Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. By Bertram Wyatt-Brown. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Pp. xxi, 595.
Bertram Wyatt-Brown is a confused intellectual. Although born north of the Mason-Dixon Line, his family was southern in its roots. The identity crisis this caused must have plagued him well beyond graduate school at John Hopkins, as he writes this book twenty years later defending Southern honor. Of course Wyatt-Brown does not say slavery was alright in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, but he does attempt to defend the reasoning behind southerners fighting to keep African Americans in chains. He boils it down to one reason, honor. According to the South’s code of honor, Southerners could not lie down and let the Northerners take away their property and their status. Slaves not only symbolized wealth, but they also attributed to their owner’s honor, prestige, and portrayal of outward power. Since Southern society operated on this strength based honor system, it had no choice but to fight to protect itself.
Wyatt-Brown divides his book into three sections. The first examines the “Origins and Definitions” of Southern honor. The author uses literary and historical writings to show the roots and evolution of the Antebellum South’s dependency on honor. Honor was more than prestige and a show of status, it governed society and helped make life more predictable while setting forth standards to live by. Wyatt-Brown writes “since honor gave meaning to lives, it existed not as a myth but a vital code” (114). The author believes two different types of honor contributed to the South’s antebellum code of ethics. The first, primal honor, descended from Indo-European tribalism. This was the code of ethics that supported the strong, valiant, masculine, and worthy protector. According to primal honor, Southerners must stand up to threats against the home; their center of prestige and the focus of their identity. Men must live up to the stereotypes of honor; accomplished through actions, thoughts, and physical prowess. The second type of honor which mingled and altered straight primal honor, was what Wyatt-Brown calls gentility. Gentility, what modern historians often accredit to Southern gentlemen of the antebellum period, allowed for a transformation to an educated and pious class of gentleman. This Southerner showed his honor not only through actions of protection, but also through charity, wisdom, and conviction.
The next section of the book deals with “Family and Gender Behavior. Wyatt-Brown covers male sibling rivalry, raising children, marriage, and family law amongst other subjects of daily life. Although he does not believe that the institution of honor was patriarchal, he asserts that family life definitely relied on male superiority. The family acted as the most important unit of Southern life. Children were disciplined through the use of shaming, and male rites of passage took on more daring and confronting activities than that of Northern men. This section details much about Southern culture, but perhaps could have been published as a set of independent articles to keep the book more focused.
Like most psychohistorians, Wyatt-Brown runs into problems with his work. This becomes especially evident in his final section about “Structures of Rivalry and Social Control.”
Perhaps stretching the honor thesis too far, the author attributes judicial hearings as public displays, not countermeasures to unruliness; while relying on the honor code itself to maintain order. Gambling, get-togethers, and dueling became activities to maintain rank in society, while public mob rule and lynchings acted as mass rituals of shaming to keep certain ranks or blacks in line. Wyatt-Brown insinuates that mob justice served the community more effectively than any court. This extreme dedication to honor at all levels of society allowed Southerners to do the honorable thing when the issue of secession came about. The South felt that honor was at stake, not slavery; not a threat to a particular economic system, but a way of decent life. Wyatt-Brown believes that the primal honor side eclipsed the gentility side, and forced the Southerners to fight rather than pursue an alternative.
Wyatt-Brown delivers an interesting take on Southern Culture. Although sometimes tiring, his theory on Southern honor’s importance and role in governing society adds to the scholarly debate. The book will entertain along with inform its readers, while presenting an interesting look into Southern life during the antebellum period.
Texas Christian University Daniel Vogel
The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s. By Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 304 pp.
The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s, is a somewhat disjointed collection of 12 essays from noted Southern historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown. As he explains in his acknowledgments, the final four essays are new to print whereas the eight preceding ones were previously published, although he did revise seven of those eight before including them in the book. This extensive “reworking” of previously published material is quite fitting for Wyatt-Brown who has spent a lengthy career trying to “rework” virtually every aspect of antebellum Southern history into his pet theory that the region was dominated by a unique culture of “Southern honor.”
