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Honor and Violence in the Early American South

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

What was the function of southern dueling?

What was the function of southern dueling?

The Role of Honor in Southern History

Throughout the southern frontier, honor played a substantial role in bringing about great bouts of violence. Dueling to the death and “rough and tumbles” were all too common throughout much of the 19th century (Gorn, 20). Poised with the choice of either fighting or walking away from a challenge, many chose to engage in duels or fistfights as a means to preserve their honor.

In a culture dominated by a social hierarchy, people often resorted to violence as a means to achieve respect amongst their fellow citizens or for personal gain. To simply walk away from a fight was neither respected nor honorable in the eyes of the general public. John Lyde Wilson, a former governor of South Carolina and preacher, once stated in his Code of Honor that succumbing to the slanders of a challenger made you “more or less than man to submit in silence” (Wilson, 20). Thus, violence was largely a result of social pressure that was placed upon individuals. The idea of preserving ones’ honor created a society in which only the strong would survive!

Cultural Roots

Violence within the southern frontier can often be traced to cultural roots. The mass immigration of Scots-Irish during the antebellum years provided a surge of cultural diversity across the southern United States. Often poor and generally associated as lower-class citizens, the Scots-Irish were notorious for both brawling and mangling their opponents. Whereas the Code of Honor granted upper-class citizens an ability to duel with one another in a gentlemanly manner, lower-class citizens typically fought savagely as a result of public influence, cultural heritage, and inequality.

While John Lyde Wilson’s Code of Honor specified rules for dueling with pistols, he never succeeded in incorporating a system that could be used by the poor. Weapons, especially dueling pistols, were luxury items unobtainable by the lower class. With this absence of weaponry, eye-gouging and disfiguring one’s adversary became prevalent in “duels” of the lower classes. These “rough and tumbles,” as they came to be known, were often a result of unnecessary “slights, insults, and thoughtless gestures” which were, as Eliot Gorn describes, “trifling and ridiculous reasons to fight” (Gorn, 19). Violence was also a result of lower-class citizens wishing to assert their equality (as Americans) with that of the upper class. Horrendous acts were often viewed as an act of “defiance” towards the gentlemanlike duels inspired by the Code of Honor (Gorn, 41). Lower-class citizens simply resorted to their own means of dueling (rough and tumble fighting) in order to demonstrate their desire to be equal with the upper class.

Aside from protecting one’s reputation, the “rough and tumbles” also served as a means to gain social status within society as well (Gorn, 20). Challenging a man with higher fame and status could potentially bring about prestige and honor to one’s image if they were victorious. In the south, “aggressive self-assertion and manly pride were the real marks of status” and “men frantically sought to assert their prowess” whatever the cost may be (Gorn, 21-22). Thus, aggressive behavior coupled with the ideas of honor and respect played a huge role in instigating acts of violence amongst Scots-Irish and lower-class citizens. “Rough and tumble” fighting served not only as a means to preserve their honor, but as a means to build up one’s lowly reputation, to gain the respect and fear of fellow citizens, and as a means to assert a sense of equality in a hierarchical society (Gorn, 20).

In a society devoid of lawfulness (particularly in the early 1800s), other key factors played an important role in instigating violence within the south as well. Gambling and alcohol all contributed heavily to outbreaks of violent events. Gambling often resulted in financial predicaments amongst citizens which, in turn, led to violence when monetary obligations were not able to be met. As a South Carolinian once remarked, “a gambling debt is a debt of honour, but a debt due a tradesman is not” (Wyatt-Brown, 137). Failing to pay a debt owed from gambling, essentially, “robbed the winner of the immediate gratification of his trophy” (Wyatt-Brown, 137).

Not surprisingly, alcohol contributed to a fair share of violence as well. Once intoxicated a man was not entirely in control of his actions and words. Misunderstandings, therefore, often took place as a result of alcohol consumption. Alcohol-driven entanglements were a huge problem for the south since “alcohol and honor combined to create a volatile mixture” (Ayers, 14).

