increases when gearing up for something that will involve aggression and dominance) were measured. The result? Nisbett and Cohen found that Northern men reacted with more amusement to the insult than anger, while the Southerners reacted with more anger than amusement. Their physiological response differed too. The cortisol levels of insulted Northerners rose 33%, even less than the control Northerners who walked down the hallway without being bumped at all. But the cortisol levels of insulted Southerners went up more than double that: 79%. The testosterone levels of Northern increased by 6%, but went up 12% for Southerners.

Chart Source: Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South by Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen

All of which is to say that in their reaction to insult, Southern men today remain tied, both culturally and physiologically, to their antebellum forbearers, and to their Scotch-Irish ancestors.

This is true when it comes to those ancestors’ warrior values as well. Before the Civil War, Southerners occupied nearly every important position in the US Army, could claim the lion’s share of its most distinguished commanders, and had served as Secretary of War every year in the decade and a half prior to secession. Overall, Southern families contributed more sons to the Army than the North, despite the difference in population. And this too remains true today. As you can see from this map (which is controlled for population), many more service members are based in the South (and in the Western frontier states where an honor culture also thrived in the 19th century) than in the Northeast:


Since this has gone on so long, let’s make this the shortest conclusion possible. While we said in the last post that after the Civil War, the North’s Stoic-Christian honor code triumphed over the South’s traditional one, it would really be more accurate to say that each region’s respective code continued on for a few more decades. But despite the echoes that remain in the South today, the public, cultural nature of neither code were any match for the increasing urbanization, diversification, and shifting values of the US in the 20th century. Which is where we’ll turn next.

Manly Honor Series: 
Part I: What is Honor?
Part II: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West, Ancient Greece to the Romantic Period
Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor
Part IV: The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North
Part V: Honor in the American South
Part VI: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century
Part VII: How and Why to Revive Manly Honor in the Twenty-First Century
Podcast: The Gentlemen and the Roughs with Dr. Lorien Foote


Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Plain Folk of the Old South by Frank Lawrence Owsley



{ 74 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael E. November 26, 2012 at 12:56 am

Another great post! I’m loving the series, keep it up!

2 jordan w November 26, 2012 at 12:56 am

Heckuva interesting article- I aint finished it yet, But i shall, a lot to think about.. thanks..

3 JC November 26, 2012 at 1:26 am

Another well-done article in a well-done series, Brett and Kate. As a Southerner from a fairly old Southern family, I found your observations to be insightful and well-written. Things have certainly changed in the South over time, but many of the cultural undercurrents are still there in one form or another. The homicide statistics were quite interesting—particularly when broken down into felony/argument-related categories.

I would submit that part of the South’s renown (whether romantic or realised) for politeness stems in part from the culture of violence and duelling you identified. If you wished to express your displeasure with someone but didn’t want to give cause for a duel, you could use a “back-handed compliment” so that your message was received, but conveyed in such a way that it would have been socially inappropriate for the other party to retaliate (“He’s a _____ ______, bless his heart…”).

Looking forward to the next article!

4 Dave November 26, 2012 at 3:04 am

Wow, glad I took the time to read the whole thing. Learned a ton. I think I’m someone, a lifelong Connecticut Yankee, that’s had a pretty biased view of Southerners and their history, and this gave me a much more nuanced view. And for a topic that seems to get people worked up, it seemed really balanced, which I appreciate. Thanks.

5 Jim Collins November 26, 2012 at 5:45 am

Esteemed Kate, Brett, and Readers,

In origin, my wife is Dixie and I am a Washingtonian. We often joke that the fundamental difference between us is that she’ll be convicted of manslaughter while I’ll be convicted of premeditated murder.


Jim Collins

6 Caleb November 26, 2012 at 8:21 am

another fantastic article! Thanks for posting. This whole series should be a must read for every man in America.

7 Nathan November 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

I haven’t started to read it yet but I am going to after I type this comment. I just wanted to say and in no way is this a boast, but I lived in the South for two years and there is so much of code of honor still there. I think that’s why i sort of had a love affair with the South. I don’t come form a place that really prizes honor, so living in a place that did with people from all over the southern states was really great. I’ve lived in a working class town north of Boston all my life, and seeing the difference was a treasured experience. Also I read blogs this long all the time, I love information.

8 John November 26, 2012 at 8:31 am

Fantastic article – and saved to kindle for a more in depth read later! It’s articles like this that really remind me why I got into studying academic history.

Plus I’m learning a whole bunch about American history which we just don’t see in the UK.


