Antebellum Southern concepts of manners and personal honor set a very high standard in education with the logical expectation that this would result in a more enlightened society and government. Even code duello was seen to have a “decorous influence” on manners, as it made men careful in their conduct toward each other through personal honor and accountability.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Southern Manners and Personal Integrity
“[The official historian of the University of Virginia noted that the bulk of pre-Civil War graduates] . . . were of “the planting class.” Analysis of their post-college careers and modes of life led him to say that they were men who “kept alive in their country homes that loyal devotion to family, that chivalrous respect for womanhood, that considered tenderness for weakness, that high recognition of the claims of hospitality, that reverence for religion, and that quick sensitiveness upon all questions of personal integrity and honor, which they had inherited from their fathers.”
The cult of manners in the Old Dominion was so intertwined with the concepts of personal honor and integrity that all appeared part of a single theme. The diary notes of a young Virginian, attending VMI, contained the following passage, inserted as a kind of conclusion to the entries for the year 1842. It was set off in quotation marks:
“Among the many branches of education, that which tends to make deep impressions of virtue ought to be a fundamental object in a well-regulated government. For depravity of manners will render ineffectual the most salutary laws; and in the midst of opulence, what other means to prevent such depravity, but only a virtuous discipline?”
In this climate of opinion, with its emphasis on manners and personal integrity, the famous “Honor System” of American academic life first appeared. The founders were two professors at the University of Virginia; George Tucker, romantic litterateur before his appointment to the chair of moral philosophy; and his relative, Henry St. George Tucker, distinguished jurist before settling at Charlottesville as a teacher of law.
Judge Tucker submitted the epochal resolution to the faculty in 1842 that, at all future written examinations, the students should certify on their honor the receiving of no improper assistance. Later, this pledge was extended to include the imparting as well as the accepting of aid.
While visiting Richmond in 1853, Frederick Law Olmsted observed the importance of the cult of manners there. He added this observation to his travel diary, “In manners, I notice that between man and man, more ceremony and form is sustained in familiar conversations than well-bred people commonly use at the North.”
(Romanticism in the Old South, Rollin G. Osterweiss, LSU Press, 1971, excerpt, pp. 87-88)