Artistic portrayal of a duel in the 1800s.

Artistic portrayal of a duel in the 1800s.

Cultural Function of Southern Dueling

Duels amongst the upper and middle classes were perhaps the most famous acts of violence. Following a strict guideline set forth by Wilson’s Code of Honor, participants in a duel would meet to exchange rounds with one another once all attempts at reconciliation had been exhausted. Unlike the savage methods of fighting that took place amongst the lower-class citizens, however, dueling was far more “gentlemanlike.” Originating out of Europe, dueling became the method of choice amongst those who wished to protect and preserve their honor in the south. As with the “rough and tumbles,” the idea of dueling served as a means to maintain one’s status within society (Gorn, 20). To turn away from a duel was simply unacceptable.

Andrew Jackson’s duel with John Sevier demonstrates the character of honor and violence that was prevalent during the 1800s south exceptionally well. By verbally insulting Jackson and his wife, Rachel, Sevier instigated the beginning stages of a duel by proclaiming “I know of no great service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife” (Remini, 46). Incapable of accepting such a strike on his character, Jackson immediately issued a formal challenge to Sevier. The correspondence that ensued between Jackson and Sevier, in turn, demonstrates how gentlemanlike and structured upper-class duels were. Attempts at making amends were generally offered, and respect for one another was typically put forth in the letters just as Wilson’s Code of Honor advocated: “Let your note be in the language of a gentleman” (Wilson, 29-30). In a response to Jackson, Sevier writes “the voice of the Assembly has made you a Judge, and this alone has made you Worthy of My notice or Any other Gentleman, to the office I have respect” (Sevier, 368).

The Jackson-Sevier confrontation itself, however, was an entirely different situation. Filled with anger and hatred for one another by this point, the two men made a spectacle of themselves with Jackson and Sevier running around clumsily and foolishly in an attempt to kill or wound each other. The duel between Jackson and Sevier, in turn, demonstrates how pervasive the ideas of honor and respect were within the south in that violence existed even amongst the higher classes.

Even the gentry of the south could not escape the firm hold that honor had upon southern society. Upper-class dueling was not nearly as violent as lower-class brawls, but the intent to kill one’s adversary was still deeply rooted within the showdowns. As with all the other acts of violence within the south, the notion of risking your life to settle a dispute was strongly connected with the ideals of honor and respect. By risking your life in a duel a person could maintain his respect and honor within society.

A Protection of Pride

In conclusion, violence served as a means of rebuilding and maintaining one’s honor and respect within a community. Unlike the Northern United States, the southern frontier had a strong sense of honor embedded into its very core. Because the law could not provide protection to individuals against slanderous comments, the idea of dueling and fighting served as the only means available to maintain one’s pride within a community.

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Violence was by no means a virtuous act. Nonetheless, it provided an individual with the ability to make personal gains and maintain his social status within society. Ideals of honor were so important that even the prospect of death could not stop duelists from fighting. Eliot Gorn describes this connection between honor and violence perfectly with the quote: “reputation was everything, and scars were badges of honor” (Gorn, 42).

Works Cited


Dunn, Susan. "John Sedgwick's 'War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation'." The New York Times. June 14, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2018.

Society, The Saturday Evening Post. "Hamilton-burr-duel-1804-granger." The Saturday Evening Post. Accessed September 16, 2018.


Ayers, Edward. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Gorn, Elliot J. "Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch": The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry," American Historical Review, no. 1 (1985).

Smith, Sam B., and Harriet Chappell Owsley. The Papers of Andrew Jackson, Vol. I, 1770-1803. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

Remini, Robert. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Wilson, John Lyde, and Mullen, Harris H.. The Cash-Shannon Duel also Duels Around Camden The Code of Honor. Tampa: Florida Grower Press, 1963.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Larry Slawson


David Halk from Pennsylvania on October 30, 2018:

Wow, that was some very nasty violence in the South in those days. It's scary to think that just saying "no" couldn't prevent a brawl that ended in maiming or death!

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