In his account of “the stark, enduring figure” of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer in his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence observes:
He is neither spiritual nor sensual. He is a moralizer, but he always tries to moralize from actual experience, not from theory. He says: ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ Yet he gets his deepest thrill of gratification, perhaps, when he puts a bullet through the heart of a beautiful buck, as it stoops to drink at the lake. Or when he brings the invisible bird fluttering down in death, out of the high blue. ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ And yet he lives by death, by killing the wild things of the air and earth.
It’s not good enough.
But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.
A recent treatment of the essential American soul in an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker discusses murder in America within the conceptual framework of honor and dignity, in reference to work by the late Eric Monkkonen and the ongoing Pieter Spierenburg. The underlying premiss incoporates Monkkonen’s influential conclsion:
To clarify the ongoing debate: Would gun control to the point of elimination save lives? Obviously. Would the United States then join other industrial nations? Even without guns, the United States would still be out of step, just as it has been for two hundred years.
—Eric H. Monkkonen, Murder in New York City, University of California Press, 2000, p. 179.
Monkkonen’s account of murder in New York City is rife with details that include a 1854 knife slaying of Peter Garrison Post by his friend and bedmate Jerome B. King, based on a report in the New York Times, which quotes a witness to the event:
Wm. H. Matthews, residing at No. 13 Amos-street, being sworn, said: On Wednesday evening about 7½ o’clock, the deceased and myself were standing on the corner of Washington and Horatio-streets conversing, when Jerome B. King came up to where we were standing, and informed us that he had been insulted by a man named Charles McPherson, who lived in the same house; the deceased asked him how he had been insulted; King replied that McPherson had taken his seat at the tea table; deceased replied that he did not consider that an insult; King said that he did, and that if he ever done so again he would lick him; deceased replied that he could not lick him and offered to bet $10 that he could not; King then took off his coat and said that was worth $10, and that he would put that up, and also called deceased a d—d liar; deceased then struck King in the face with his open hand, when King exclaimed “Damn your big soul, you can’t strike a man of your size;” deceased then ran after King into the grocery store on the corner where we were standing; when I arrived at the door I saw them clenched and deceased threw King down on the floor, and then left him and walked out on to the sidewalk; King then got up and followed him on to the sidewalk with a large knife in his hand, and stabbed deceased in the back; the knife now shown looks like the one I saw in King’s hand when he came out of the store; after King stabbed deceased, he threw the knife on the walk; deceased then ran up washington, about half a block, where he met two acquaintances, and exclaimed to one of them, “Simms, I’m stabbed;” the two then took hold of him to prevent his falling, and conveyed him to the drug store on the corner of Hudson and Jane streets; dod not see deceased strike King, except once, and that was on the sidewalk, with his open hand, before they entered the store.
The newspaper article cites the prisoner stating that he never had any ill-feeling toward deceased and never intended to injure him till deceased struck him. Drawing upon its account, Monkkonen observes in regard of the killer and his victim: “Other than the comment that the two were bedmates, we learn little about the nature of the relationship between these men. Were they blue collar workers sharing lodgings in a city with a tight housing market, something like Queequeg and Ishmael’s port lodging in Moby Dick? Their pattern of fighting and making up suggests a more affectionate relationship, as does King’s apparent remorse at Post’s death. Or did King’s reference to Post’s size, his ‘big soul,’ indicate that defeat in front of the other men drinking in the grocery was a shameful status loss that only further violence could restore?”
In his posthumously published article, “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism”, Monkkonen proposes a research program attributing the vast and enduring difference in homicide rates between the United States and Europe to a combination of four hypothesized social factors, two being political—mobility and federalism, and two being social—slavery and tolerance. He conjectures that “wandering poor” or those trapped in dysfunctional communities could have significantly contributed to American homicide, causing increasing homicide differences between places on a national scale, whereby such a hypothesis could be tested, given enough information over a long time period. He points out that American federalism from its beginning left almost all criminal justice up to the states, and they in turn delegated it to counties and cities, later claiming primary authority for prisons, resulting in the permanently fragmented and piecemeal system that the United States maintains today. He reminds his readers of race slavery standing as the biggest and most obvious population difference between Western Europe and the United States, asking whether those who point to a southern culture of post–Civil War homicide identified a principal source of continuing American homicide, and wondering, why this particular heritage should have persisted. Lastly, he recalls his proposal from Murder in New York City, that the U.S. political and criminal justice systems have tolerated more homicide than their European counterparts, just as they have had to tolerate ethnic and religious differences. Monkkonen adduces all of these factors to explain the estimates drawn from his book and the article by Manuel Eisner, “Modernization, Self-Control and Lethal Violence”, whereby New York City murder rate compares with European murder rate as 5 to 2.7 per 100,000 pre-1850, and as 10 to 2.1 per 100,000 between 1850 and 2000.
