When John Brown, the white abolitionist who led a failed slave rebellion in Virginia in 1859, was about to be hanged, Edmund Ruffin, a well-known proslavery author, could not avoid praising Brown’s “complete fearlessness and insensibility to danger and death.” He was not the only one in doing so. Henry A. Wise, Governor of Virginia and slaveholder, said about Brown that he was “a man of clear head, courage (…) he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of truth.” It is obvious that none of these two Southern figures can be accused of supporting or promoting abolitionism. On the contrary, they were strong supporters of slavery. What then took them to speak so highly of a man who intended to finish with the most important Southern institution? The answer to this question is that both identified themselves with the values they were praising, even though those values were represented in the figure of an abolitionist like John Brown. Ruffin and Wise belonged to the culture of honor.
Throughout the 176 pages of Honor & Slavery, Kenneth S. Greenberg tries to decipher the language of honor, that is, the set of values shared by men of honor all over the antebellum South. In order to carry out this task, the author immerses himself in the fascinating Southern culture, where appearances and honor played a very important role in shaping white men’s decisions. Such diverse things as duels, pulling noses and exchanging gifts were all related to the code of honor in the South. Duels, for instance, often took place when a man of honor was accused of being a liar. However, men of honor “care[d] not a whit” (Honor & Slavery, p. 7) about the truth of the accusation. The facts were not important at all; the appearances were what really mattered: “the men who achieve the most honorable positions (…) [were] those whose vision of themselves and their world is confirmed by popular acclamation.” (Ibid.)
Slavery was certainly the most important part of the Southern culture. As Kolchin noted in this book American Slavery, “a pervasive conservatism accompanied the growing identification of slavery as central to Southern life”. In other words, “defense of slavery became tantamount to defense of the South.” But how was slavery related to the Southern code of honor? Greenberg states that “virtually all insults involved the imputation of slavelike behavior, of being a coward, thief, liar, or something similar.” (p. 62) Honor was closely linked to masters while dishonor could be found in the slaves’ behavior. Therefore, slaves were not subject to the code of honor of their masters.
Greenberg also deals with the idea of paternalism in the antebellum Southern plantations and how masters’ paternalistic behavior towards their slaves was restricted by honor. Masters were concerned about their slaves’ obedience. Therefore, all the decisions made by masters with regards to their slaves’ material conditions as well as their spiritual lives were aiming to ensure that slaves were obedient. However, men of honor were not interested in their slaves’ private life and culture: “masters never probed deeply into the nature of African American religion, music, or family relations.” (p. 49) According to the author, this restricted paternalism shaped by masters’ language of honor allowed slaves to develop their own culture.
Another aspect that Greenberg deals with in his book is the complex set of values underlying the relationships between men of honor in the South. As Elliot J. Gorn has put it, “interactions between Southerners were guided by elaborate rituals of hospitality, demonstrative conviviality, and kinship ties.” Southern men of honor, for instance, were well known for their hospitality. However, hospitality was only limited to those “among their own sort.” Frederick Law Olmsted, a Northern journalist who visited the Southern backcountry, noted that those Southern values of generosity and hospitality were restricted to other men of honor, that is, other white Southerners. In other words, the code of honor in the South was a very close system of values only applicable to those within the system.
With regards to the sources, Greenberg’s use of them denotes a great knowledge on the subject. On the one hand, he draws on primary sources such as slaveholders’ journals, newspapers, slave narratives, and Southern white men biographies. The book is full of specific stories involving matters of honor, all of them based on these primary sources. This helps the author describe the language of honor in the antebellum South. On the other hand, Greenberg draws on important slavery studies such as those developed by Eugene Genovese or Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in order for the reader to understand the context in which the language of honor was developed.
All in all, Honor & Slavery depicts the antebellum Southern society from the point of view of white men’s language of honor. The relationships between men of honor were strongly conditioned by this specific set of values that placed appearances before any other consideration. Greenberg approaches the topic in a very accessible way, so it is not necessary to be highly knowledgeable about the topic to make the most of the book. Furthermore, his masterful use of the sources is key to understand the complex code of honor that governed the antebellum South. Although very limited in its scope (it deals with a very specific topic), Honor & Slavery gives the reader a general sense of which values the antebellum Southern society was based upon.
Gorn, Elliot J., “Goude and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry”, American Historical Review 90 (February 1985.)
Greenberg, Kenneth S., Honor & Slavery, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.)
Haxall Wise, Barton, The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899.)
Kolchin, Peter, American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York: Whill and Wang, 1993.)
Law Olmsted, Frederick, A Journey in the Back Country, 1853-1854 (1860; reprint, New York: Shocken Books, 1970.)
Ruffin, Edmund, The diary of Edmund Ruffin. Edited, with an introduction and notes, by William Kauffman Scarborough. With a foreword by Avery Craven. (3 v.) (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.)
Edmund Ruffin, The diary of Edmund Ruffin. Edited, with an introduction and notes, by William Kauffman Scarborough. With a foreword by Avery Craven. (3 v.) (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), p.367.
 Barton Haxall Wise, The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899), p. 247.
 This expression is employed by the author in the book and refers to white Southern men.
 Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York: Whill and Wang, 1993), p. 184.
 Ibid. p. 189
 Elliot J. Gorn, “Goude and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry”, American Historical Review 90 (February 1985), p. 27.
 Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Back Country, 1853-1854 (1860; reprint, New York: Shocken Books, 1970), p. 26.