From colonial times, most southern white males prided themselves on adhering to a moral code centered on a prickly sense of honor. It was honor, writes historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown, that provided "the psychological and social underpinning of Southern culture." Such a preoccupation with honor was common among Germanic and Celtic peoples. (Scottish, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Cornish, and Welsh) from whom most white southerners were descended. It flourished in hierarchical rural societies where face-to-face relations governed social manners.

The dominant ethical code for the southern white elite derived from Protestant religion, classical philosophy, and medieval chivalry, and it depended upon a rigidly hierarchical social system, where one's status was defined by those above and below. Its elements included a combative sensitivity to slights; loyalty to family, locality, state, and region; deference to elders and social "betters"; and an almost theatrical hospitality. It manifested itself in a fierce defense of female purity, a propensity to magnify personal insults into capital offense, and in public statements such as the following toast proposed by a South Carolina corrupt: "The Palmetto State: Her sons bold and chivalrous in war, mild and persuasive in peace, their spirits flushed with resentment for wrong.

Southern white women played an important role in the culture of honor. Indeed, they were the object of masculine chivalry and the subjects of male rule. The mythic southern "lady" was placed on a pedestal celebrating domestic devotion. While men cultivated and defended their honor, women paraded and protected their virtue. The southern lady presided over the morals and manners of the household – while submitting to patriarchal authority. She willingly subordinated her own individuality in order to serve her husband and their children. A southern lady, according to the prevailing standard, was to remain sexually pure, spiritually pious, and domestically submissive—all the while she managed the household.

Many women embraced this exalted, yet sacrificial mythology and its attendant duties. "We owe it to our husbands, children, and friends," wrote Louisiana's Caroline Merrick (who married at age fifteen!), "to represent as nearly as possible the ideal which they hold so dear." According to the prevailing ideology of womanhood, southern ladies reinforced exaggerated gallantry and martial honor in their men. When young Sam Houston joined the army to fight in the War of 1812, his mother handed him the family 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." She then gave him a ring with the word "Honor" inscribed on it. Almost fifty years later, as war broke out between North and South, an Alabama belle broke her engagement because her fiancé refused to enlist in the Confederate army before their wedding. She then sent him a skirt and female undergarments, admonishing him, "Wear these or volunteer."

The preoccupation of southern white men with a sense of honor steeped in violence found outlets in several popular rituals. Like their Scotch-Irish and English ancestors, white southerners loved to hunt, ride, and to gamble—over cards, dice, horse racing, and cockfighting. All such activities provided arenas for masculine camaraderie as well as competition. To engage in such competitive events constituted a rite of passage of sorts for young southern males. In some respects southern society itself revolved around such public recreation. During horse race week in Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, courts, schools, and shops shut down so as to enable all to participate. Some viewed gambling on such sports as more reputable than other economic exchanges. As the South Carolina gentlemen-philosopher, William Grayson, declared, "A gambling debt is a debt of honor, but a debt due a tradesman is not."

Southern men of all social lasses were preoccupied with an often reckless manliness . As a northern traveler observed, "the central trait of the ‘chivalrous southerner' is an intense respect for virility." The duel constituted the ultimate public expression of personal honor and manly courage. Although not confined to the South, dueling was much more common there than in the rest of the young nation, a fact that gave rise to the observation that southerners will be polite until they are angry enough to kill you. Dueling was outlawed in the northern states after Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and a number of southern states and countries banned the practice as well—but the prohibition was rarely enforced.

Amid the fiery debates over nullification, abolitionism, or the fate of slaver in the territories during the antebellum era, clashing political opinions often provoked duels. In Virginia, a state senator and a state representative killed each other in a duel. Many of the most prominent southern leaders engaged in duels—congressman, senators, governors, editors, and planters. The roster of participants included Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, Jefferson David, William Crawford, John Randolph, and Albert Sidney Johnston.

Southerners were easily provoked. A traveler to the region explained that the "smallest breach of courtesy, no matter how unintentional; the slightest suggestion of unfairness in a business deal; even a moment's awkwardness—were sufficient grounds for a challenge." Yet the ready prospect of mortal combat, the advocates of dueling argued, encouraged gentlemen to exercise greater care in their use of language and in their relations with others. A dueling society, southerners assumed in the early nineteenth century, was a more polite—and honorable—society.

Personal honor sometimes took precedence over personal survival, as in the 1826 duel between the Secretary of State Henry Clay and Congressman John Randolph of Virginia. Their feud grew out of disagreements over American foreign policy. The night before the duel, Randolph, an eccentric, lifelong bachelor, resolved "to receive without returning Clay's fire; nothing shall induce me to harm a hair of his head. I will not make his wife a widow, or his children orphans. Their tears would b e shed over his grave, but when the sod of Virginia rests on my bosom there is not in this wide world one individual to pay his tribute upon me."

True to his word, Randolph fired into a stump behind Clay, while Clay's shot missed as well. Clay asked for a second round. His next shot pierced the coat Randolph was wearing. Randolph then fired into the air and violated the "no-talking rule" by declaring "I will not fire at you, Mr. Clay. You owe me a coat." Clay reportedly replied, "I am glad the debt is no more." They then shook hands and their quarrel ended.

An elaborate series of strict rules and procedures governed duels. Only gentlemen, not laborers, mechanics, or blacks, were eligible to use pistols on the field of honor. Gentlemen were presumed to be planters, military offices, or professors. The status of ministers, news-paper editors, physicians, and bankers was less certain. Whatever the case, people of the "lesser sort" were denied access to the dueling field; they were to be dealt with by caning or horsewhipping.

So many duels and deaths occurred in the South that "anti-dueling societies" emerged to lobby against the social ritual. Most states outlawed the practice, but to little avail. As a grand jury in Savannah, Georgia, noted 1819, "the frequent violations of the law to prevent dueling have made the practice fashionable and almost meritorious among its chivalrous advocates." Judges were reluctant to punish their fellow "gentlemen" for upholding their honor. In many cases, duelists simply agreed to stage their contest in an adjoining state. It was not until after the Civil War that dueling fell into widespread disgrace and began a rapid decline. Humorist Mark Twain deserves the last word: "I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him."

Sources:
The Shaping of the Southern Culture by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

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