Crimes of History

Jeff Sessions and the Conflict Between Southern ‘Honor’ and the Law

Sessions made his testimony a defense of his honor. Which is interesting, because in South, honor and the law have often been opposites.

Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

If there is anything to learn from Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, it should be that he values his honor — his distinctly Southern honor — ahead of the law. Sessions spent hours dodging, obfuscating and refusing to answer questions in a bizarre charade in defense of his honor, which openly comes into question nearly every day.

Sessions was fixated on his honor because he was raised to be. Valuing personal honor ahead of the law has been an institutional norm in the South forever. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t honor a good thing? Yes, sometimes; but not when it erodes the legal fabric of a democratic society and further normalizes lawlessness.

This may seem contradictory at first, but the fact is that notions of honor and codes of honor arise from a lack of strong legal standards. In fact law and honor are, in important ways, opposites. Societies where the rule of law is paramount don’t depend on individuals behaving honorably; there is, simply, the law. But without universally approved laws, small societies or class enclaves will create practices, principles and codes of honor to govern their sects. And the South has consistently welcomed a status quo of lawless chaos governed by hypocritical concepts of honor.

In a lawful society, there is justice, or at least the reasonable expectation of it. But within a lawless vacuum, justice is individualized, and duels, honor killings, and corruption fill the breach. You’d be hard pressed to find a region that has embraced each of these more than the South. Duels have existed in the South long after they stopped happening in the North. African Americans have been lynched, murdered, and mutilated in defense of a white person’s honor. And you’d be hard pressed to find a more corrupt state than Alabama. Progressive Alabamans even postulate that Sessions is facilitating the “Alabamafiction” of America as he attempts to impose on America the state’s unique combination of honor and corruption.

Historically, Southern states have always prided themselves on their relative autonomy from federal oversight. The white Southern elite envisioned a landscape of race and class-based fiefdoms governed by aristocratic honor codes and economically fueled by an enslaved class of African serfs. Politically, this region has always defended its economic interests with the marginalization and subjugation of African Americans.

Southern honor has almost never been invoked to defend democracy or the expansion of democratic freedoms to all Americans. One of the most significant political conflicts leading up to the Civil War was over the South’s insistence on expanding slavery to the new states and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to return escaped slaves back to their owners. In fact, the region’s eschewing and manipulation of democratic laws has consistently been orchestrated by their “honorable” political and social elites.

From the Civil War through to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the narrative of the honorable Southern gentleman spread across America. In the late 1800s, “honorable” Southern men created state constitutions with the overt intent of distorting and circumventing the U.S. Constitution so that they could continue to oppress African Americans. Poll taxes, Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex arose from these dishonorable acts. Southern honor in the support of slavery and segregation remained the Southern norm right up through the 1960s.

Then, yes, things changed. The civil rights movement happened. To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, introduced America to the new Southern gentleman who redefined honor as combatting racial oppression. Harper Lee became a literary sensation, and black and white Americans even started naming their children Atticus. Southern honor was no longer defined solely by avowed segregationists such as Alabama Governor George Wallace. As desegregation policies reshaped America, the image of the South littered with numerous Atticus Finches had been planted in the American psyche. America, for arguably the first time, had a popular depiction of an honorable Southern man who fought for justice regardless of race—yet of course, he was fictional.

And his heyday didn’t last long. From the 1980s through Obama’s presidency racial divisions have slowly crept upwards, and today race has become arguably the focal point of our political divisions. Today, Republicans and Democrats express vastly different interpretations of democratic principles that bear alarming similarities to the political divisions of the pre-civil rights era, when racial equity and democratic laws were constantly in conflict with notions of Southern honor.

As America has begun to come to terms with the racist and un-democratic factions that have always existed within this nation, Harper Lee releases Go Set a Watchman that collectively burst America’s idolization of Finch. Finch had become little more than an old Southern racist who had won a courtroom duel to preserve his honor.

As a nation, we have a yearning to believe in the honorable Southern man, and Sessions dangerously traffics in this cultural bias. That is not to say that the South is devoid of honorable people; there are millions of them. But America should always beware of men who value their honor above the law. Sessions, and the Trump Administration, constantly display this tendency, and it has only ever resulted in the dismantling of democratic structures and laws.