Honor, Violence, and Civilization

jm-hill-lrg(I wrote and published this article in the mid-1990s.)

As further evidence that academics frequently miss the obvious one need look no further than the 1996 study by two mid-western psychologists on the proclivity of white Southern males to resort to violence when their honor is challenged. The latest clap-trap from the pointy-head class is enough to underwhelm Southerners who have long known that good ole’ boys like to get into a scuffle now and again over questions of propriety and good manners.

Psychologists Richard Nisbett (University of Michigan) and Dov Cohen (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) conducted a series of, it would seem, rather risky experiments with their collegiate charges and concluded from them that insulting a non-Hispanic white man from the South can be downright dangerous. The professors’ toil has led them to posit that white Southern boys, when insulted or threatened, tend to experience a testosterone surge normally absent in their gentler northern brethren. The unleashing of this most politically-incorrect hormone accounts for the South’s much-maligned “culture of honor.”

Neither Nisbett nor Cohen claims to impugn white Southern manhood, and most of us indeed greet the results of their study with a good deal of prideful chest-beating. Years ago, in my dissipated youth, when I dabbled at being a Southern rocker in the days of the original Allman Brothers Band, Lynard Skynard, and the Marshall Tucker Band, a female groupie (I suppose there are other varieties on today’s music scene) said she liked Southerners best because they were still “real men.” What she meant was that, unlike the long-haired, hippie peaceniks from Boston, New York, and San Francisco, Southern musicians and other assorted rowdies had not offered their testicles on the altar of an emoting feminism that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s. As reflected in many of their songs–both rock and country–raucous and hard-drinkin’ Southern boys tickled the distaff fancy by frequently engaging in knock-down, drag-out barroom brawls over the slightest affront to Momma, Old Spot, Sweet Thang, or some other loved one. To the average, red-blooded woman-child, such a manifestation of high-testosterone bravado more often than not proved sexually alluring, all but assuring the cultural/biological continuation of this trait.

Never one to defend (or understand) the ways of the South, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh intoned shortly after the publication of the study that Southern men should take Nisbett’s and Cohen’s study as an insult to their civility. Of course Limbaugh the Political had a solution ready at hand: vote for Bob Dole and y’all won’t have to endure such abuse any longer. Moments later, a caller who identified himself as a resident of the “first capital of the Confederacy,” informed Limbaugh that the revelations about white Southern males was not news in his neck of the woods, and that it was a good thing that at least one group of American men still had their anatomy intact after several decades of government-imposed feminization. Limbaugh agreed, but both host and caller excluded Bill Clinton from this category, of course. I suppose we’ll have to await final confirmation from Paula Jones’s testimony, however.

What indeed should we Southrons make of this study? There are, after all, some not-so-obvious implications at work here. Twenty years ago, my academic mentors at The University of Alabama, historians Forrest McDonald and Grady McWhiney, began looking seriously into the Celtic (Scottish, Irish, and Welsh) influence on Southern culture. As Southerners themselves, McDonald and McWhiney knew that most crackers claimed to be at least partly Celtic, and that the Celts were products of a martial society in which men of action were held in high regard. In one sense, these historians did not tell Southerners of Celtic descent anything they did not already know: that they were a people prone to commit violent acts over questions of honor and repute. What they did was provide a proper historical understanding of why this cultural trait is so prevalent in Dixie. Professors McDonald and McWhiney advanced their “Celtic thesis” with understandable regional pride. It gave Southern crackers and rednecks (the only group that can still be insulted with impunity in polite company) a wider historical identity and made them proud to be descended from a fierce and independent people. In doing so, it suggested to them that their “culture of honor” was nothing to be ashamed of.

I seriously doubt that Nisbett and Cohen intended their study to contribute to the self-esteem of Southern Celts. But perhaps there is more here than Yankee cracker-bashing. Noting that a white Alabama boy is more likely to shoot someone over an affaire d’ honneur than is someone from Massachusetts (I’m reminded here of candidate Michael Dukakis’ craven response to a hypothetical question about what he might do to avenge his wife’s rape), they seem to suggest that it is somehow unwise to permit Southerners to exercise their rights under the 2nd Amendment. Now, it’s all right with me if the gentlefolk from New England and elsewhere above Mason and Dixon’s line wish to perceive us as gun-totin’ cowboys. Perhaps this will stem the influx of snowbirds (distinguishable by sandals over black socks), yuppies, and Yankee socialist professors.

But at its core this study reeks of feminist propaganda in that much is made of the bugaboo testosterone. Convince enough females that they are really “equal” with males in all respects, and convince enough males that their traditional role as protector is biologically aberrant, and you have created social chaos and revolution. In the New World Order of Perfect Gender Equity lies the justification for the ostracization or extermination of this type of biological anomaly. No testosterone, no males, no violence, no spouse and child abuse, no rape, no war–the complete triumph of the feminist vision.