9 John November 26, 2012 at 8:37 am

I went to Sam Houston State University. When you get a senior ring each one has honor engraved on the inside. It was to remind us how Sam Houston valued Honor.

10 Andrew November 26, 2012 at 8:59 am

This is the diary of my great great great grandfather. It’s one of the few primary sources from the average southern yeoman from the mid-19th century. He didn’t own slaves (in fact some of his entries reveal he was an abolitionist and pro-women’s right to vote). Anyway, it’s an interesting book. It was required reading for a class at UNC back in the 90′s. I think that’s the only reason his diary and writing were compiled. When I read the part of your blog about the majority of the white southern pop being middle class and non-slaveholder, I thought of Basil. Anyway, apparently it’s super cheap now if you want to check it out.

11 Matt November 26, 2012 at 9:00 am

I appreciate the detailed analysis here. I’m a lifelong Southerner, and the South’s honor culture is part of what I love about the South.

I think the biggest portion of the culture is based on respect. There’s a mutual respect between all of the classes –those from wealthier families appreciate and respect men who work with their hands, or do manual labor. There’s a deep-seated belief that ladies should be treated well, and that one’s reputation is his greatest possession.

That being said, I felt like the authors wrote in a condescending manner throughout much of the article – making it sound like the South is full of violent hillbillies.

12 Carl November 26, 2012 at 9:06 am

Technically, this should be *White* Honor in the American South, as you’ve overlooked the large minority of the South that is of African descent. There are sources on family, masculinity, and values amongst enslaved African Americans, which is a subject fascinating for the content of those values and the ways in which they had to be defended in the face of slavery, where possible.

13 Chris November 26, 2012 at 9:06 am

Great article. It was really informative and a joy to read.

One note, the people who came and settled in the 17th century in the South are know as Scots-Irish, not Scotch-Irish.

Otherwise, this was a fantastic article.

14 Judson Carroll November 26, 2012 at 10:39 am

The article was very good and much more fair than anything I’ve seen written on southern culture in a long while!

My “old southern family” came primarily from 3 sources – a passenger on the 2nd voyage of the Mayflower who headed south ASAP, Scots-Irish who landed in VA and Wilmington, NC and noble French who landed at Charleston and Georgetown, SC. All of my male ancestors served in the Revolution and their grandsons/great-grandsons served in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

It is often frustrating when trying to explain to non-southerners, that these men held the same ideals of patriotism and honor as their forefathers, as most folks are taught in school that the Civil War was about slavery only. In that myth, the angels are northern and the demons southern. However, save one, there are no records of any of my ancestors owning slaves. That one was owned tens of thousands of acres of cotton and tobacco – land partly granted due to his grandfather’s heroic efforts in the Revolution. Like Washington, Jefferson and many of our other founders who are still held in esteem, he was a slave holder.

All of my male ancestors served in the Confederacy. Their remarkably eloquent letters spoke of defending their homes from yankee aggression and of the same principles in the Declaration of Independence (a document written by a southerner) “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” They held that states who had joined the Union through consent retained the right to leave the Union. They fought and most died.

Meanwhile, Sherman’s troops (after burning Atlanta) came up river and burned my family home, burned the crops, slaughtered the livestock, raped the women and killed every boy old enough to hold a gun – leaving all, white and black to starve. After the war (and the occupation known as Reconstruction), my family was decimated, but slowly rebuilt on their own. The descendants of slaves and the the heirs of black men who were freemen and even slave owners themselves stayed on and worked for my family and the other few surviving. Over time, 4 towns were built on what was once, mostly, my family land, populated mostly by black folks. My family provided the funds, the materials in timber and bricks and often, even the initiative to build the homes, churches and schools.

Even in my grandfather’s time, a knock would come at any time, day or night, with a neighbor (white or black) seeking some sort of assistance. My family home was the crisis center, refuge, lending agent, job placement and social services for the whole community. Although government services largely replaced private initiative beginning with FDR, nobleese oblige was the the principle we were taught. I recall when I was abut 10, an old black man who called me over, shook my hand in his massive fist and said, “When I was in the war, my wife had our first child. You great-grandfather took her to the hospital in the middle of the night and paid the bill. Your great-grandmother took care of her and the baby… they had a hard time. He didn’t let me pay him back until I had been out of the service for a year and working.”

So, you can see why I bristle when I and other southerners who are proud of our traditions and heritage are dismissed as racist, ignorant rednecks. My grandfather and great grandfather were big, strong men who carried pistols, saps and knives and were quick with their fists, quick with a joke or story and always hospitable – they were men of honor and faith on whom the entire community hinged.

15 Audrey November 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

Thank you for choosing this subject! I look forward to reading it when I get off work.

