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The prevailing culture of the Southern United States is said to be a "culture of honor," where people avoid unintentional offense to others and maintain a reputation for not accepting improper conduct by others.
The "culture of honor" in the Southern United States is believed by some social scientists to have its roots in the qualities of the early settlers who first inhabited the region. Unlike the farmers and workers (mainly from the densely populated South East England and East Anglia) who settled in New England, the Southern United States was settled by herders from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Northern England and the West Country. Herds, unlike crops, were vulnerable to theft because they were mobile and there was little in the way of a government with the practical ability to enforce property rights in the animals. Developing a reputation for retribution against those who stole herd animals was one way to discourage theft. These social scientists compare the culture of honor found in the Southern United States to similar cultural values found in other subsistenceeconomies dependent upon herding and places with weak governments.
The Southern culture of honor is associated with such distinctive elements of the American political culture as dueling (particularly in the American South and involving Southerners) and the concept of a gentleman, as espoused by individuals such as Robert E. Lee, which remains a part of United States military law, although the Uniform Code of Military Justice now expressly bans dueling . It is also associated with the idea of a blood feud, a characterization given to many deadly conflicts between families in Appalachia.
The Southern culture of honor also includes a notion that ladies should not be insulted by gentlemen. An insult to a woman's honor is a classic basis for violent retribution against those who have caused the insult. Southern gentlemen are also expected to be chivalrous towards women, in words and deeds.
Although "culture of honor" qualities have been generally associated with men in the southern United States, women in this region have also been affected and even shown some of the same qualities.
Randolf Roth, in his American Homicide (2009), states that the idea of a culture of honor is oversimplified. He argues that the violence often committed by Southerners resulted from social tensions. He hypothesizes that when people feel that they are denied social success or the means to attain it, they will be more prone to commit violent acts. His argument is that Southerners were in tension, possibly due to poor whites being marginalized by rich whites, free and enslaved Blacks being denied basic rights, and rich and politically empowered whites having their power threatened by Northern politicians pushing for more federal control of the South, especially over abolition. He argues that issues over honor just triggered the already present hostility, and that people took their frustration out through violent acts often on the surface over issues of honor.
In the U.S. South, a society organized around plantationagriculture in which production circles were longer-term than those of their manufacturing-oriented northern counterparts, plantation owners were often highly leveraged and heavily dependent on personal credit to carry them through to the harvesting and sale of their goods. The assets of plantation owners were for the most part illiquid, their estates largely holding value in the form of real estate and slaves. Thus, preserving personal credit was highly important to the livelihoods of plantation owners.
Given that the credit markets were rather opaque until the early 20th century in the South--lenders could not readily view an applicant's financial statements--being perceived as "honorable" was almost essential to being approved for loans. Because transaction costs were very high during this period, one had to be perceived as having personal integrity or character in order to be considered likely to honor one's contracts and debts. Thus, the word "honor" was almost culturally synonymous with "creditworthiness. " The long-term economic penalties for having one's reputation ruined included limited access to credit and diminished political influence.
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