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Edward L. Ayers provides a thorough examination of Southern societies’ propensity for violence in his book, Vengeance and justice: crime and punishment in the 19th-century American South. He argues that the violence found in the culture of the southerner was ingrained in the minds and habits of Southerners from an early age and based on a Southern concept of “honor. Honor often had to be demonstrated. Ayer argues. Southerners maintained a “system of values within which you have exactly as much worth as others confer upon you (13).” This worth, he concludes, had to be defended to be maintained. Ayer describes a system in which whites of all classes participated, often with deadly consequences in an effort to retain or earn public impressions of honor. He sets the South apart from the North regarding public violence. He also links western violence to the same culture of violence, evident in the South. While the South sustained a violent atmosphere built around a southern interpretation of honor, the North developed their identity on “dignity”. Northern dignity was centered on, “the conviction that each individual at birth possessed an intrinsic value…equal to that of every other person (19).” Essentially, Northerners were not bound by the same public expectations of defending ones honor. Ayers argues that slavery was not the cause of the entrenched system of violence prevalent in the south, but believes without it, the South would have likely followed a path more similar to the North. He states, “slavery was the key: slavery insulated the colonial and antebellum South…from the economic cultural forces so bound up with dignity (27).”Ayers’ analysis begins with the development of the penitentiary system in the mid-nineteenth century, to flush out structural differences in publicly acceptable systems of punishment, between the North and South, prior to the Civil War. As modernity brought about changes in the way individuals were punished, the South exhibited greater resistant than the North in accepting this change. In the South, public forms of punishment persisted, often to a fatal end. Ayers makes a connection with his primary thesis, linking southern ideas of honor to violence and their treatment in the Judicial system. He does this by pointing out that the overwhelming majority of incarcerations in the Antebellum South were property crimes, yet convictions of violent crimes, such as dueling, which could result in permanent injury or death, likely went unpunished. From the development of the penitentiary system, Ayers moves to Savannahs city life. He points to the many similarities with other coastal cities in the North and Europe. These include the development of a police force to deal with greater populations of young white males who have little wealth and no property. However, in regard to crime, Ayerss stats that “Southern cities, which shared so much with their Northern counterparts…still harbored a markedly different configuration of crime, on marked by a higher percentage of violence (99).” There was a high prevalence of fights and duels, particularly with the slave owning classes, often related to, or themselves members of society’s elites. In addition, to the pre-established white elites, Savannah attracted immigrants, primarily from Ireland. Ayer’s points out that alcohol abuse, ubiquity of weapons, prejudice, and poverty sometimes combined with cultural norms accepting physical violence as leading many of these young immigrants on a path to prison. Nevertheless, the crime most became convicted of was crime related to property, not violence.Establishing a Southern microcosm with which to conduct his study, Ayers moves from the urban Savannah, to the counties of Green and Whitfield, Georgia, to illustrate the distinct reactions to crime in otherwise unrelated communities. Green County, a plantation community and Whitfield County a recently wooded, less-developed back country, represented different lifestyles, in comparison from each other, and also the more urban Savannah. As different as these communities were, however, they were tied together by “a shared criminal-justice system (109).” This system was consistent in dealing more harshly with property crimes than violent time, separating it from the rest of the modernized world (111). Exasperating timely effective punishment of crime was a bi-annual judicial system. This system made speedy trials difficult, perhaps facilitating likelihood for unsanctioned local justice. Ayers moves from the antebellum period rapidly into the post-Civil war period. The Southern power structure, dominated by whites in the war’s immediate aftermath motivated lawmakers to deal with the former slaves with the “notorious, Black Codes (151).” These laws gave greater power to local magistrates, which gave black men and women little legal recourse. Passing new laws, local leaders in the South, took away many constitutional rights, most importantly, the last defense of free men against oppression and tyranny, firearms, making the subjugation and control of African Americans a forgone conclusion (153). Ayers points to rises in vigilantism, often by white supremacists groups, which carried out “justice,” often by lynching. Ayers established credible evidence demonstrating that African Americans begin to be imprisoned at rates never before seen in the South (170). The law enforcement, judicial, and prison infrastructure evident in the North, were far less developed in the South. Ayers contents that the combination of a newly freed workforce (former slaves), an industry of agriculture that was in desperate need of cheap labor, incoming industrial capitalists rebuilding the South’s infrastructure, and a willing legal system focused on maintaining the “superiority” of the white race led to the establishment of a “chain gang” workforce, specifically focused on former slaves and their offspring (177). County governments were now incentivized to pick up and imprison “vagrants” and “trespassers.” Jails could now be emptied so that forced labor could be leased out, which created a boom for financially strapped counties (177). This “convict lease system,” perpetuated the image of African Americans as a type of slave, and is, “perceived as merely a bald attempt by whites to resurrect slavery in a disguised form (185).” This now entrenched system forcefully required former slaves into a system which African Americans, once valued as slaves, became highly expendable as free African American men. Ayers provides evidence that the system was both profitable, and, for many, deadly due to the nature of the labor as well as living conditions (201). Ayers argues that the foundations of the convict lease system were born of the, “South’s history of slavery and nascent capitalism,” due to the use, by industrialists’ (for railroads, coal mines, roads, etc.) willingness to accept leased labor (222). The further the South (particularly the Black Belt region) moved in time from the failed promise of reconstruction, the further separated African American society was from white society, “becoming dangerously estranged (229).” Tension became heightened. By the 1890s, lynching became an epidemic, “nearly 700 people died at the hands of lynchers, between 1889-1893 (238).” Driving this fear, Ayers contends, “The fear of black rape obviously triggered something deep within the psyche of the white South (240).” Here we see a tie-in to Ayers’ original thesis, relating honor and violence to a system of oppression, not slavery, but tyranny. The prevalence of lynching in the South, clearly demonstrates the culture of violence, which was sustained long after the Civil War. Additionally, Ayers makes clear that, “Lynch mobs began with pressure from below as well as from leaders above,” pointing to various classes that participated in them (245).Edward Ayers makes a compelling case that the South nurtured a culture of violence from its very foundation. His compelling analysis, outlined in the notes section consisting of sixty-four pages, attests to his well-researched work. I disagree that capitalism was central to the development of the labor lease system. Pre-established social constructs of a slave class being the more likely reason as well as entrenched racism in the publicly elected officials, is the more likely target. Capitalism as an economic system in the North as slavery declined, The North was far more industrialized, and capitalistic, and had large free African American populations, and yet the public would have not accepted the same levels of oppression there. Nevertheless, he writes a compelling history worth reading. Regarding exceptionalism, he points to Scots-Irish immigrants as bringers of violent cultural practices with them, but points at slavery as it was practiced in America as having a large role in the type of “honor” driven Aristocracy that formed in the South.

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نوشته شده در : شنبه 20 خرداد 1396  توسط : Robert Carotenuto.    نظرات() .

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