16 Judson Carroll November 26, 2012 at 10:46 am

Also, best quote on southern hospitality:

“What do we need with a hotel? If a man is a gentleman, he can stay at my house, if he’s not a gentleman, we do not need him here.”

– Robert Toombs,
Secretary of State of the Confederacy

17 Thomas November 26, 2012 at 11:36 am

Have you considered, when this series is complete, talking to a publisher about putting all the entries down on paper?

18 Brett McKay November 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm


“Scotch-Irish” was the most widely used term in North America for several centuries, while “Scots-Irish” is actually a relatively recent version of the term. Those in Scotland do refer to themselves as “Scots” or “Scottish” but “Scotch-Irish” is still considered appropriate and often used by academics.

19 Josh November 26, 2012 at 1:48 pm

One big quibble. The idea that lynching were justified by black-on-white crime is laughable. Most of the crimes were such trivial offenses as looking at a white woman the wrong way. Listen to Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit and understand that song is based on reality, a reality America wanted to ignore so badly it paid attention to the Southern fiction of black men driven crazy by white women.

20 Saxon November 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Great series. It would have been interesting to read about the honor code among the slaves you alluded to, since a rather large segment of the US population are, after all, their descendants and carry it with them in some form or the other.

As for roots, I wondered if you had any words to say about the northern european as well as the southern european sources of manly honour. I ask as a man from the real “far north”, from Norway.

21 Moses B November 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Two things;
@Judson Carroll; as a son of the south of a darker hue, I agree that the noblesse oblige principle often held sway in the south between the White and Black race, and that there was (and is) some appreciation among traditional Black people for an “honorable” White man or woman, but one must emphasize that much of that beneficence presupposed, and was requisite upon, each participant playing a “superior to an inferior” role. As my folks used to say, “You can visit Mr. Gilmore anytime, even set a spell and chat, just make sure you go to the BACK door!”
@Carl and @Brett and Kate; I hesitate to ask (since race is such a charged subject) but, did the recent studies you referenced also measure the levels of honor/argument-related violence evidenced in Black Southern vs. Northern men? And, I’m sure that the crime stats are out there for these populations as well. I’d be curious as to the correlation or divergence of your reported distinctions with the Black cohort.

22 Bobby G. November 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I have never read a series of articles that have had such a profound impact on my way understanding the world around me! Thank you!

23 AR November 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I grew up in a strange place. Texas is neither Southern nor western. But….. my kin were from Alabama, driven out after the War by carpetbaggers. My G-G-granddaddy ran 3 plantations and owned 90 humans.

I always wondered why honour was so important to me, especially honour that involved family and home. I must’ve been weaned on it. This article answered a lot of questions.

Thanks for this insight into my raising. I learned a great deal.

24 Judson Carroll November 26, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Moses B,

In my family only strangers used the front door. White and black came in the back door, which was always left unlocked.

25 John November 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm

What? Nothing on the West/frontier honor? Really? Talk about a distinct and interesting cultural concept of manhood, one distinct from both North and South…

26 Chritopher November 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Great post! I’m a third year law student at LSU, so I found your post especially interesting because in seems that many of our laws, past and some present, seem to lend credence to your analysis of the Southern honor code, if you will. For instance, up until 1996 in Louisiana, there was the “Aggressor Doctrine,” which precluded tort recovery where the plaintiff acted in such a way as to provoke a reasonable person to use physical force. According to the doctrine, a plaintiff’s recovery is precluded if the evidence establishes that he was at fault in provoking the difficulty in which he was injured, unless the defendant retaliated with excessive force.

This is not the same thing as self-defense, which was a valid affirmative defense. It was an altogether separate affirmative defense from that of self-defense that would preclude recovery for injuries if the plaintiff provoked the defendant’s aggression by insults, abuse, threats, or other conduct that was calculated to arouse the resentment or fears of the defendant.

It seems to me that this was recognition in the law of a person’s right to use physical force in defense of honor. Interestingly enough, this doctrine was in place in Louisiana until 1996.


27 Daniel November 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Excellent article! I was a history major at the University of South Carolina where I was able to study southern history under several leading scholars. Im also a native Southron (one whose southern ancestry streaches back to the War Between the States). I have to admit that the parts about Southerners reactions to perceived slights rang especially true for myself. My one disagreement is with the assesment that the Souths tendency towards violance comes from the pig herding Scotch-Irish culture. In South Carolina, we had been at war with the Tuscarora, the Yemasee, and the Spaniards all before the influx of the Scoth-Irish down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania. I believe that our tendency towards violance (as well as our penchant for drinking, gambling, festivals and get-togethers etc) goes back to an attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The first Barbadian and Huguenot settlers encountered an alien wilderness. They were beset with danger on all sides from snakes and alligators, hurricanes, spaniards, hostile native-american tribes, pirates, maralia, and mass servile insurrection. But there was also the chance to arrive a pauper and die a rich man from the lucrative rice and (later) cotton trade. To survive in this environment, violence is essential.

