To southern men, honor was everything. I dictated their standing in society, whether or not they could own slaves; it basically was a secret caste system. A man held in the highest honor experienced a good life from a social stance in the south. The honor system used in the south was related to the language used by southern gentlemen.# Honor and Slavery by Kenneth S. Greenburg attempts to explain the vernacular and customs used by men in the antebellum south. It would be hard for a person in today's society to understand the way honor was shown; it would have even been a challenge for men living in the Northern United States to understand at that time.# As Greenburg states, "Since the language of honor was the dominant language of the men who ruled the slave South, we will never understand masters, the nature of slavery, or the Civil war without first understanding that language."# To be a powerful man in the south, society also had to consider you to be an honorable man. Honor and power in the South were parallel to each other; a man with a high honor ranking was usually a prominent member of society.#
The white gentlemen of the South used honor as a means for running society and it slightly resembled a monarchic society, as if a person was born into honor whether or not they chose so. It was very important to a Southern man the family name he carried because it would prove his honor in some situations.#
The biggest insult that could be given in the antebellum South was accusing an honorable man of lying.# It could be over something trivial or something serious. Either way, if a man was accused of lying, his very livelihood was being challenged. If a certain person fell out of societies favor and was not considered honorable anymore, his life would change drastically.
The story of John Randolf is often told by men of the South. Greenberg talks about how John invited a man to dinner, only to forget his invitation later. When the man showed up for dinner, John had to refuse him, saying "Sir I am not at home."# This could have easily led to a duel because John was obviously lying to his unintended guest. If the man wanted to accuse John of lying and most likely challenge him to a duel all that he would have had to do was "give him the lie." It was an official way of announcing that another person was without honor because he had just lied.# Being given a lie may not sound serious to someone today but in the Old South it was a very serious accusation and it threatened the integrity of a man. Most would have preferred death to being unmasked and admitting a lie. Jefferson Davis "would kill or be killed rather than accept the affront."# To be unmasked was to have an entire life of lies exposed because it is assumed that most honorable men have lied throughout their lives. P.T. Barnum is another example of the seriousness of lying. The south did not care if his Feejee Mermaid was a fake they only cared that P.T. Barnum was lying to them about it being real.#
Often times, lying resulted in a duel. Dueling was considered the proper way for two gentlemen to settle a disagreement and it also proved their honor.# However dueling was not always full of hatred and anger.# Often times duelists would exchange gifts and fire shots in the air, not at each other. This demonstrated that dueling was an honorable concept and that men were encouraged to duel because it showed that they were not afraid to die an honorable death.# Slaves were often accused of lying and thievery and they were considered to be the most dishonorable people in society.# Because of this, slaves were not allowed to duel with a gun. They were allowed to fight each other bare knuckled as long as the slave master was watching.# Greenberg describes the slaves and how they were controlled when a disagreement happened:
"They were like marionettes whose reactions to insult was determined by their masters....