As the last of a dying breed of men, Southerners should wear the “culture of honor” mantle proudly. Men who allow their families, friends, and society to be dishonored without so much as a harsh word in response don’t deserve to be called men, much less civilized men. While Yankees and Englishmen might rightly ignore insults against Abe Lincoln and the Queen, respectively, Southerners and their Celtic cousins should not be expected to react so passively to unkind words about Jefferson Davis or Robert the Bruce.

The South has historically been home to gentlemen who took affronts to their honor seriously and who understood that the manly arts of self-defense were necessary components of civilization. Since the South was the most extensive frontier in antebellum America, the dexterous use of weapons was of peculiar importance there. If a young man wished to survive past his teen years, he had to devote a considerable amount of practice to the use of fists, blade, and gun.

Three Southerners come to mind as archetypes of the frontier culture–John Smith (whom Thomas Fleming has called “the first American”), Andrew Jackson, and James (Jim) Bowie. Smith (c. 1580-1631) made his mark as a soldier and adventurer, leaving his home in Willoughby, England, at age 15 to seek his fortune. He spent a good deal of time living alone in the wilderness in primitive conditions to strengthen his body, intellect, and self-reliance, all the time longing for the sea and dreaming of “doings with the sword.” In 1599, aged 19, he volunteered for service in the Dutch wars, and his mettle as a man was tested straight away. On the voyage to the continent Smith had his possessions stolen by a party of four cunning French rogues, who made away with them while the ship was in port. Smith determined to hunt them down and had the great good fortune of finally meeting up with the leader of the pack of thieves in Brittany. He drew his sword and without a word engaged his adversary in single combat. Severely wounded, the thief confessed, though Smith’s possessions were long gone by that time. However, the young Englishman had shown himself a man of courage and honor.

After serving as a mercenary in the Netherlands, Smith took up arms in the service of the Hapsburgs in their struggle against the Turks in the Balkans in 1601, and it was in this Christian-Muslim conflict that he established his credentials as a first-rate soldier. Just 21 years of age, Smith arrived in this bloody marchland at a time when the fortunes of war were running against the forces of Christendom. But he made his presence know immediately, devising an ingenious plan for the capture of the Turkish-held fortress of Alba Regalis in Hungary. By bombarding the stronghold with “fiery dragons”–earthen vessels filled with powder and shot and covered with pitch–such an alarm was caused among the defenders that they sallied forth from their cover to be massacred by a Christian counterattack, which carried the city walls. Barring Smith’s daring plan, the fortress would not have been taken except by a long and laborious siege. As the Christians celebrated their victory, Smith noted: “the lamentable noise of the miserable slaughtered Turks was most wonderful to hear.”

But it was at the siege of Regall, another Turkish-occupied redoubt in Hungary, where Smith exhibited the marks of a true warrior. The Turks were confident that they could hold out indefinitely and, consequently that became haughty and over-confident. The leader of the garrison, Lord Turbishaw, challenged the Christian camp to put forth its best fighter to engage with him in single combat; it was John Smith who won the honor. In his Life of Captain John Smith, William Gilmore Simms gives the following account of Smith’s victory:

So admirably true was the aim, so firm the nerves of the Christian
champion, and so well-trained his steed, that the lance of Smith penetrated the beaver of the Turk, and passing through his eye into the brain, he fell dead to the ground at the first thrust, without so much as grazing the person of his conqueror. Smith leapt to the ground, unbraced the helmet of his enemy, and finding him lifeless, smote off his head, which he bore away in triumph to the Christian host.

Before his exploits at Regall were finished, Smith had met and defeated two more Turks in single combat: Turbishaw’s personal friend, Grualgo, and Bonny Mulgro. As with the first victim, Smith also took the heads of his last two foes as trophies of war. As a reward for his exploits, Smith was presented a patent of nobility by the Prince of Transylvania and thus was entitled to a coat of arms which bore three Turks’ head in a shield with the motto Vincere est Vivere (“To conquer is to live”).

The John Smith who appears in American history books (and in stupid Disney animated films like Pocahontas) is rarely presented in light of his accomplishments and travails (primarily as a slave of the Turks) before he set foot in the Virginia colony. His military career indeed had prepared him well for the vagaries of the American wilderness, and where lesser men failed, Smith’s toughness and determination helped assure that the English settlement in Virginia would succeed. When he arrived in North America, he had already seen and done more than any of his companions.

Smith virtually single-handidly saved the Virginia colony from extinction by instituting an iron discipline among the laggard settlers (many of whom had wasted precious energy and resources in a vain search for a northern version of El Dorado) and by instilling fear into the hostile Indian tribes in the vicinity of Jamestown. He browbeat and threatened Powhatan until the chief and his subordinates begged for peace with the colonists. One example will suffice to show that Smith had not forgotten the lesson learned against Turbishaw and his comrades at the Transylvanian redoubt of Regall. When Powhatan’s half-brother Opechancanough surrounded Smith’s small party of Englishmen, the fiery captain challenged him to single combat. The chief, aware of Smith’s prowess against the Turk, declined. Undeterred, Smith seized him by the hair, shoved a pistol to his chest, and paraded him among his astonished followers with a warning to them all: “If you shoot but one arrow to shed but one drop of blood of any of my men . . . I will not cease revenge (if once I begin) so long as I can hear where to find one of your nation.” So bewildered were the natives that they attributed Smith’s bravado to the supernatural. Could a mere mortal be so terrible a foe? Needless to say, John Smith was a terror to his enemies, and Powhatan and his allies, like the Turks before them, learned this lesson the hard way.