28 Paul Thompson November 26, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Good article.
I was nodding along thinking how great the southern honour code was, then I read this:
“fights often ended when one employed “The Gouge” – scooping the other man’s eyeball out of its socket.”
I sort of lost a little respect around about then.

I’m Irish, but with a lot of Scottish friends. If I ever refer to them as ‘Scotch’ they tell me “Scotch is a drink, not a people”.

29 Phil November 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Being born and raised Midwestern (N. IL) and having lived in rural FL (far away from the coastal cities) for eight years, I can say your article is pretty much spot on. There is a definite group-mistrust of outsiders, but in one on one interchanges, Southerners are extremely friendly, but there does seem to be a tendency to assume everyone has the same point of view on any given topic.

One point: the term “cracker” refers to Scots Irish settlers in FL and other Southern frontier areas in the late 19th/early 20th century. In many of those areas the land was suitable for nothing but raising cattle and ranchers would have cattle drives to bring the animals to coastal ports for shipment on boats to the North or the Caribbean. The people who drove the cattle did so by cracking whips to move them along – thus the term “cracker.” It’s not derogatory in many parts of central and southern FL, as it indicates family roots in the area – somewhat rare these days.

30 Glenn November 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Great article. Thomas Sowell has a chapter in his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, discussing our rural English heritage. Don’t be put off by the title, it’s a great book.

31 DB November 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm

So, I can’t say that I am an expert on this sort of thing, but in terms of knowing more about codes of honor for black slaves and Blacks in the American South during the time of the Antebellum South, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights era, etc., I am almost certain that there is ample material to draw from.

I did a quick search online and found Black and White Masculinity in the American South, 1800-2000 by Lydia Plath, which looks like an awesome source for this article and I bet that some of her citations could provide great insight. It might be a good start.

Also, if you are curious about the notions of enslaved Blacks, free Blacks, and black abolitionist at the time of slavery and shortly thereafter, as a start, I’d check out works from popular writers such as Martin Delany, Fredrick Douglas, W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Booker T. Washington (and those are just the guys).


32 Caleb L November 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm

A native of North Carolina, I have always found the code of honor to be a mutual respect amongst people. The point you made about defending one’s family is true, fiercely true in fact.

I’m afraid however I’ll have to disagree with you on the different honor standards among blacks and whites pre-civil war. While your point is undoubtedly true for a portion of whites, slave owning and non-slave owning alike, it is far too generalized. Many slave owners inherited their slaves and struggled with the ethics of owning slaves. Thomas Jefferson and Robert E Lee being two examples. The idea that ALL whites held a different honor system for whites than blacks (which is what the article seems to be implying, although the author may not have intended it to) is very inaccurate. One example is VA. In 1860 shortly before they seceded from the Union, the VA state legislature voted concerning the legality of slavery. The vote to emancipate slavery in the state of VA lost by only 1 vote. This seems to cast doubt on the broad idea that all men held a different honor system for whites and blacks. That is my only concern with the article, that the author may have unintentionally (or intentionally, I don’t know) painted the picture too generally concerning this.

As for the rest of it, I can’t argue.

33 Frank November 26, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Great post. I am from Birmingham, AL and interestingly enough, I just taught a lesson on the southern code of honor to my US History class. Everything you mention was spot on. I applaud you on your accuracy! Thanks again.

34 Manni November 26, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Thank you so much for this exploration of an aspect of American male culture that lately has become despised. As a descendant of good Virginian gentry, I was raised on the principle that a man’s honor is his most precious treasure.

Also, kudos for handling the issue of slavery in such a tactful manner.

35 Ripley November 27, 2012 at 12:03 am

This is something I’ve always been interested in, and I’m glad I’ve been able to learn more about it in a (relatively) concise, yet detailed form. As a guy who was born in the South and has family and friends on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, thanks for summing it all up so I can explain to my drinking buddies up north why I take any slights to my honor seriously.

36 A Gentleman's Rapier November 27, 2012 at 6:40 am

Great post, I was looking forward to this one in particular.

I spent my formative teen years in the South and left when I was 22, and a lot of this echoed with me.

