White women played crucial roles in a society based on honor. A man who blustered his way into a duel might win honor among his male compatriots, but women would decide the full meaning of that honor. It was often women who decided the boundaries of who was and was not admitted to proper society, who determined whether a man’s wife and family belonged. Many women refused to marry men who could not or would not defend their honor; no woman wanted to share in a dishonored name. And women’s chastity and behavior played a crucial role in maintaining a family’s honor, no matter how that honor had been won and no matter what class that family occupied.
Northern culture reviled Southern honor. “About certain silly abstractions that no practical businessman ever allows to occupy his time or attention they are eternally wrangling, and thus it is that rencounters, duels, homicides, and other demonstrations of violence have become so popular in all slaveholding communities,” writes one 1850’s observer. Puritan influenced Northern culture celebrated “dignity,” the belief that every white man at birth possesses an intrinsic value at least theoretically equal. Men were expected to shrug off insults that a man of the South was expected to resent. Restraint was valued over display. It was inward- rather than outward-looking. Dignity was more appropriate to a culture built on business, a culture centered around character, self-control, discipline, and delayed gratification.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Some Observations on Honor
The following observations are from Edward L. Ayers' article, "Legacy of Violence," which appeared in American Heritage in 1991: