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Gender in Antebellum Period

Andrew Jackson's Nose

According to the masculine code of the antebellum period, to attack a man's body—even just his nose—was to attack his very honor, and such an affront could not be permitted to take place without aggressive retaliation if the victim wanted to prove himself a gentleman. In 1828, President Andrew Jackson removed a naval officer, Lieutenant Robert Beverly Randolph, from his post after it was discovered that Randolph was in debt to the U.S. government, although no evidence indicated that he had intentionally done anything wrong. Randolph thought that he should have been vindicated by the investigative report, since it stated that he had not consciously committed any wrongdoing; instead, Jackson declared Randolph "unworthy" of the Naval Service.

Five years later, President Jackson visited Randolph's hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Randolph seized the opportunity to challenge the president's honor to avenge the disgrace he had suffered. On a boat en route to Fredericksburg, Randolph entered Jackson's cabin along with a group of well-wishers. After most of the visitors had left, Randolph approached Jackson—standing in a room full of loyal Democratic party members—removed his glove, posing as if he was going to shake the former president's hand. Instead, he reached out and tried to tweak the former president's nose, although Jackson swore "by the eternal God" that Randolph had been unsuccessful. Jackson tried to beat Randolph with his cane but was held back by the men in the room; Randolph fled, and Jackson insisted that no one was to "take revenge on my account" (one friend had offered to go and kill Randolph immediately). For years afterwards, Jackson contended that neither Randolph nor anyone else had ever pulled his nose, for if they had, that would have compromised Jackson's honor. In this culture, a man's honor was intricately tied to his appearance and his entire personal identity.

A nose pulling, while it might seem a very trivial affair today, was considered at the time to be a blatant and intrinsically public insult to another man's credibility and honor. Any offense, or attempted offense, against a man's reputation warranted a violent response. The nose was considered so coterminous with the rest of the body, and by extension, with the reputation of the person, that newspapers referred to this incident as the "Lieutenant Randolph outrage" but rarely specified the word "nose" by name. Years later, Randolph was apprehended and charged for what he had done, but Jackson asked his friend, President Martin Van Buren, to pardon the Lieutenant. Why? Not because of any sudden change of heart. In the culture of honor, as Jackson's own mother had taught him, it would be shameful to allow anyone else, especially the legal system, to seek retribution for you. The only manly response to a personal attack, it was believed, was another personal attack.

The Lieutenant Randolph Outrage was hardly an isolated incident; just months later, two men—named Thomas Walker Gilmer and William C. Reeves—were in the midst of a heated argument in the back room of a Charlottesville, Virginia, tavern when Gilmer applied his right hand "gently" to the other's nose. In response, Rives beat Gilmer with his horsewhip, and when Gilmer wrested control of the weapon, he in turn inflicted "several stripes" on Rives's legs, shoulders, and forehead. Such conflicts were actually considered somewhat restrained, as they did not ultimately lead to a potentially mortal duel. Amazingly (for most readers today) the initial reason for the argument was a disagreement over U.S. tariff policy, but the ultimate cause of the attack was that both men escalated the conflict by calling each other liars and hypocrites. A gentleman was supposed to defend himself against such charges, even to the point of death, rather than allow the accusation to stand.

Affairs of Honor

Disagreements of honor in antebellum America often involved violent actions and reactions, which could climax in a duel. An elaborate code of conduct, rules, and procedures—known as the code duello—governed these affairs. The code was passed down through the generations and reinforced within the elite communities of the period, particularly in the South. The duel was a very elite concept, restricted to members of the upper echelon who would not deign to fight a man beneath their own social stature. In contrast to their southern counterparts, northerners expressed a widespread disapproval of the dueling practice after founding father Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded by Republican political leader Aaron Burr in an 1804 duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. (Burr and Hamilton fought in New Jersey because dueling had already been outlawed in New York.)

By the 1830s, dueling was illegal everywhere, and the justice system sought to supplant the reasons for which it had once been deemed necessary. In 1838, when Kentucky Representative William Graves shot and killed Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley in a duel on a field in Maryland, all of the Supreme Court Justices refused to attend the funeral as a show of protest against the practice. Yet the honor code involved a series of elaborate, protracted and deliberate steps; the entire process was well thought out and scripted, not simply a matter of fights between hotheaded men. The arguments usually centered on speculations or implications that one of the parties involved was not a man of honor; that he had lied, schemed, or cheated, for example. If such a charge were made, the "victim" would send his accuser a letter requesting his response. If the accuser did not expressly clarify that his correspondent was a man of honor, more correspondence ensued until some form of satisfaction could be reached. Neither side would ever admit to having capitulated. Dueling itself was rarer, and in six duels out of seven, both duelers lived. Usually a dueler's associates could resolve the matter with some elaborate diplomacy, or the men involved would both fire their weapons without actually hitting each other (either on purpose or because of bad aim); convention stipulated that even a missed shot satisfied the honor of all participants.

In the prewar South, this elite culture was tacitly tied to slavery, since slaves were deprived of both honor and the control over their appearance and reputation—the two cornerstones of a respected gentleman's identity. Slaves represented the antithesis of the civilized white man, and the southern whites who did not have the propertied status to ascend into the dueling elite—that is, the majority of southern whites—aspired to assume such a role as a symbol of status and prestige. To subscribe to the code duello was to be a gentleman of honor, who would not even correspond with a poor white man who had insulted him (the difference in status meant that a propertied man would actually be debasing himself by recognizing any insult from such a "common" origin). Poor southern whites found themselves placed above the slave and below the dueler in an elaborate regional hierarchy of class and race. Their race kept them out of the bottom rung of society, but their class prevented them from ascending to the elite level. Honor was linked to social status in this world; the inferior black slave was also considered barbaric, savage, or simply inferior, whereas the wealthy planter was supposed to be principled, well-mannered, and refined.

