Honor ethic: it's gone with the winds of antebellum

''Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful,'' writes Margaret Mitchell in her epic novel, ''Gone With the Wind.'' ''But men seldom realized it when caught by her charm.'' So too, perhaps, has the charm of the Old South caught the fancy of novelists, filmmakers, and the popular imagination.

''Raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance . . . were the things that mattered,'' says Miss Mitchell. As the Tarleton twins court Scarlet in the cool shade of Tara's porch, possum hounds quarrel beneath the magnolia and a black-spotted carriage dog rests his muzzle in his paws.

Descending like the Civil War itself on the image of Dixie as the purely peaceable kingdom is ''Southern Honor: Behavior and Ethics in the Old South,'' by Dr. Bertram Wyatt-Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). By opening a window on regional ethics between 1800-60, it provides radically new insights into contemporary Southern attitudes on civil rights, abortion, unionism, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

''The history of the South is unlikely to be written again in quite the prevailing way,'' says C. Vann Woodward, considered by many to be America's leading Southern historian.

The book began at Dr. Wyatt-Brown's breakfast table eight years ago. Flipping through the news of Mississippi in 1860 - as Southern historians are wont to do - he came across an account that was nothing short of sensational.

A man on trial for wife-beating went scottfree on a legal technicality, the article said, but the court crowd seized him. They gave him 150 lashes, drenched him in hot tar, and garnished him with feathers before parading him through town. Wyatt-Brown was shocked.

''I thought - this was supposed to be typical frontier vigilante justice? I said this is not American, this is medieval. Something very, very pagan. Some sort of ritual was going on here.'' The Sherlock Holmesian quest that followed lasted nearly a decade. It turned the Northern-born, Southern-educated historian into an anthropologist and back.

The result has been lauded as the most comprehensive study of pre-Civil War white Southern culture since W.J. Cash's ''The Mind of the South'' captured a generation of readers in 1941. Indeed, Dr. Woodward (who last year garnered a Pulitzer for ''Mary Chestnut's Civil War'') sees Wyatt-Brown's book having a ''monumental impact'' far more significant than the Cash work. Cash's was a more popular history which, Woodward says, misled a whole generation of scholars.

''Honor, not conscience, shame, not guilt, were the psychological underpinnings of Southern culture,'' writes Dr. Wyatt-Brown.

The concept embraced more than just isolated ritual, such as lynchings, he says. His book builds the case for honor's prominence as a system of total social and moral control.

''The determination of men to have power, prestige, and self-esteem'' writes Wyatt-Brown, ''and to immortalize these acquisitions through their progeny was the key to the South's development.'' Honor was reputation. For the honorbound, the statement ''I want to be virtuous,'' would be put: ''I want to be regarded as virtuous.''

Leaning back in his office chair at Case Western Reserve University, the author explains why his thesis is unique. Examining histories of Mediterranean societies, he had become familiar with their primeval code of honor and shame. When he read of the aftermath of the wife-beating trial, ''It suddenly became quite clear that the account I read was a ritual of shaming, and the whole notion of honor as being an ethical system for Southern culture developed from that,'' he says. Although the ethic was unique to the American South because it involved slavery and democracy, he says, it is traceable to the Indo-European tribes that created Homeric Greece and destroyed the power of Rome.

''Honor, as a general concept, hasn't been thought of in ethical terms in Anglo-American society,'' he says. ''You go to textbooks and you might find 'God , Country, and Honor' or something like that at West Point, and vague references in books about Sir Walter Scott and the cavalier legend, or in 'High Noon,' with its Western sort of machismo.''

But, as he says in his preface, ''As keystone to the slaveholding South's morality, this aspect of antebellum ethics has previously been relegated to the trashbin of history. . . .'' Up to now, he says, historians have disregarded the honor ethic. They feared that writing about an ''ethical system of honor'' might sound too much like trying to legitimize racism.

''This code he analyzes and describes,'' says Dr. Woodward, ''shaped and influenced the people living under it from the cradle to the grave. It very strongly influenced the process of child-rearing, relations of parent to child, spouses, courtships, social hierarchy from planter class to slave - every aspect of family, its integrity and protection.''

The essential ingredients of the code were personal bravery, an obsession with family reputation, a high-blown notion of female virtue, and a propensity to live by oaths.

Teaching a sense of primal honor and a bearing of gentility, whether by shame , humiliation - even brutality - or example was the parents' duty. They were to cultivate valor and self-possession in their children by encouraging fighting, horse racing, gambling, swearing, even drinking.

A chief objective in child-rearing was to encourage the very young to be aggressive, even ferocious, says Wyatt-Brown. Very young children learned that they were supposed to grab for things, fight on the carpet to entertain parents, clatter their toys about, defy parental commands, and even ''set upon likely visitors in friendly roughhouse.''

Southern youth learned early that if an honor-centered person is guilty of some wrong, his or her primary desire is to escape the implications of weakness and inferiority. ''The threat of shame, under such circumstances, would encourage resort to any means of deceiving the all-prying, ever-judging public, or in the case of children, the parents and elders.''

Andrew Jackson recalled the advice of his widowed mother before her death, ''If ever you have to vindicate your feelings or your honor, do it calmly,'' she said. ''Avoid quarrels as long as you can, but sustain your manhood always.''

