The Pride and Power of Southern Gentlemen’s Code of Honor in the Antebellum Era

Honor — the recognition of one’s perceived esteem by others — was the most important value in the Southern United States during the Antebellum Era. All affluent gentlemen in the South followed the Code of Honor, an unwritten law that was completely ingrained in the social fabric of Southern life. Not to be confused with a person’s dignity or self-esteem, honor was judged entirely by society’s eyes, not by one’s own. Honorable gentlemen were therefore judged and consequently ranked in Southern society by outward appearances only, such that a gentleman’s honor was protected with the greatest of care and readily defended when even the slightest of actions threatened his honor. Honor was the genteel veil over Southern gentlemen’s masculinity, which emphasized the masculine traits of their physical strength and aggression, and even their use of violence. In fact, the Code of Honor stressed a Southern gentleman’s full right to control other people’s destinies and exploit their own powerlessness in order to increase his honor, thereby fueling his own pride and power in all of his social dealings. Thus, both masculine pride and power acted as key, rather duplicitous underpinnings of the Code of Honor for elite gentlemen during the South’s Antebellum Era.

Elite Southern males of the Antebellum Era were indoctrinated into the Code of Honor from infancy. This Code required a Southern gentleman to have a reputation of honesty and independence, absolute control over the dependents under him (namely, his wife, children, and slaves, all of whom were considered his property), and the absolute necessity to use violence if any action was taken against his honor. Southern childrearing instilled affluent boys with a sense of prideful entitlement and, in the reverse, the feeling of shame if they ever violated the Code of Honor. Boys were therefore encouraged to be truthful in all matters and to be masculinely powerful and aggressive in order to maintain and defend their honor at all times. Since shame was the act of not living up to the Code of Honor, a shamed man could lose his reputation of respect in Southern society and thus be viewed as inherently inferior to honorable gentleman or, even worse, be subject to exploitation by others. Hence, shame and lying were the worst offences to an elite gentleman’s honor in the South during this time.

Exterior of Ash Lawn--Highland

Exterior of Ash Lawn–Highland
Photo by Author

TRUE Interior of Ash Lawn--Highland

Interior of Ash Lawn–Highland
“Designer Desks” Early American Life April 2011 Firelands Media Group LLC 26 July 2014 Photo










Exterior of Monticello
Photo by Author

Since appearances were everything to a Southern gentleman, his name, property, home, and even his nose were all a part of his reputation. James Monroe’s house, Ash Lawn–Highland, is a great example of how a Southern elite gentleman’s home was directly tied to his honor, yet could be, at the very same time, duplicitous in its nature. Mr. Monroe’s house is a large farm house that appears to be somewhat plain and unimpressive from the outside. It definitely does not present the grandeur that Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, just a few miles away, presents visitors from just a quick glance of the exterior. However, the interior of Ash Lawn-Highland is lavishly decorated with the finest art pieces from England and France, which are proudly presented throughout the house for all visitors to see. Mr. Monroe’s house therefore exemplifies both honor and its duplicity: namely, a truthfully plain, if not somewhat stoic-looking exterior, with a boastful interior portraying a life of high culture and refinement, likely belying Mr. Monroe’s own internal sense of pride and power.

Similarly, a gentleman’s nose was the physical representation of his honor in the Antebellum South. The nose was synonymous with the appearance of honesty and control that a man had in Southern society. Yet, since the nose was merely the appearance of honesty and control, not necessarily the real truth of the matter, and the nose is the most defined characteristic of a person’s face, it was the hardest to hide (Greenberg, 155). A Southern gentleman’s nose was thereby duplicitous as well, in that the external appearance of honor (the physical nose itself) often misrepresented the internal truth of dishonorable intentions and behaviors that were ultimately engendered by his need to maintain and further enhance his pride and power.

Honor and Duels

“The slanderer” is “…worse than the murderer. The murderer only takes the life… whilst the slanderer takes away his good reputation and leaves him a living monument to his…disgrace.” — Andrew Jackson (Boorstin, 223)

Upper-class Southern elites were the group of people most concerned with maintaining, increasing, and protecting their honor during the Antebellum Era. Prestigious Southern men were in the public eye during most of their lives, whether that was among their own elite social circles or in the eyes of the general public. A good reputation was a must for Southern elites in the Antebellum Era, when word-of-mouth was superior to text due to the fact that most of the population was illiterate at that time. In the elite social circles, jockeying for a higher position was common and often led to “giving the lie” to hurt an opponent’s honor and, thereby, to boost one’s own (Gorn, 135). In fact, honor was so crucial to a Southern gentleman that any action to harm his reputation would be returned with violence, oftentimes by challenging the offender to a duel to the death.