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), born of Scotch-Irish parents in the South Carolina backcountry, was a product of his frontier heritage. He fought and was captured in the American War for Independence and thereafter settled in Tennessee to become a backwoods lawyer. However, Jackson was more interested in horse-racing, cock-fighting, gambling, and dueling that in studying law. Among his one hundred or so “fight or violent and abusive quarrels” was a famous duel with Charles Dickinson, who had angered “Old Hickory” by making untoward remarks about his wife Rachel. The two men met at only eight paces and Dickinson’s first shot hit Jackson’s right shoulder. He tried to return fire, but his dueling pistol misfired. Calmly, the bleeding Jackson reloaded, fired, and hit his adversary squarely between the eyes. As historian Grady McWhiney writes, “Jackson recovered to become judge, general, and President–and to fight more duels.”

Though Jackson is famous for his many duels, he is better known as the tenacious general who led what amounted to a Southern militia on rigorous campaigns against the British at New Orleans, the Creek Indians in Alabama, and the Spanish in Florida. His buckskinned backwoodsmen were expert marksmen with their famous “squirrel guns,” which destroyed the ranks of General Edward Packenham’s redcoats from behind the mud ramparts on Rodriquez Canal, east of the city of New Orleans, in December 1814. The victory at New Orleans immortalized “Old Hickory” as one of America’s most successful practitioners of irregular warfare. His “Dirty Shirts,” as the British derisively called them because of their dingy homespun attire, were among the most able fighters of their day, and prefigured the gray- and butternut-clad Confederate soldiers of the 1860s in both guts and esprit d’corps.

James Bowie (c. 1796-1836), the son of South Carolinian Rezin Bowie (who fought in the War for American Independence under the fabled “Swamp Fox,” General Francis Marion), was already a legend on the Southern frontier even before he was immortalized at the Alamo. A fiery, muscular, and intelligent man, Jim Bowie spent most of his days going from one adventure to the next, and amassed quite a fortune from land speculating and slave trading (where he met the famous pirate, Jean Laffite). It is unlikely that Bowie “invented” the magnificent knife that bears his name; however, he indeed was its most skillful user, making his mark through the numerous duels he fought.

Bowie killed between fifteen and twenty men in “non-military” combat, most of them falling to his deadly trademark, the “Arkansas toothpick.” But Bowie was no cold-blooded killer; rather, he used his courage and skill with the blade often to right wrongs committed against innocent men and women by the various miscreants who inhabited the Mississippi and Louisiana frontier. His three most famous duels–the fight with Major Norris Wright in 1826; the noted “Sandbar Duel” in 1827; and the fracas with “Bloody” John Sturdivant in 1829–reveal that Bowie did not go looking for trouble, but that it often seemed to find him. The first two affairs were little more than brawls involving several men on each side, but the run-in with Sturdivant was a face-off in which the two opponents’ left wrists were tied together across a gaming table. The Sturdivant duel took place in a dive in the infamous Natchez-under-the-hill district and was the direct result of Bowie’s having exposed a crooked faro game run by his antagonist. Bowie quickly disabled Sturdivant’s right arm, but mercifully spared his life. Several months later, “Bloody” John hired three assassins to dispatch Bowie, but Jim killed all three.

Perhaps the most provocative story surrounding Bowie’s career as a knife-fighter is one in which he and an adversary entered an abandoned cabin after dark and grappled for a blade that had been stuck in the floorboards. This was a simple contest–the man who walked out was the winner. Though Bowie’s gory fighting techniques would have been scorned by more formal practitioners of the Code Duello, we ought to remember that the Southern frontier in the 1820s and 1830s was a rough-and-tumble backwater in which a man’s reputation for toughness served as his first line of defense. No doubt, Jim Bowie would have killed more men than he did had not his fearsome reputation caused the more circumspect among those he encountered to avoid crossing him in the first place.

Indeed, a reputation for toughness was, and is still, the best keeper of the peace, and this is why the South (or at least the small towns and rural areas) remains an oasis of civilization in an otherwise cultural and social wasteland. We can only hope that coming generations of white Southern men will carry on this tradition of honorable self-defense. Otherwise, whence shall come our Rolands, our Don Johns, our Bedford Forrests, our Smiths, Jacksons, and Bowies? Should this life-sustaining pugnacity disappear, so too will the South. And with the South will go the last remnant of a once-vigorous, self-confident, and manly Western Civilization.

Michael Hill