The primal ethic of honor embraced the colonial North as well. But in the North, its influence declined with urbanization, industrialization, the rise of schools and churches. When men left the farm for the cities and factories, family and community opinion mattered less. And churches emphasized man's fidelity in the eyes of God, not those of his neighbor. Moral transgressions carried the price tag of guilty inner feelings, in Wyatt-Brown's view, but not the outward shame of community opinion.

Out of this arose the abolitionist movement, ''the movement the South couldn't accept,'' says Wyatt-Brown.

''If slavery were simply an economic institution that some people criticized from the North, and there was no personal investment or sense of selfhood involved in the owning of slaves,'' he says, ''then Southerners would have agreed to see the institution gradually eliminated. Or at least they would not have felt that it was necessary to fight a war to protect it, because it wouldn't mean that much to them.

''But the reason they defended slavery was less because it was slavery than because others were criticizing them, and in that way affecting how they could see themselves. In other words, they were insulted.''

In Wyatt-Brown's broader concept of the code, gentility was only a more specialized, refined form of honor in which moral uprightness was coupled with high social position. Essentially based on sociability, learning, and piety, this form of honor involved mastery of subtle marks of status. Those were the proper accent, the right choice of words and conversational topics, ''the appropriate attire, and acquaintance with various kinds of social proprieties and other rules not easy to follow with aplomb.''

In the South's rigidly patriarchal society, female honor was characterized by restraint, abstinence, and utter dependency. Barrenness was a great calamity and spinsterhood meant social death. There were few prospects for female security outside of marriage.

The familiar stereotyping of Southern womanhood - the glorification of motherhood, the sanctity of virginity, and the noble self-sacrifice of the matron - all had a very important social purpose, says Wyatt-Brown. ''Such concepts ensured at least outward submission to male will.''

''The encounter of the antebellum Southern male and female was intense, competitive, and almost antagonistic,'' says Wyatt-Brown.

The struggle had to be subterranean and devious, he says, for men alone were given the privilege of expressing their feelings openly. ''Antagonisms grew out of the conflict, but also out of the misogyny that arose from male fear of female power.''

Male honor required masculine headship of the family. Whereas woman's social existence largely depended upon her being married, her legal identity ended the moment the ceremony was performed. ''Not only could a husband treat his wife's property as his own, but her assets could be seized to meet his debts.'' The reverse was not true, however.

Since familial honor was meant to be sustained from each generation through the next, there was much intermarriage among cousins and the pairings of sisters in one family with brothers in another. Men did not hesitate to wed their deceased wife's sisters. ''By permitting such intricate marriage patterns, families not only reinforced positions of honor and wealth but also ensured continuations of custom and demands for conformity.''

Wyatt-Brown paints a vivid picture of community life in the South as well. Hospitality, gambling, and combat were all behaviors dictated by the code of honor. ''Friendly games and the personal contests of arms and fists attested not only to Southerners' desperate need to conquer ennui, but also their compulsion to find social place in the midst of gatherings.''

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of his thesis on honor is the role it reserved for lynching as a means of enforcing community norms. In the final chapters, Wyatt-Brown analyzes how the ''tyranny of the community'' was manifested in ''legal and extra-legal'' means. While lynch law was usually a ''celebration of white supremacy'' against slaves, tarring and feathering and riding on rails were reserved for shaming whites. Wyatt-Brown also writes about crowds that prepared effigies, imitated howling wolves, rang cowbells, and beat on pots and drums. These charivari (pronounced ''shivaree'') rituals were meant to shame adulterous women, rapists, and others that threatened family purity, the bedrock of honor.

Asked about the vestiges of his code in the modern South, Wyatt-Brown says, ''there's been an homogenization of North and South through television and newspapers - particularly as pertains to cities. But in the rural areas, many of these principles of honor are still the way people see things.''

The notion of honor as self-sufficiency can be traced to the fact that Southerners don't have labor unions, he says. ''They don't want to give dues to some organization up there in Detroit to do who knows what with.''

''The code's tenet to protect the family helps explain Southern conservative views on abortion - not allowing the state to kill what is father's and mother's role to raise,'' he says. As to vestiges of the subordination of women, Wyatt-Brown says the South has made giant strides. Yet, he points out, nine Southern states failed to ratify the ERA.

''In many respects, the Reagan political philosophy has its roots in the concept of honor,'' he says. ''People are expected to depend primarily on family and friends and community rather than on outsiders such as government. They are suspect of the tyranny of centralized authority. Reagan's New Federalism bodes well in the South.''

''Southern Honor'' has been criticized for focusing solely on white behavior, ignoring the blacks who played a central role in Southern society. But a second volume is intended to examine that question solely. A third volume will deal with honor in decline. Stating ''no historian can attain pure impartiality,'' the author admits to a Northern bias. But the work has been lauded for its ability to avoid moral judgments.

''He attempts to divest himself of modernism in order to explore the South on its own terms,'' says Woodward. This avoids great risks of distortion that have figured in the ''paradox, irony, scorn, and attribution of guilt (that) have figured prominently in the modern picture of the pre-modern South,'' he says.

''And he is right in reproving historians who label the darker features 'tragic aberrations,' deny that they were integral parts of a cultural pattern, or forget that the nobler claims were put to the service of primal honor - especially when honor cried out for secession.''

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