That theory was first promulgated by Wyatt-Brown in 1982’s Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, to which The Shaping of Southern Culture “might well be considered a sequel,” focusing on “the political features of the [Southern “honor”] ethic as well as the role of religion in Southern life,” (p. xvi), elements that he neglected in the earlier work. Thus, The Shaping of Southern Culture includes an essay on Revolutionary War rhetoric in which he concludes that “love of honor and fear of shame drew the North and South together in common antipathy toward British overlords,” and that “anger, a sense of insult, and outrage against arbitrary and arrogant behavior [played] a major role” in the Revolution in contrast to “[o]ther scholars who have stressed the role of reasoned republican idealism.” (p. 53.) After the Revolutionary War, Southern honor became increasingly distinct from Northern honor, as Wyatt-Brown strives to illustrate in an essay on Andrew Jackson. Contrary to Jackson’s reputation for egalitarianism, Wyatt-Brown insists that the duel-fighting president did not support democracy for democracy’s sake but rather saw the “popular will” as merely “an instrument of self-vindication” (p. 79) in his heated struggles with political foes.
In a series of essays on Protestantism in the Old South, Wyatt-Brown relates how evangelicalism became increasingly popular in the region but failed to fully supplant the violence-prone ethic of Southern honor with a more genteel vision of Christian charity. Instead, Southern Protestantism tended over time to compromise its values with those of the prevailing culture of honor. As Wyatt-Brown notes, despite being dedicated to “the higher criteria of Christian conduct, clergy and pious laymen [became] part of the social regime that upheld the regional conventions and mores.” (p. 84.) Obviously, those “conventions and mores” included the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and Wyatt-Brown expertly details the various approaches that Southern clergymen took in supporting that system as well as their varying attitudes towards secession before Fort Sumter.
In five concluding essays on the Civil War and its aftermath, Wyatt-Brown begins with the supposition that while slavery “prompted the sectional crisis” it was “Southern honor that pulled the trigger.” (p. 178.) And yet, Wyatt-Brown admits towards that end of his work that “defense of self-esteem seemed to dictate the decision for Southern secession and, in reaction, for Northern determination to restore the Union by armed force.” (p. 298.) Hence, it appears that both sides were motivated by honor. And yet, what made Southern honor different than Northern honor?
The closest Wyatt-Brown comes to answering that $64,000.00 question is when he contrasts Northern notions of “duty” with Southern ones: “Northern duty implied patriotism, loyalty to the Constitution, law and order, defense of the Union, and later the advancement of human freedom,” whereas “[Southern] duty instead meant self-sacrifice to family, community, race, and region against outside forces of evil and ruin.” (p. 214.)
The word “race” in that formulation of Southern duty cannot be ignored. Indeed, though Wyatt-Brown repeatedly emphasizes the importance of Southern honor in his book, the reader is more likely to be impressed with the inextricable link between such honor and the preservation of white supremacy. As Wyatt-Brown puts it himself: “[W]hite liberty was sustainable . . . only on the basis of black slavery. Black freedom, on the other hand, necessarily meant white disgrace.” (p. 200.) Thus, when Wyatt-Brown claims that Southern honor, which had been shamed by the Confederacy’s defeat, was “redeemed” later in the 19th Century by widespread lynchings of blacks which served to “return the local community to its unblemished state of racial order,” (p. 284), he appears to be missing the racial forest for trees of “honor.”
Stylistically, Wyatt-Brown’s writing is too stilted to attract anything but an academic audience. Moreover, the book is poorly edited; not only are there several typographical errors but Confederate General Martin W. Gary is actually referred to at one point as “Gary Martin.” (p. 277.)
In sum, there is much interesting factual material in The Shaping of Southern Culture but Wyatt-Brown’s thesis of the primacy of Southern honor remains questionable.