Elite men used almost courtly formalities with one another to avoid offending each other, as this was the worst offence to a man and could lead to death by duel. However, even duels were very formalized and structured. Almost every elite duel was fought because one man offended another, claiming he was not worthy of a respectful reputation. A question of honor was therefore a question of life and death for elite men, given that their honor was their law. Duels, according to Southern gentlemen, were an honorable and necessary act of violence to defend one’s pride and clearly display one’s power. Duels began with the unmasking, or “giving the lie”, of one man’s honorable self, or, rather, his appearance, to reveal his differing inner self (Greenberg, 158). Duels were the ultimate test of honor; they risked the lives of both participants, with their good names and reputations on the line. Unmasking attempted to shame an opponent, not really to reveal the man’s true character, but rather hurt his pride. Ultimately, then, a duel was simply a show of masculine power to prove that a man was willing to risk his life for his honor, despite whether the accusations were actually true. However, if a man could kill his opponent who accused him of being untrue to his honorable self, the surviving man would maintain his pride and reputation of honor despite whether or not the accusations were true.

The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” held no truth in the Antebellum South. Indeed, insults to a man’s honor were grave threats to the offender’s own life. As such, dueling was an integral part of the Code of Honor in the South during the Antebellum Era because it demonstrated a gentleman’s absolute power and his willingness to risk his life for his pride, all under the guise of protecting and defending his honor.

Honor and Slavery

The institution of slavery itself is a war between the tyrant (the slave-master) and the captives (the enslaved population) as it unjustly takes away man’s natural right to freedom and control over his own being and destiny. Honor fueled and enabled the war of slavery with its power-plays over a man’s control. “The words of the master had to be accorded respect and accepted as true simply because they were words of a man of honor.” (Greenberg, 159). The Code of Honor stressed the necessity of a Southern gentleman’s control over his destiny and his control over his dependents’ destinies. Slaves fell into this dependent category given that they had no control over their own destinies. Consequently, slaves had no honor, nor could they ever gain honor in the Antebellum South; yet they, by having no control themselves, boosted their master’s control and power, and thus his pride. Slaves were considered unhonorable not only because of their state of dependence on their master, but also their characterization, by white society, of always lying. Again, this was because “the lie” was considered the worst offence to a gentleman’s honor and again reinforced the fact that slaves had no honor, whatsoever.

Slave families, unlike their master’s families, instilled in their children self-esteem and dignity to help their children survive the institution of slavery without losing their sense of worth (Blassingame, 211). Enslaved people practiced passive resistance by breaking tools, oversleeping, stealing food, running away, and so forth. Slaves, for their own well-being and survival, practiced stoicism to not allow their master to see what affected them. These combined “lies” offended their master as these actions were considered dishonorable in genteel Southern society. Yet, a master’s pride and power were increased if he caught a slave in the act of lying. Hence, a master’s honorable and respected reputation could stand in stark contrast to the dishonorable condition of his slaves (Greenberg, 159).

Perhaps, though, what irked these “honorable” slave-masters the most was the fact that the masters lied to themselves continually. The institution of slavery and, therefore, a gentleman’s pride of holding power over and controlling others’ destinies for his own prestige, go directly against man’s natural state of being free and belonging to himself. However, enslaved people were denied the two most important values in Southern society, control and honor; thus, slaves were exploited by their master for his own pride and power — again, under the duplicitous guise of “honor”.

A Southern gentleman’s honor in the Antebellum Era made him uniquely male, more so even than his genitals, in that honor made a gentleman proud to be male (Greenberg, 160). Masculine pride instilled the fact that, because a gentleman was male, he could wield his power absolutely over people and exploit them for the betterment of his own reputation in the eyes of society. In fact, honor was a uniquely Southern value that was so ingrained within Southern society that it was an unwritten, almost invisible law that all Southern people innately knew and blindly accepted and followed without question. Perhaps, then, slavery thrived in the South all due to the gentlemen’s Code of Honor, in that the Code allowed elite men to control and exploit other people to incessantly feed their masculine pride and power, and not because the agriculturally-dependent South needed slave labor in order to survive, as is taught in historic textbooks to this day. Hence, the slave labor of the Antebellum South is very easy to see on the surface of history as merely a necessity of an agriculturally-based society; but the hidden, duplicitous workings of Southern society at that time — namely, the Southern gentlemen’s Code of Honor — may in actuality be the true reason that slavery was accepted and survived in the South for the long time that it did.

Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage e-Books,
2010. Google Books file.

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