Dueling Future President Lincoln

Although by the antebellum period most duels were confined to a very small and elite subset of the ten million people who lived in the South, they did occur elsewhere. Even in Illinois, the protracted dueling dance occasionally took place among the educated and propertied class. As a Whig legislator in the state senate, Abraham Lincoln—along with Mary Todd, whom he had not yet married—wrote a number of viciously satirical letters under the pseudonym "Rebecca." They made fun of the Democratic State Auditor, James Shields. After the letters were published in a newspaper, Shields wrote to Lincoln and demanded a retraction. Lincoln refused to do so because he had not written all of the letters; when Shields demanded a retraction of the letters Lincoln had written, Lincoln once again refused unless Shields was willing to withdraw his original letter (the one that accused Lincoln of character defamation). The stalemate led to a planned duel in Missouri on 22 September 1842. As the challenged party, Lincoln could specify his terms: he chose cavalry broadswords instead of pistols, because he thought that he could disarm Shields with the sword and because he feared that Shields would have killed him had he chosen pistols. Yet any potential violence was avoided on the day of the arranged duel, when both men's friends—each dueler had to have a "second" present to serve as a witness and orchestrate the dueling protocol—agreed to settle the matter before any actual fighting commenced. Shields's friends withdrew the Auditor's original note to Lincoln before Shields had even arrived. Shields would later become a brigadier general in the Union Army (under Lincoln's command) and the only United States Senator in history to represent three different states: Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.

Confidence Men and Painted Women

The Confidence Man and the Painted Woman: these two stereotypical figures represented much of what made middle-class Americans anxious during the antebellum period, when the boundaries between newly developing classes were still blurred, when industrialization brought about separate spheres for the sexes, and when rapid urbanization prompted the mushrooming growth of cities in a country that was still overwhelmingly rural. The stereotypes of the Confidence Man and the Painted Woman represented threats to the comfort, security, and morals of a middle-class society that was rapidly moving into the modern age. The term Confidence Man—which survives today as "con man"—was most famously memorialized as the title of Herman Melville's last major novel, published in 1857. In Melville's story, a man sneaks on board a Mississippi steamboat and proceeds to engage the passengers in a number of confidence games, or tricks in which he deceives them by misrepresenting himself in various guises. As Melville's character "Charlie" remarks to his friend "Frank" in the novel, "You have hearkened to my story in vain, if you do not see that, however indulgent and right-minded I may seem to you now, that is no guarantee for the future." Melville didn't coin the term "Confidence Man," however; the penny press of the period had used it for years to report on criminals who had defrauded their victims by posing as respectable gentlemen. A culture of sentimentalism emerged simultaneously with the Confidence Man because sincerity was thought to be under attack. Suddenly, in a public marketplace bustling with strangers, respectable men could not be sure who to trust and who was merely posing as a gentleman.

The Painted Woman symbolized a number of figures, from prostitutes to women who followed the latest fashions. She was the antithesis of the idealized nineteenth-century woman because she represented a dissembling female. That was supposed to be a contradiction in terms; a true woman was portrayed in the popular literature and the theater as incapable of deceit—she was the moral center of the home and the anchor of the bourgeois family. The very existence of the Painted Woman threatened to take that hallowed role and turn it on its head; suddenly women could embody the corrupted public sphere of the anonymous marketplace. From the 1830s through the 1850s and beyond, middle-class attitudes towards the use of makeup (known as "face painting") were gradually changing, and cosmetics grew increasingly acceptable from its former marginalized status as the tool of prostitutes. Yet this only made it harder to distinguish between respectable middle-class ladies and scheming lower-class seductresses and con artists. A parallel shift in ladies' fashions, aided by the invention of the sewing machine, brought about a more worldly emphasis on elaborate designs and skirts twelve-to-fifteen-feet in circumference. This widespread acceptance of ornament in dress, appearance, and even hairstyles all meant that a woman's forms of disguise were multiplying, not diminishing. Though bourgeois ladies thought of this practice as the "fine art" of a refined appearance and the display of good taste, it could also be duplicated more easily by potential impostors.

The bourgeoisie developed a culture in response to these perceived threats in which they prized the virtues of self-reliance, sincerity, and integrity. Etiquette books, fashion magazines, and advice manuals identified women (and many women promoted themselves) as the special guardians of acceptable conduct. Their supposedly safe role at home kept them in a domestic environment that was viewed as a bastion of Christian principles, as opposed to the emerging marketplace where their husbands went to work each day. That public sphere was characterized by temptation, vice, and crime.

Ironically, this conflicted new culture boomeranged on itself, bringing about many of the bad characteristics and habits that it had sought to avoid. Where sincerity was heralded as a virtue, middle-class men and women increasingly performed such genuineness in superficial—and therefore hypocritical—roles. The elaborate dress and etiquette of mourning for a loved one became a sort of theatrical demonstration, although it was supposed to evoke a bourgeois family's piety and gentility. True ladies were supposed to conduct themselves with a near-perfect level of physical and emotional self-restraint in society (so as to demonstrate their civilized nature); but that very restraint belied the sentimental ideal of a woman's honest and transparent self-expression. While substance was prized over superficiality, grand demonstrations of such substance often morphed into the artificiality and pomp of elaborate rituals and melodramatic theatricals. External appearance became a way for antebellum Americans not only to know one another but to read each other's innermost selves. The central problem was, they could not always rely on appearance, and they knew it.

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