Honor in the Old South

Honor was so vital to the Southern way of life because it structured, supported, validated, and affirmed the institutions that were peculiar to Southern life: racial bondage, social and racial hierarchy, and a patriarchal system.  Furthermore, these institutions reinforced each other, reciprocated honor and assured the perpetual success of the system.

Slavery is practically synonymous to the antebellum South.  However, many do not realize that it was inevitable that slavery and honor be intimately and inexorably tied to each other.  Although honor could survive without slavery, slavery could not survive without honor.  As Wyatt-Brown makes clear in Honor and Violence in the Old South, “not all honor societies were slaveholding. Yet no slaveholding culture could casually set aside the strictures of honor.  The very debasement of the slave added much to the master’s honor…” (Wyatt Brown ix)  By subjugating blacks, whites were able to assert dominance and power, reinforcing masculine values and the patriarchal social order that permeated throughout the South.  The very nature of slavery assumes that those who are free are in power and are superior to those who are being oppressed. Therefore, slavery supported the system of hierarchy that extended from the southern elites to the yeoman to the lowliest slave. Wyatt makes note of this saying, “since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement, defense of family blood and community needs.  All of these exigencies required the rejection of the lowly, alien, and the shamed.  Such unhappy creatures belonged outside the circle of honor.  Fate so had decreed.” (Wyatt-Brown 4)  In essence, the institutions peculiar to the Old South (slavery, social/racial hierarchies, and male dominance) had a symbiotic relationship with the other.  They supported and reinforced each other, cemented together with notions of honor, so that challenging any particular one meant challenging them all.  The strength of the system was found within its unity and the fact that it was inexorably and inseparably tied into all faucets of southern life gave it incredible power and legitimacy.