A Man Is Not Born To Run Away
A cluster of beliefs mentally programmed westerners to commit violence: the doctrine of no duty to retreat; the imperative of personal self-redress; the homestead ethic; the ethic of individual enterprise; the Code of the West; and the ideology of vigilantism.
The doctrine of no duty to retreat emerged when the West, along with the rest of America, made a transition from the English common law of homicide and self-defense, in which flight or retreat was legally required in combat situations, to the frontier-western-American concept of no duty to retreat. Crucial to the English common law of homicide was the notion of escape: in a personal dispute that threatened to become violent, one must flee from the scene. Should it be impossible to get away, however, the common law required that one retreat as far as possible — "to the wall" at one's back — before violently resisting an antagonist in an act of lawful self-defense.
In 1865, Wild Bill Hickok killed Dave Tutt in a Missouri public square in the West's first notable "walkdown." A uniquely American view of self-defense, a view forged in frontier gunfights like Hickok's. When faced with a deadly threat, we have the right to stand our ground and fight. We have no duty to retreat.
Following the westward movement of white American settlers beyond the Appalachians, the highest court in state after state canceled the English duty to retreat in favor of the American right to stand one's ground. In 1876 the top Ohio court held that a "true man" was "not obligated to fly" from an assailant. The following year the Indiana Supreme Court got to the heart of the matter: "The tendency of the American mind seems to be very strongly against the enforcement of any rule which requires a person to flee when assailed."
The gunfights of the frontier and their impact on our legal traditions. The right to stand one's ground, appeared relatively recently and remains a central theme in American thought and character. A duty-to-retreat law is the ultimate debasement of man. It means that your life is not worth protecting except as a last resort. It also means that your intruder's life is worth protecting except as a last resort. You are little better than your assailant.
The climax of the American renunciation of the duty to retreat came with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1921 decision in the case of Brown v. United States. The 7-2 majority opinion endorsing no duty to retreat was written by the noted civil libertarian Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose brisk language was a withering dismissal of the duty to retreat. The Supreme Court's decision reversed a federal-court murder conviction of a self- defending Texan who stood his ground and shot to death a knife-wielding assailant. In private correspondence about the case, Holmes noted that in its common and statute law, Texas was the strongest of all states in favor of the doctrine of no duty to retreat. In Texas, Holmes wrote approvingly, "a man is not born to run away."
Throughout the West, the imperative of personal self-redress of grievances was strong. In American frontier history Andrew Jackson, who was reared on the South Carolina frontier and established himself in frontier Tennessee, recounted how his mother's 1781 deathbed admonition to him as a youth of fourteen had been never "to tell a lie, nor take what is not yours, nor sue . . . for slander" but to "settle them cases for yourself "—advice by which the future president, who had killed an opponent in a duel, lived. In the West itself the gunfighting Texas-born New Mexico rancher Oliver M. Lee invoked the ethic of personal self-redress to justify the killings in his embattled career. "I never in my life willingly hurt man, woman, or child—unless they hurt me first. Then I made them pay."
Another powerful inspiration for violent behavior by westerners was, time and again, the homestead ethic, whose morality went back to the colonial Anglo-American frontier. This grass-roots doctrine had three key beliefs: the right to have and to hold a family-size farm, the homestead; the right to enjoy a homestead unencumbered by a ruinous economic burden such as an onerous mortgage or oppressive taxes; and the right peacefully to occupy the homestead without fear of violence (such as that by Indians or outlaws) to person or property.
Stretching to the highest realm of the American and western economy was a contrasting value: the large-property owner's ethic of individual enterprise in a market economy. The individual-enterprise ethic was strongly supported by the greatest capitalists of the West, including such legendary self-made men as the "Big Four" entrepreneurs who built the railroad empire of the Central and Southern Pacific lines and the "cattle kings" such as Captain Richard King of Texas and William C. Irvine of Wyoming. It was not just the big-name industrialists and agrarian magnates who subscribed so ardently to the entrepreneurial ethic but also countless others in small businesses and the professions. Throughout the West, these aggressive men-on-the-make were ever ready to use violence in allegiance to the individual-enterprise ethic and in defense of their landed and industrial property.
