THE CODE OF HONOR

As time went on, the dominant southern conception of the good society diverged more and more sharply from that of the egalitarian, competitive, individualistic North. In the South, for example, both upper- and lower-class whites adhered to a code of personal honor, in which men were expected to defend, with violence if necessary, their own reputation and that of their families. Although dueling was illegal, many prominent southerners took part in duels to avenge supposed insults. In 1826, Henry Clay and John Randolph, two of the most important southern political leaders, fought a duel with pistols after Clay took exception to criticisms by Randolph on the floor of Congress. Fortunately, each missed the other. Twenty years later, however, John H. Pleasants, editor of the Richmond Whig, died in a duel with the son of a rival newspaperman.

A pre-Civil War engraving depicting the paternalist ideal. The old slave in the foreground says, “God Bless you massa! you feed and clothe us,... and when too old to work you provide for us!” The master replies, “These poor creatures are a sacred legacy from my ancestors and while a dollar is left me, nothing shall be spared to increase their comfort and happiness.”

Most southern slaveholders owned fewer than five slaves. The largest plantations were concentrated in coastal South Carolina and along the Mississippi River.

Just as southern men had a heightened sense of their own honor and masculinity, white southern women, even more than in the North, were confined within the “domestic circle.” “A man loves his children,” wrote George Fitzhugh, a Virginia lawyer and author of numerous books and articles on social issues, “because they are weak, helpless, and dependent. He loves his wife for similar reasons.” As will be discussed in the next chapter, many northern women before the Civil War became part of a thriving female culture centered on voluntary religious and reform organizations. Few parallels existed in the South, and plantation mistresses often complained of loneliness and isolation.

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