Principalities & Powers

Gangbusters

In The Killer Angels, Michael Saara's novel about the battle of Gettysburg, there is a character named Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a British military observer attached to the Confederate forces. In part a comic figure, Fremantle is perpetually perplexed by Americans in general and Southerners in particular, and he painfully worries himself and others with his seldom-very-acute perceptions. One thing he can't understand is why all the Southerners he meets arc always so polite, and when he finally figures it out, he explains his discovery to General Lewis Armistead, who later recounts it to his colleagues. "That Fremantle is kind of funny," says Armistead. "He said that we Southerners were the most polite people he'd ever met, but then he noticed we all of us carry guns all the time, wherever we went, and he figured that maybe that was why."

For once, Colonel Fremantle may have hit upon an important truth, one that pertains not only to the antebellum South but also to human society in general. Armed societies are courteous societies, and many of history's most heavily armed social orders besides the Old South—those of the ancient Greeks, medieval European knights, Japanese Samurai, Renaissance courtiers, and barely literate cowboys on the American frontier—have also been noted for the elaborate rituals of courtesy and chivalry they practiced. The word "chivalry" itself,...

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