“…in their reaction to insult, Southern men today remain tied, both culturally and physiologically, to their antebellum forbearers, and to their Scotch-Irish ancestors.” was a particularly good point and has gotten me into a bit of trouble through the years. :-)

My mother is from Northern Ireland and that kicked off an interest in Ulster Scots (or Scots-Irish as they are also known) culture in general for me.

Some of the problems in Northern Ireland can probably be attributed to those ideas of honour that came over from that neck of the woods.

The term redneck actually comes from the fact that Ulster Scots wore red handkerchiefs around their necks to signify their Presbyterian religious tendencies, and not because they worked in the fields all days. Also, a lot of the race-mixing laws came about because many of the bolshy Ulster Scots came over as indentured servants (which was close to slavery, including some of the attendant treatment, except for having an element of choice about it) and were often seen to be main contributors to the early slave rebellions. There was a bit of intermarriage, as well, but how much, I’m sure, is the subject for a PhD paper; probably not well-known, because it does not fit too well within accepted racial and class creation myths.

37 Chris November 27, 2012 at 1:00 pm


Fair enough. I had a professor of Southern political history from England a couple of years ago who insisted that these people were Scots-Irish and would be very offended if one called them Scotch-Irish.

I guess both are right. Thanks for the response. Keep on doing what you are doing. Absolutely love the site.

38 Robert November 27, 2012 at 3:23 pm

The term Scotch-Irish is historically correct. My ancestors were part of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia during colonial times. The term Scots-Irish came about much later. You can do a search online to see the history of this settlement and others.

PS This is an excellent, insightful, scholarly, and accurate article. I salute the writers.

39 Judson Carroll November 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm

The origins of “Cracker” are murky. A lot of folks see the term as a slur, but coming from an old southern family, I don’t. Many of the uninformed think it refers to whip cracking from the days of slavery… it doesn’t. Some say it relates to the cattle drivers who moved into GA and FL, cracking their whips. But it is actually a much older term. Shakespeare wrote in King John, “What cracker is this same that deafe our eares with this abundance of superfluous breath?”. It seems the term stems from the country characters like in Yorkshire (Last of the Summer Wine), Mr. Moleturd on Are You Being Served Again, or those of my Celtic ancestors who hung about the pub “cracking” jokes, and telling stories. As that is a true southern tradition that was embodied by my great-grandfather, grandfather and myself (and people like Jerry Clower, Justin Wilson, Lewis Grizzard, James Gregory, etc.), I wear it proudly!

40 Ben November 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I have really enjoyed these posts. Please keep them coming!

41 Shea November 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Here is a similarly good book encompassing the Scots-Irish: Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

42 Brad November 27, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Interesting article, but it strikes me a bit too much as an apology for the South and certainly doesn’t make up for slavery or secession. However, reading this definitely makes me happy to be a Yankee.

43 George November 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Hey there Brad- I am glad you are a Yankee too. The South and its people held slaves for a fewe years more than the North… that absolves everyone else of the crime? How many New England fortunes were based on the transport of slaves? My hands are no more filthy- and are possibly cleaner- than yours in this…

Now, as to the article, I have lived a long time in both areas. I think drinking is much more of an acceptable cultural behavior in the North than in the South. In small town Michigan, bars certainly outnumber churches..

44 Ilana November 28, 2012 at 2:14 pm

I highly recommend John Wilson’s 1838 book “The Code of Honor.” It’s a dueling etiquette manual from the U.S. South and a fascinating historical document for anyone interested in honor cultures, particularly within the States.

Also, great post! I’m really enjoying this series on honor.

45 Steve November 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Have to agree with Brad. I’ve enjoyed this series and was fascinated with this post right up until the apologia for the Civil War. Secession was and is treason. The Confederates were traitors to the United States and their great cause was to preserve their “right” to own other human beings. Yes slavery was legal in the Northern states until the 1830′s, but it was abolished and not through force of arms. Going on about honorably defending family and home from invasion is a smoke screen. No secession, no invasion. No treason, no reconstruction/occupation.

46 RhodeHog November 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Very informative article. The only part I question is that the article is about Southern white honor but I think the modern violent crime statistics are irrelevant or misleading. Wouldn’t the modern statistics include non-white crimes committed by other races and nationalities who were not brought up in that “honor” system? SC (68% white) is more ethnically diverse than MA (84% white). Selecting only for crimes committed by white non-Hispanic would seem to be the only way to make your argument. It’s the same as arguing that a particular city is violent when, upon further analysis, certain sections of the city are very violent whereas other communities are quite peaceful.