As the nineteenth century wore on, the civilians of the West, brandishing revolvers and rifles in the ordinary course of daily affairs, became one of the most heavily armed populations in the world. The uniquely armed and conflicted society of the West—a "legacy of conquest" in the historian Patricia Nelson Limerick's apt phrase—produced notions of western honor culminating in the Code of the West. Central to the Code of the West were the doctrine of no duty to retreat, the imperative of personal self-redress, and an ultrahigh value on courage, which often became, in the phrase of one historian, "reckless bravado"—a bravado that, however, was praised for its courage and not derided for its recklessness.
An Englishman who traveled across the West from California to Texas in the 1870s-1880s observed firsthand the Code of the West among his quick-to-shoot cowboy mates on a long 1880s Texas cattle drive. For readers of the British Cornhill Magazine, this anonymous Englishman enumerated the elements of what he termed the "somewhat primitive code of honour" of the cowboys: honesty, courage, sensitive pride, stoic indifference to pain, and, above all, a violent vengefulness against insult. With the cowboy, it was "frequently not a word and a blow but a word and a bullet," for the Code of the West was upheld by ready resort to the six-gun. Allegiance to the Code of the West produced a gunfight that claimed a life on this cattle drive. The urban West shared in the code, as the writer Rudyard Kipling found when, at about the same time, he visited the "civilized city" of Portland, Oregon. To his deep distaste Kipling observed that the jury and Portlanders at large viewed a murder case from the perspective of the western code, emphasizing the proper conditions under which a gunfight might legitimately occur and the fairness of such combat. That such prescriptions were often violated was testimony to the view that they were needed.
Nineteenth-century America was obsessed by masculine honor—North, South, East, and West. The Code of the West was a variant of the national emphasis on honor, a variant that was responsive to the particular conditions of western society in which the actuality or threat of gunplay was pervasive. Basic to the Code of the West was what President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a nationally televised address of 1953, stressed as the essence of that code and as the code of Abilene, Kansas (Eisenhower's hometown), and its frontier marshal James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok: "Meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree" and "if you met him face to face and took the same risk as he did, you could get away with almost anything [killing included], as long as the bullet was in front."
Whereas western gunfighting brought the Code of the West into focus, one of the most common institutions of western violence—vigilantism—had its own set of beliefs. The ideology of vigilantism was regularized in the vigilante bylaws, constitutions, and oaths to which westerners frequently subscribed. Motivated by the objective of supporting the values of life and property under conditions of frontier and western disorder, vigilante bands took the law into their own hands for the paradoxical purpose of law enforcement—law as they saw it, in its substantive form of justice rather than its procedurally legal sense. Since vigilantes were almost invariably led by the elite, well-to- do members of early western communities, the ideology of vigilantism reflected the need to justify taking the law into one's own hands (in effect, committing a revolution against the State) on the part of those who were ordinarily the most zealous upholders of the legal system of law and order.
At the core of the ideology of vigilantism were three elements: self-preservation, the right of revolution, and popular sovereignty. To vigilantes, self-preservation was "the first law of nature," and thus vigilantism was necessary to preserve the community against outlaw activity. By the same token, although vigilante action was a blow against legal authority, it was justified by the right of revolution, which, in analogy to the intolerable conditions that inspired revolution against the British in 1776, justified vigilante bands, which, likewise, were seen as being like "revolutionary tribunals." By the related doctrine of popular sovereignty, vigilantes as well as Americans at large saw the people as being above the law—a law viewed as ineffective against frontier crime. To its adherents, vigilantism was but a case of the people exercising their sovereign power, in the interest of self-preservation, against the disorderly. Crucial, also, to the ideology of vigilantism was its economic rationale: vigilantism was not only often far more certain and fair than the regular system of law and order but also much cheaper. A Denver newspaper reported the popular view that an 1879 vigilante hanging in nearby Golden was not only "well merited but a positive gain to the county, saving it at least five or six thousand dollars."
The turbulent 1870s-1880s mining camp of Bodie, California, was typical of the violent pastoral and mining boomtowns where highly homicidal gunfighters were seldom condemned by law or public opinion as long as they observed the Code of the West. Away from these mining camps and prairie towns, however, the rapidly urbanizing West of the late nineteenth century resembled the rest of the United States. According to a study of Alameda County, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, these areas were becoming less violent as the criminal-justice system responded to the mounting public demand for a peaceful civic culture.
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