Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Adolescent Honor and College Student Behavior in the Old South

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Adolescent Honor and College Student Behavior in the Old South

Article excerpt

January 25, 1848 started like any other day for University of Alabama student Edward Baptist. Due to give a recitation in class, he practiced in his room, determined to please his professor. But a childish prank would change his life forever. While Baptist prepared in his room, his friend James T. Killough mischievously locked the door from the outside. Anxious not to be late to the recitation, Baptist broke the lock and angrily brushed by Killough, who stood laughing outside the door. When Baptist returned, Killough confronted him, demanding to know why Baptist had brushed by him so brusquely. Still angry, Baptist replied that he intended to have no further communication with Killough, who responded by calling Baptist a "damned rascal." Insulted, Baptist then directed a friend to issue a "challenge" to Killough to fight. Killough believed he was being challenged to a duel, which meant that he could get to choose the conditions. He announced that they would fight naked, armed with Bowie knives. Baptist then found himself in a dilemma: he had only intended a fist fight, but the southern code of honor dictated that if he backed down from this deadly path, he would be branded a coward--a label that could follow him the rest of his life.(1)

College life in the antebellum South offered a variety of challenges and represented an important rite of passage. Growing up surrounded by family and the familiar, young men shed their past and launched into a struggle for autonomy and interdependence within the adult world. The quarrel between Baptist and Killough typified many of the issues that guided this transitional period. Killough's prank demonstrated his adolescent immaturity, his continued connection to childhood.(2) Baptist's rebuff, however, was a more adult response that propelled the two into the complex world of adult antebellum social relations and expectations. The code of honor among southern white men demanded that Baptist obtain "satisfaction" for being labeled a "damned rascal." When Baptist issued his challenge, however, he too was still dwelling in the world of the child, expecting an adolescent fistfight. Killough had moved beyond that. He demanded an "adult" duel with real weapons.

The incident between Baptist and Killough illustrates the collision between the two main forces that affected student life in the antebellum South: the code of honor and natural adolescent development. The concept of honor that governed Old South society was, at times, a difficult and confusing code. Southern honor consisted of a set of rules that advanced the appearance of duty, pride, power, and self-esteem, and conformity to these rules was required if one was to be considered an honorable member of society. Nor were these rules confined to a particular class or social group; honor was an intricate part of the entire southern society.(3)

Young men entering southern colleges in the antebellum era grew up immersed in this code of honor. It influenced their development in ways that were qualitatively different from their other childhood experiences. Handed down by parents and other influential adults, the honor code was a set of rules and behaviors to be absorbed and used in a relatively mechanical fashion. Children are able to understand and apply concrete facts and rules of social convention. As they reach adolescence, however, their cognitive abilities change substantially and they are able to think in abstractions. Young southern men entering college were just beginning to be able to use the code of honor in more intentional and creative ways, while also constructing their own versions of the code, applicable within their peer group.(4)

For these young men, honor was the framework that gave shape to the more natural ambivalence of adolescence. Adolescence is not a sturdy, straight bridge between childhood and adulthood, but a transition fraught with conflicts and struggles. One of the major struggles was the drive to become an adult while retaining childhood desires and behaviors. …

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