Otherwise, as a many generation Southern male, the observations of honor, hospitality, and independence speaks to the men I know and our forefathers.

47 Eric November 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Why should the South “make up” for secession? It was our constitutional right to seceed. How about the North “make up” for the 75 years they held the South at bayonette point called “Reconstruction”?

48 Judson Carroll November 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm

The first independent, democratic community in America was the Watauga settlement near the NC/TN/VA border. They declared independence from the British. The British sent them a letter telling them to swear allegiance to the King or die. They mustered, marched to Kings Mountain, NC and defeated overwhelming British forces. George Washington credited American independence to the “Over Mountain men”. Like it or not, you yankees owe your freedom to southerners… like the Over Mountain Men, and Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc. If secession was treason, so was declaring independence from Britain.

49 Cole Gallup November 29, 2012 at 9:04 am

This article is not true at all with regards to violence, as a result I challenge you sir to a duel, take you pick; guns, swords, or fisticuffs.

50 James November 29, 2012 at 9:37 am

You may want to do a little more reasearch and read some primary history sources instead of relying on what you were taught in school. Secession always has been and is still legal. The states willing formed the union and thus could willing leave for whatever reason. In fact some of the first talks of secession were by those in the north during the early 1800s, look up Timothy Pickering from Massachussetts. Also, remember two things; the South wanted to leave the union peacefully and did not fight until invaded/attacked by the north, and the South was following in the footsteps of the founding generation which was greatly influenced by many honorable southern gentlemen. Like George, I am glad that you are a yankee too.

Brett and Kate – another very good well researched article. It would be interesting to explore the honor code of Black Americans during this time period and the difference in the code between slaves and freemen and how was that code influenced by the White Americans in the South.

51 Phil H November 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Loving this series. It provides an interesting view on not only honor but what and how it means to be a man in today’s society.

52 Zachariah November 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

Amazing post! I’d read a little about this in Gladwell’s book, “Outliers” and am glad you gave it a fuller treatment here.

53 David D. November 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Seceeding from Britain due to unrepresented rule and violation of aknowledged rights as Englishman is hardly equivialent to secession due to a fear of a possible majority where you are given equal rights to representation and speech.

54 Darren T December 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm

That was awesome. I’ll have to check out some of those source books when I have the time–one of your most intriguing series, yet.

55 MariJean December 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I’ve always kind of wanted to marry a southern boy, and I found one whose family hails from the Shenandoah Valley. Pretty neat.

Thanks for the article – it was informative and fascinating!

56 Brad December 2, 2012 at 10:16 am

Sorry, I didn’t say that secession was illegal. I’m just pointing out that these alleged honorable virtues of Southerners really don’t make up for the racism that was still codified in law in that region up until 50 years ago.

57 Dan December 3, 2012 at 8:13 pm

@Brad- Racism isnt unique to the south. While the South is infamous for its relationsip to its african-american citizens, why dont we look at the relationship the north had with the Irish, Jews (both groups were welcomed with open arms as first-class citizens in the south by the way while their northern counterparts met with extreme bigotry), and eastern Europeans or the relationship the western states had with Latinos and Asians. That doesnt absolve the south. We struggle everyday with how to come to terms with the sins of the past. But I wont have people from other regions pretend that they are without sin while they cast stones.

58 Russell December 5, 2012 at 11:08 am

Brett and Kate,

Bravo! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series, and I agree, I haven’t seen any other resource quite like this on the Internet.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

59 A Gentleman's Rapier December 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm

@Dan December 3, 2012 at 8:13 pm
Point well made. Although I only moved to the suburban South in my early teens and witnessed redneck-style racism, it wasn’t until I was in boot camp that I was actually shocked by the things white guys from such enlightened places as California, the Midwest, and New York said about and to non-whites of all shades (Latinos, Native Americans, etc.)

In thinking about it, the racism I knew from the South was just as much about social class and caste, but most people I knew tended to get along or at least tolerate each other, albeit with some distrust and problems on the edge. The racism I saw when I left the South seemed to me to be more visceral. But that’s just my observation and limited experience.

On the points about North v. South and incoming immigrants: ISTR that Jews and other non-British minorities were allowed to become commissioned officers in the South, but were denied even citizenship unless they lined up to be cannon fodder for the North.

60 Jeff December 6, 2012 at 10:40 am

I too have to quibble about drinking in the South. The wets vs dry’s culture war is a pretty fair fight in Texas (where I live) and I suspect the Southern states.

Even today, there are parts of Dallas that are dry, while large chunks of rural areas are dry or semi-wet (semi- is pronounced “semeye-,” by the way).

