Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. Oxford University Press, 1982.
By Lynda Morgan
Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, pp. 22-24
In his History of the Southern Confederacy, published in 1954, Clement Eaton noted that students of the American South needed to pay more attention to “Southern honor” and its role in the secession movement, although he was careful to add that the real issue concerned the safety of slavery. Twenty-eight years later, Bertram Wyatt-Brown has provided the first important assessment of the problem Eaton recognized. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, the first volume of a projected trilogy, is an elaborate and expansively documented study which explores the functional aspects of honor, here described as the sine qua non of the wealthiest and most powerful slave society in the New World. This culture of honor was a lily-white and largely classless ethic that fueled secession and had little or nothing to do with the institution of slavery. “I have not placed slavery at the center of Southern concern,” Wyatt-Brown explains. “White Southerners seldom forgot the presence of blacks; nevertheless, what mattered most to them was the interchanges of whites among themselves.” As an idea virtually imbued with a life of its own, honor “existed before, during and after slavery . . . The South was not founded to create slavery: slavery was recruited to perpetuate the South. Honor came first” and existed distinctly “apart from a particular system of labor, a special region of the country, and a specific time in history.”
It is difficult to understand how a notion like honor, foreign to or at least defined differently by those of us living in the late twentieth century, could hold so much power over 7i~eil and events. What exactly was honor? For nineteenth-century white Southerners it defined a system of ethical principles virtually synonymous with reputation; it was the culprit behind the South’s high incidence of violence; and it generally excluded women, children, and slaves from its exactions. Honor, which is also to say personal worth, was conferred or besmirched by other members of the community; it was entirely external in origin and application. If a man were held dishonorable, he remained so until he had proven otherwise, usually through some form of physical violence. Personal worth came not from within, as increasingly it did among nineteenth-century Northerners (and as it later would for Southerners), but from without: you had only as much honor as others said you had. These tenets applied to individuals, families, communities, and eventually, the entire region, insofar as these terms describe white male society. It was an “ancient ethic,” “the cement that held regional culture together,” a precept that arrived in the South partly via the cultural baggage of the unruly Scots and Scots-Irish, who enjoyed a preponderance among immigrants to the Old South. And it caused civil war. “The inhabitant of the Old South was not inspired to she
his own or another’s blood for the right to own slaves,” says Wyatt-Brown. “Ever since man first picked up a stone to fling at an enemy, he has justified his thirst for revenge and for public approval on the grounds of honor.”
These are sweeping claims. While we are indebted to Wyatt-Brown for a provocative new approach to the Southern past and to a topic long neglected, Southern Honor contains errors of conceptualization and credits the cultural and ideological precept of honor with vastly more importance than it merits. The relegation of slavery to obscurity is the worst fault and the one which will be most fully discussed here. But the inability to integrate cultural concepts into the wider social, political, and economic context, the unfortunate tendency towards ethnocultural determinism, and the inattention paid to how societies change over time–inattention, that is, to the very stuff of history–are other problems that mar the book throughout.
Disregard for some of the most important historiographical insights of the last three decades bespeaks a certain indiscretion. Remarkable for their absence in Southern Honor are the findings of two of the most eminent Southern historians of our time, C. Vann Woodward, of whom Wyatt-Brown was once a student, and Eugene D. Genovese. Two major and widely accepted themes emerged from their most influential works, Origins of the New South 1877-1918 (1951), and Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972), respectively. Origins emphasized the discontinuities rather than the continuities of Southern history; stressed socioeconomic and political as well as ideological conflicts; and rejected the then prevalent consensus approach which envisioned a homogenous white South, an approach perhaps best illustrated in the writings of U.B. Phillips. Genovese’s classic Roll, Jordan, Roll carefully detailed antebellum slavery from the slaves’ perspective and painstakingly delineated what is now a commonplace in Southern history that is ignored at considerable peril: “Masters and slaves shaped each other and cannot be discussed or analyzed in isolation.” Woodward too had underscored this point in 1964 in the preface to a book of essays entitled American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue, when he said:
The ironic thing about these two great hyphenate minorities, Southern-Americans and Afro-Americans, confronting each other on their native soil for three and a half centuries, is the degree to which they have shaped each other’s destiny, determined each other’s isolation, shared and molded a common culture. It is, in fact, impossible to imagine the one without the other and quite futile to try.
This is precisely the error that Southern Honor makes–it describes white Southerners without regard for the impact of Afro-Americans on their lives and their culture, if whites can be said to have had a “separate” culture. For even if it were true that intraracial exchanges assumed priority with antebellum white Southerners, the fact is that slaves fundamentally influenced every aspect of white society, especially honor. Indeed, the very fact that honor in its American incarnation lasted longest in the slaveholding South
indicates that slavery played no small part in the development and character of that ethic.
The dynamics of this master-slave dialectic as they applied to honor need to be more fully explained. Even on the rare occasion when Southern Honor discusses master-slave relationships, the interaction tends to proceed from master to slave, rather than between master and slave. Wyatt-Brown claims. for example, that honor required “the unfeigned will ingress of slaves to bestow honor on all whites . . . if slaves merely pretended to offer respect, the essence of honor would be dissolved; only the appearance, shabby and suspect, would remain.” But a slave’s willingness to bestow respect was typically an insincere appearance, though a sophisticated rather than a shabby one. As a survival technique, the facade of obedience ironically provided slaves with the very sense of inner personal worth that was so illusory to slaveholders themselves, and which they could do nothing to destroy in their slaves–if indeed masters were even aware of it. These attitudes, far from dissolving honor, affected it profoundly and, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, made honor “a vast and awful thing.” No matter how much whites would have liked to believe it, slaves were hardly social ciphers. As Genovese so aptly noted, slaveholders “wallowed in those deformities which their slaves had thrust upon them in the revenge of historical silence–deformities which would eventually lead to their destruction as a class.”
Although Wyatt-Brown insists that honor existed strictly apart from socioeconomic factors and untouched by time and place, Southern Honor is hardly persuasive on this point. Honor may have been an ancient ethic, but in different societies and at different times it expressed itself in different ways. Neither honor in the Mediterranean nor “primal” honor were the same as Southern honor. In the American case it would seem that the nineteenth-century move to industrial capitalism, a change which was accompanied by the end of slavery and the advent of new forms of social and productive relationships, would have had an immense impact on cultures North and South. Wyatt-Brown does hint that change occurred: honor is clearly in decline in the North by the early nineteenth century, though why and what replaces it are unclear. Honor also eventually departs the South, and its decline dated from the Jeffersonian era and was linked to the rise of Southern evangelicalism. Since Wyatt-Brown promises to address honor’s demise in a subsequent volume, it is unfair to fault him for his brief treatment of it here. Hopefully his later works will take these questions into fuller consideration.
In writing Southern Honor, Wyatt-Brown has performed yeoman service. This initial foray into an important and hitherto unstudied realm of Southern history has brought us to a fuller understanding of what life in the Old South was like. His description of honor, more anthropological than historical, sheds light on another antebellum Southern culture, perhaps better described as a sub-culture. Yet the book has left many questions unanswered: questions of time and place, of class and race and of the changing socioeconomic environment and its impact on culture. In short, there is more to Southern honor than Wyatt-Brown is telling us.