"Southern Honor", Transcendentalism, and Refusal to Be a "Cog in the Machine"

After reading Wyatt-Brown's "Andrew Jackson's Honor" in Spring '97 JER (also delivered at the dinner at SHEAR '96), I had the  thought that there is a (possibly strong) analogy between:

   Neither can abide the sense of being embedded in a vast pyramid of hierarchical structure (being anywhere but on top in a medieval world-order), nor of being caught up in some giant impersonal machine (the new order that was emerging in the Northeast).

   The lordly "gentleman" wants to throw off the layers upon layers from his own being, and stand forth a major player on the stage of the world. He wants "independent command". He considers this due to himself and a select fraternity. He also is quite double-minded about this where patron-client relationships are concerned -- where he or another (who wishes to play the role of the gentleman) are indeed caught up in some kind of hierarchy, patron and client will go to elaborate lengths to mask or deemphasize their inequality -- it becomes a convention that everyone signs his letters "Your humble and obedient servant", and in speaking, uses "Sir" in every sentence.

   The transcendentalist tried to escape the stunning scale of the universe without denying the Copernican Revolution. The complexity of the commercial world growing up around the Northeasterner meant that no one could really feel like lord of his own little domain. Even if descended from the "best New England stock", he does not find it feasible to throw off the "layers upon layers" by claiming and striving to be an exception to the rule -- not in a universe in which this very Earth seems but a microscopic speck.

So he takes a more radical, conceptual approach, denying, in a sense, the reality of the scale of the universe. Collapsing it; seeing "the universe in a grain of sand"; like Thoreau's notion (from Goethe?) that macro-structures (like leaves) are encoded deep in the very atoms (i.e., whatever exists at one level exists at every other level). Escaping from smallness (or the sense of being lost in the universe) by asserting oneness with everyone and with the universe.

   Wyatt-Brown provides some insight, in his article, into how one can reconcile a culture governed by "honor", and fealty-like personal relations with the image of "frontier democracy" for which Jackson was made a symbol. There seem to be two factors at work:
[1] a kind of shamming -- the tacit agreement to cover up status differences, despite their huge importance -- unless the lower status individual makes a positive assertion of equality (presumptiousness), in which case he can be humiliatingly "put in his place".
[2] the notion that honorable manhood is open to any white male -- that it is a matter of character, and of ones accomplishments, not of birth.

   There seems to be a very significant polarity between on the one hand:
(a) the original Virginia aristocrats, as described in Albion's Seed -- and their later counterparts, like Fitzhugh and James Henry Hammond -- advocates of a fully and obviously stratified society, and
(b) a new type, exemplified by Jackson, more inclined to "speak softly and carry a big stick", polite in the face of excessive familiarity from "inferiors" -- one who would admit a barmaid into society. I'm pretty sure Jackson never called anyone a "mudsill", nor would it have been in character. Did he even call anyone a "puppy"? Not that I recall. I believed when he slurred someone it was with words like "scoundrel" or "poltroon" -- implicit assertions that the other had actually done something dishonorable; not a mere deprecation of his social position.

   Perhaps in this distinction lies a clue to the emergence of dueling when it did, for all that its roots may extend back to Indo-European culture, and why it became most prevalent in the South. If a society is highly stratified into several levels, all pretty well locked into place, then
(a) the number of those who feel themselves "answerable only to God" is bound to be small; they are apt to know each other, and not be contending and striving,     and
(b) those at the top are apt to have a love of order, and those at lower levels, though they may be jealous of their social equals, will feel the disciplining eye of their superiors restraining them.

   At the time of the revolution, the complex social structure came into question. The result in the south, I'm guessing, was a flattening -- at least as perceived by the former middling classes, as well as destabilization, and a sense of anxiousness and of a need to defend one's status on the part of those who had enjoyed high status, or to assert it on the part of those who had enjoyed less status.
   A major factor in the south was its relatively atomized social and economic structure -- there were an awful lot of folks, from subsistence farmers to large plantation owners, whose physical independence could support the notion of being the lord of some domain, however small, with which no one ought to interfere.
   In the north, the social/economic structure was more elaborate, and had more of a basis in actual economic dependence and interdependence, so that it withstood the shocks of revolution more easily.