That said, the compartmentalization observation is also often true. For example, streams of “hard shell” Baptists in Texarkana regularly go to Louisiana to gamble and get drunk.

I’m curious if the authors found cultural differences between Texas and the Old South. In my opinion, we share a lot but we also differ in many ways. Hell, there are major regional differences in culture.

61 Solomon December 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Great post. To add to the hallway study..Most northerners live in a confined space where people often walk in very close proximity to one another raising the chances of bumping. But in the south the personal space is larger so if bumped without apology(excuse me, my fault) and then insulted we would perceive it as an intended slight.

62 Nate December 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Brilliant article. Strangely, I resonate a lot more strongly with “southern” honour than with “northern” honour as a lower class Canadian. My mom has an Irish bent, I think that was a factor too, as well as reading a lot of old greek literature as a young teenager.

I’m in University, “on my way up” so to speak and I’m finding the transition uncomfortable… the “northern” honour you describe seems the norm in the Canadian middle class at least and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years despising people for their weak character and, well, lack of honour… no personal loyalty, no group strength, blind adherence to rules, acceptance of awful life circumstances without complaint, not standing up for themselves, associating money with character, buying into a tiered society based on wealth and position…

I seem to automatically liken them to sheep. Richard Morgan used the term “cudlips” to describe “domesticated humans” in a sci fi novel which I found entertaining.

Still makes me mad I guess… none of them value anything I seem to value mind you, so if I act in any appropriate way I can be heavily criticized for it. I don’t fit in at all.

By contrast, my girlfriend is very “northern” minded in a sense, according to these articles. We had a funny argument recently about whether to enroll our future kids in martial arts or not. She said that our kids aren’t going to get in any fights, and aren’t going to have to be able to beat up their friends. I felt the opposite: the fighting, and being able to best his friends, would be important for the kid.

About martial arts though: it’s a matter of training character while building physical health, the fighting part was mostly a funny argument.

I think that this has to be a strong reason for why wealth-class distinctions exist- the honour and values of the groups differ so much that the poor actually despises the upper class way of thinking and life, which segregates them from institutions like universities- they hate to live “like them,” and weren’t raised with the values that will help them succeed there (eg, suffering through weeks of boring, terrible classes without complaint is a matter of academic necessity, but maybe a “northern gentleman” virtue) and the middle to upper class looks down on lower class behaviors, helping to keep poor people out even further through social pressure…

Haven’t slept much, final exams coming up, hope that was somewhat coherent. This little box makes editing difficult!

63 Daisy December 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I think a largely underestimated and overlooked reason for the Civil War was also because of the large sense of distrust of federal government that pervaded the south (and still does to this day). Northerners telling the south that they would have to give up what was regionally perceived as an important part of their economy was not welcomed at all, and of course, their honor got the better of them. I think this issue has never been completely resolved, due to the mentality of “take care of your own” that is predominant south of the Mason Dixon. A lot of that can be credited to the clans of Scotland and Northern Ireland that migrated other. After years of invasion, subjugation and discrimination at the hands of the English, the Gaelic peoples learned to band together and they brought that with them to America.

64 Joel December 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm

@Nate – You say that there appears to be a lack of honour in the Canadian middle class. What would you do then? Stand up for your “rights”, then get fired/demoted/arrested? That seems to be happening a lot lately.

Rather than fighting and lamenting for what has been taken away, you’re better off adapting and evaluating what you have left.
That is why some people are willing to study in fields that they find boring. Because in the end, they’ll have a higher chance of finding an open position that pays a decent salary with benefits. These people aren’t so much sheep as they are rats.

Forget about honour. Adapt and survive.

65 Paolo December 10, 2012 at 8:04 am

@Joel – No matter what, real men don’t forget about honor. Adapt and survive but keep your honor intact. Just my two cents worth.

66 Michael December 10, 2012 at 11:34 am

I always felt particularly drawn to the line in the movie “Ride with the Devil” where Mr. Evans is speaking to about the war and he said “…they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same free-thinkin’ way they do with no regard to station, custom, propriety. And that is why they will win. Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them. And we shall lose because we don’t care one way or another how they live. We just worry about ourselves. ”
I believe that to be as true now as it was then. It would also explains (US) current foreign policy nicely if you add a dash (or more) of self-interest.

67 Nate December 12, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Isn’t that how honour ended up in decline in the first place? People shrugging off their “traditional” culture in place of more “useful” culture?