Born in Pennsylvania to parents native to Alabama, Bertram Wyatt-Brown grew up with a dichotomous regional identity. His parents romanticized their Southern upbringing while dismissing the uglier aspects of traditional Southern ideology. Their son Bertram graduated from the University of the South before earning a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University where he studied under the distinguished historian, C. Vann Woodward. Wyatt-Brown served as the James Pinckney Harrison Professor at the College of William and Mary and as the Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History University of Florida while authoring Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family, The Literary Percys, Lewis Tappan and the War against Slavery, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition, and co-editing Virginia's Civil War. His first work, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South explores the paradoxical notions of honor that governed Southern society, business, government and familial relations. Wyatt-Bertram’s interest in the roles honor, shame and humiliation play in a regional society presently transfer into his concern for global situations; the historian serves on the board of the Center for Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a group interested in utilizing their collective talents and resources to diminish humiliating practices around the world.
Wyatt-Brown’s anomalous upbringing uniquely prepared him for the task of examining honor in the context of the antebellum South. He boldly states that “if honor meant nothing to [Southern] men and women, if they had been able to separate it from slavery, there would have been no Civil War” (xii). In order to prove this point, Wyatt-Brown relies on literary sources, court records, letters, divorce petitions, civil and criminal codes as well as newspaper reports. He defines honor as “essentially the cluster of ethical rules, most readily found in societies of small communities, by which judgments of behavior are ratified by community consensus” dictated entirely by “white people’s notions of right action” (xv, xvi). The author traces Southern notations of honor to the white population’s Germanic and Celtic roots, resulting in two co-existing ethical strands: the pagan Indo-European and the Stoic-Christian consciences. They culminated into a belief system that valued valor, revenge, physical appearance, a defense of male integrity, and a reliance on oath taking all contingent on the opinions of others within the parameters of a patriarchal society. He contrasts Southern and Northern practices, particularly emphasizing differing ideas of violence and childrearing between the Southern planting class and Northern Quaker communities. Southern gentility, he claims, split between two groups of elites, as evidenced by men like John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and later Robert E. Lee, whom he terms “Christian gentility” in contrast with the larger proportion of the elite class, which valued “moral uprightness” less than the aforementioned Southerners (88). Like their Germanic and Celtic predecessors, Southern men, largely supported by Southern women, engaged in violence as a means of maintaining community order. Gentlemen may engage in vices frowned upon by their Northern neighbors, such as gambling, adultery, miscegenation, or blood sports, but could not allow their practices to infringe on social mores. For instance, gentlemen could gamble but not at the sacrifice of their fortunes nor could they become professional gamesters.
The weakest section lies within his examination of gender roles and community expectations regarding the fulfillment those duties, largely due to the lack of resources that explicitly expound on or even mention gender mores or deviances from those standards. He discovers that courts granted more divorces to men than to women, even when the wives suffered domestic abuse or infidelity. Wyatt-Brown quickly attributes the courts’ favoritism towards men as pat of the governance of Southern honor, rather than explore the nuances of economic or societal influence on the magistrates. Wyatt-Brown mentions, but fails to explain fully, the contrasting lifestyles of the Christian gentility and their less-religious peers, leaving a reader to speculate as to the degree of the Christian gentility’s adherence to Wyatt-Brown’s definition of Southern honor.
Despite these small oversights, Southern Honor introduces a convincing depiction of Southern society. Wyatt-Brown’s analysis of both Southern and Northern novelists, such as Nathanial Hawthorne and William Faulkner, demonstrate the largely accepted notions of honor. He supports his arguments with diary entries and letters, revealing vast and thorough research. The author’s presentation of Southern society offers a detailed examination for historians interested in both the antebellum South and the American Civil War.
Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. By Bertram Wyatt-Brown. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, c. 1982. Pp. xxi, 595.)
Bertram Wyatt Brown received a Ph.D. in 1963 from Johns Hopkins and is a professor of history at the University of Florida. In Southern Honor he suggested that the South’s unique code of honor was the keystone of its slaveholding ethics. Many matters separated the North and South but the crucial difference lay in their division over matters of ethics. Wyatt-Brown believed that it would have been possible for the North and South to coexist with differing economic systems but argued that the regional divergence of moral assumptions was irresolvable and directly led to the Civil War.