Pieter Spierenburg connects Norbert Elias’ account of the “civilizing process”, a genealogy of public behavior depending upon physical restraint and self-control, to the growth of the centralizing state, expressed in its Weberian Gewaltmonopol, a monopoly on the use of force. In her synopsis, Jill Lepore mentions anthropologists talking about a related process, the replacement of a culture of honor with a culture of dignity. These distinctions are commonly drawn in the study of American regional history, in terms that echo Monkkonen’s invocation of Southern culture:
Contemporaries who described Southerners as gracious and hospitable described men who adhered to honorable conduct, but so did those who described Southerners as touchy and belligerent. Honor, the overweening concern with the opinions of others, led people to pay particular attention to manners, to ritualized evidence of respect. When that respect was not forthcoming between men, violence might be the result. A culture of honor thus tended to breed the extremes of behavior for which nineteenth-century Southerners were famous. Yet Southern culture was not so brittle that it could not absorb the usual range of human foibles and quirks. Honor did not create one temperament, one personality, any more than does any other culture. A sense of noblesse oblige and disciplined rectitude, as well as violence, could and did grow out of honor.
Any accurate description of Southern honor must be couched in qualified language and described with care, for it was simultaneously potent and elusive. No contemporary visitor saw the entirety of Southern honor, no Southern poet or philosopher described its workings from the inside. Historians must therefore reconstruct it out of fragments, glimpsed encounters, passing comments. Southern honor was an anomaly, a strange hybrid of Old World and New World.
But so was Northern culture, and by the mid-nineteenth century the North had generated the core of a culture antagonistic to honor. Northerners could only shake their heads in disbelief at Southern violence. “About certain silly abstractions that no practical business man ever allows to occupy his time or attention, they are eternally wrangling,” one observer wrote in the 1850s, “and thus it is that rencounters, duels, homicides, and other demonstrations of personal violence, have become so popular in all slaveholding communities.” Northern culture, for its part, celebrated “dignity”—the conviction that at birth white males possessed an intrinsic value at least theoretically equal. In a culture of dignity men were expected to remain deaf to the same insults that Southern men were expected to resent. “Call a man a liar in Mississippi,” an old saying went, “and he will knock you down; in Kentucky, he will shoot you; in Indiana, he will say ‘You are another.’” Dignity might be likened to an internal skeleton, a hard structure at the center of the self; honor, on the other hand, resembles a cumbersome and vulnerable suit of armor that, once pierced, leaves the self no protection and no alternative except to strike back in desperation.
—Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-century American South, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 19-20; also see his “Legacy of Violence”.
The European perspective suggests that colonial Americans have failed to follow them in the social evolution that replaces the hard exoskeleton of honor with the internal trellis of dignity. According to Spierenburg, the advent of democracy in the United States was premature. In his 2006 article “Democracy Came Too Early: A Tentative Explanation for the Problem of American Homicide”, he argues that the social pressures favoring a monopolization of force in the United States have been weak in comparison with those in European national societies. He discerns “an intriguing paradox” in the fact that that “the country that boasted the most formidable military externally throughout the twentieth century was unable to do away with competing claims to authority internally”. But at the core of this imputation lies the scholar’s unwillingness, if not an inability, to distinguish a putative failure of the state from its fealty to the democratic mandate of a Constitutional republic. Polling data over the past seventy years shows a nearly uniform growth in opposition to a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons, from 36% against a 60% support in 1939, to 71% against a 28% support in 2009.
In construing the essence of statehood as the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, Max Weber’s definition circumscribes its scope and extent, not to debar other institutions or to individuals from this use, but to allow for their right to use physical force, inasmuch as the state permits it. Contrary to a common misconstrual, Weber’s definition identifies state not as the sole possessor of the right to use violence, but as its the sole source. And even that is not the case under the doctrine of natural law and natural rights, expressly recognized by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The right to defend oneself and others using deadly force against an imminent threat is the paradigmatic example of a natural right that cannot be alienated to anyone else, under any circumstances. The American government, emerging from the principle of unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, is bound to recognize and protect this right as part of its Constitutional mandate. Therein inhere honor and dignity of the American soul.