(Or, for that matter, how honour probably originated- it was useful)

In truth, I’m concerned about much I will have to adapt in the next few years…

68 Kendrick December 13, 2012 at 8:39 am

As one who’s family has lived here in the same area of Alabama since the early 19th century, my family were farmers and herdsmen in an area that has become very highly populated within the past 50 or 60 years. So when more people began to move in, it pushed many families such as mine to more isolated areas where the code of honor still existed in many ways because there was only county law (that maybe patrolled once every two weeks) in those areas, so most people had to keep to what they had been taught on courage, strength and violence. I’ve begun to realize as I’m 25 years old now, and seeing my past family members and myself who were and still are very aggressive people, that there has been this total cultural “bumping of heads” between northern influence and southern influence here. It’s very much a psychological one at that, where I have things that I was taught that don’t fit the politically correct society that we live in today. Needless to say, as a man who comes from a long line of farmers, herdsmen, bootleggers and self-sufficient men, I’ve highly enjoyed reading this because it helps me to understand why I am the way I am and how this has been passed down through the generations. The only thing is that most of the families that still live like this will probably never even see this article. Very good though.

69 Ghost of 503 December 17, 2012 at 3:06 am

Well I think the Elephant In The Room you mentioned in your original post could prove the groundwork for your next article, the way racial/ethnic minorities have shaped honor in these regional places. For example, black honor as an Exoduster living in the West versus a Freeman. living in the South.

70 Alexander January 16, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Five down two to go.

71 JB January 30, 2013 at 10:05 am

I see one very large glaring issue with the information as presented regarding violent crime. This article specifies white honor in the South since little was known of the honor code of Southern blacks during the time period. However the crime data presented to paint the South as somehow more violent is not broken down by race which is frequently painted as the crux of the argument. The South has a larger black population than any other portion of the US and violent crime among blacks is significantly higher (not just in the South but nationwide). I would suspect that if you removed violent crimes perpetrated by blacks from the figures your argument would not hold water.

72 Rick Black, Sr. November 8, 2013 at 8:18 am

I come from a fractured Southern family and have always wondered where the tradition of Southern Honor came from. Thanks for this very informative article, a great many of my questions have been answered. I was raised with that Code and continue to this day to teach it to my many sons. Now that I have a better grounding in the history, I can better explain it to my progeny. It was a missing piece that is vital to the completeness of who we are and why. At the young age of 42 I became the head of our family due to my Fathers death and there was no other male kin older than me to assume the responsibility of running the family. Our family at one time just consisted of only 5 members. That is why I call it a fractured family. To many died early in their life the generation before mine. At 55 I am in the process of rebuilding the family. This article goes a long way to reestablishing our roots. I now have 4 sons to carry on the name and one is named after me as per Southern tradition. To know who you are, one must know what they are and where they come from. Though my Grandfather on my Father’s side was a Yankee, he was what they called a “copperhead”. A Southern sympathizer. My paternal Grandmother’s family came from an old family in Virginia. But most of them are now also deceased. So I was left with the learnings of her about being a Southerner. My education is now complete about that and it will be passed on to the next generation in a more complete way than it was for me. This Southern Code of Honor also goes a long way to explaining why all the males in my family, those that lived long enough, served in the armed forces, including myself, a “Nam Era” vet.:)

73 Josh S December 10, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Thanks for the article! I have grown up in Northeast Tennessee (home to the Overmountain Men as one reader mentioned.) I have really struggled to find my own identity as a male in this culture as you’ve described where what is right or wrong is discernible by situation and not necessarily by conscience…where you keep your opinions to yourself because it may disrupt the group mentality. My real opinion is that a lot of men here have confused honor for toughness, even though much of this toughness and violence is a front. Like the article mentions there’s honor in taking care of one’s own family and that is deeply misplaced here today.

74 Sarah December 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I am a northern woman who married an incredibly Southern man, by this article’s determination! :) I’m happy to say that my husband fits this description to a T. Very home-land oriented, family focused, and honor-conscious. The description of how the hormone levels changed due to a “random” hallway altercation could’ve been my husband entirely! I’ve always been intrigued by our cultural differences, but this article really does a great job of exploring those intricacies. I find his sense of familial devotion and hometown allegiance both foreign and endearing. I too grew up in a Northern family where leaving one’s home town was not only expected, but encouraged! And just b/c we were related, didn’t mean we were devoted to one another. After several years in the South, I’ve come to appreciate and love this culture, as much as my independent, Stoic Yankee nature can. I’ve often come across as aloof, almost stuck up to people in my Southern circles and that social discrepancy can be quite a hurdle to overcome, but between my husband and I, we have come to appreciate and enjoy each other’s cultural characteristics. And I’m sure this article will help others to do the same. Well, well done!

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