Southern Honor was divided into three parts and included endnotes and an index while lacking a bibliography. The first section, “Origins and Definitions,” dealt with the development of moral direction based on the sovereignty of community. The community was the prime force in defining and distributing a code of honor that it enforced quite strictly, a point Wyatt-Brown illustrated by a literary analogy from Nathaniel Hawthorne. Three components made up the Southern concept of honor: a sense of self-worth, a public claim of that self-assessment, and an evaluation by the community of that claim based on behavior. The concepts of honor and slavery became not only compatible but indistinguishable, a characteristic difficult for the North to understand. One expression of that idea was the argument that slavery engendered a kind of honor for master, allowing them to accumulate wealth without having to dirty their own hands, to become gentlemanly planters who where not debased by their own toil and sweat.
Southern honor developed from two sources, the Indo-European tradition of chivalry and personal bravery called primal honor and the Stoic-Christian tradition of gentility that became the more familiar influence. The two were not separate or contradictory but complementary in that gentility mixed with primal honor to produce a the five elements of a higher moral system that included honor as valor, especially in response to insults; reliance on the opinion of others as a gauge of self-worth; physical appearance as a sign of inner merit (involved size and dress); defense of male integrity; and reliance on oath-taking as a bond. While general definitions of honor and conduct applied to all Southern classes, the higher classes were defined, in part, by a more refined form of gentility composed of sociability, learning (especially the classics), and piety. Wyatt-Brown believed that Robert E. Lee personified that higher order and stated that we would not meet “others of his stature or moral bearing.” (105)
The second section, “Family and Gender Behavior,” examined nineteenth-century accretions of humanitarian and Christian gentility to the development of distinctive Southern ethics. Discussions of courtship, marriage, and child-rearing found significant differences between Southern and Northern practices, including the interesting observation that Southern marriages had a higher percentage of unions between first and second cousins. In addition, Northerners reared their children using conscience building methods while Southerners used shame and to pass on ideals of hierarchy and honor, which they learned to value as much as God, if not more so. Northern youths experienced the passage into adolescence through commercial or religious venues but puberty for Southern teenagers involved a social transition into the world of manly endeavors, such as fighting, swearing, gambling, horse racing, drinking, and wenching.
In the final section, “Structures of Rivalry and Social Control,” Wyatt-Brown returned to his focus on the community by examining community standards as a limitation on individuals and their families and the extent to which deviance from norms were allowed. Informal but strict standards governed the duties of a host, gambling, and rituals of combat, especially dueling while the Southern criminal justice system established the formal controls of community standards. The ultimate expression of community will, extralegal activities like vigilantism, lynching, and charivaris, were community controls used most often to prevent or punish slave insurrections. Overall, the point to recognize was that the tyranny of the community governed Southern society. The willingness to accept these and other dark aspects of their code of honor was a cultural pattern that existed despite the preference of Southerners to showcase the softer side of their ethics. The truth was that primal honor often swept gentility either aside or into its the service, dragging Southern elites along with the tides of the masses obsessed with an incident of honor. The most dramatic example of that was couching the cry for secession in terms of honor, thereby forcing Southern elites to acquiesce rather than argue for calmer reactions. No honorable Southerner, especially a member of the higher classes, could refuse to support secession once it was identified as an issue of honor.
Wyatt-Brown’s study was worthwhile and significant but flawed. Reviewers,
such as J. Mills Thornton in the American Historical Review, suggested
that his conclusions did not flow from his evidence, that he failed to
establish the uniqueness of Southern conduct in that the attributes he
assigned solely to the South existed throughout the nation. Another failing
was that the effort fell apart because Wyatt-Brown strayed too far from
his central idea of the importance of honor. The title, introduction, and
the first section established a thesis centered on Southern honor as the
defining characteristic of Southern life and critical to the divisions
that eventually led to the Civil War. Section Two took off in an examination
of family relationships, male youth and honor, careers, strategies of courtship,
marriage, and child-rearing, women’s place in the man’s world, property,
status, sexual misconduct and law. Many of those sections made for fascinating
reading but their remoteness from the issue of honor detracted from both
the book’s effectiveness and efficiency. Wyatt-Brown mentioned plans for
other volumes covering related subjects, an intention he would have been
well-served to use in defining the parameters of this study.
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