From the 2016 Abbeville Institute Summer School.

So, what I have to say is gonna be, I think, somewhat maybe tedious.  I’ve tried to boil down stuff I’ve been working on for years, many chapters of a book project, and sometimes when you boil things down, it’s not like distilling rose petals. You don’t get the fine essence, what you get is thin gruel. So, I’m gonna check my time to make sure I don’t bore you to tears. All right. You’ve all had the experience: “What do you do for a living?” the Northerner inevitably asks someone he’s just met. The Southerner just as inevitably responds with a question: “Where are you from?” or if the two are very old-fashioned Southerners: “Where do your people bury?” which was Andrew Lytle’s great question. We’ve all heard something like this comparison a thousand times, it’s a commonplace of Southern regionalist conversation. Friends of the North, when they hear this commonplace, must wonder if there is any truth in it, or even if it is true, if there’s any deeper significance. Is it just a cultural tic as Vanderbilt professor Paul Kurtz (a transplanted Iowan, by the way), refers to Southern traditions such as saying “y’all” or eating mustard greens, or is it a surface indication of a divide that is more ethical than cultural and perhaps more spiritual than it is ethical? We get an early hint of what this means from the very young Eliza Lucas in 1742. Everybody knows who Eliza Lucas is in this room. If not then, well, you shouldn’t be here. Eliza was the daughter of a British officer stationed in the Caribbean and she’s managing her daddy’s plantation over west of the Ashley [River]. Eliza had been begging her father to let her siblings join her in South Carolina and she was lamenting the condition of a brother who had been given up by his doctor: “Our good friend, Mrs. Boddicott expresses the most tender concern for him. What then must those feel, who are related to him by blood as well as friendship?”

Throughout Eliza’s letter book and across the decades, she remained constant to her siblings, in-laws, and a broad set of kinfolks. When she married the recently widowed Charles Pinckney, Eliza determined to be as faithful a relation to his kinfolk as his first wife had been. Now if I were a professor or a preacher, two species of beings who are convinced that they can change the world by changing people’s minds (I don’t have that delusion), I would begin by outlining my topic, which is attachment to kith and kin as the defining ethic of the South and of traditional societies before the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I might even start by defining terms, pointing out that the old word “kith” is related etymologically to “couth” and means something like “knowledge,” and by extension the people, you know: friends, neighbors, and countrymen, they’re “kith.” “Couth” refers more generally to what is known or familiar. Hence, when we say that some things or some people are “uncouth,” we’re saying first that they’re alien and second that they’re awkward, gauche, crude. So, kith is couth while aliens are uncouth. Since I am neither preacher nor professor, I won’t do anything of this kind.

I’m also not gonna talk much about Southern literature, but if I were… to pass by in silence, I would bring up these themes in connection with the South’s most representative novelist, William Faulkner, and contrast him with his rival and sometime nemesis, Ernest Hemingway. Somebody (Was it Clyde?) was doing this the other night briefly and I was grinding my teeth lest he steal my thunder. Hemingway, an Illinois native, spent his life everywhere. But in Oak Park where he grew up, he made an almost desperate attempt to escape his memory of family life and celebrated, not kith and kin or home place, but what men did for a living as soldiers, fishermen, and bullfighters. Faulkner, by contrast, carved out a unique literary territory, a fictionalized county in Mississippi with a dense forest of interrelated family trees that strikes most Americans today as far more alien than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But that’s a theme for another time. I might also talk (if I were to make that sort of talk) about a different kind of novel as dear to common readers as Faulkner has been to critics and scholars. I refer of course, to Margaret Mitchell’s pop-fiction best seller Gone with the Wind. Among the most memorable passages of the novel and the movie, the blockbuster movie of 1939 (made not long after the book’s publication), are reflections on kith and kin:

“Wilkeses and Hamiltons marry their own cousins.”

“Land is the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts.”

Before finally embarking on my subject, I want to make one last prefatory observation, this designed primarily for Don Livingston and his beautiful and brilliant wife, who are philosophers. My title implies that kith and kin are ethical concepts, or at least that relations of kith and kin have an ethical component. If there were any moral philosophers here, they would quite properly stand up and denounce me for being ethically incorrect. In the philosophical mainstream of the past 400 years, moral questions have been treated in purely rational terms. Ethicists speak of universal human rights or universal duties which are conceived of by rational men and women who then act by force of will according to their rational understanding of right and wrong and rights and duties. Conservatives, people who say they’re conservative, are in fact hostiles to this liberal revolutionary tradition that undermine societies. They’re like the hostages, people taken hostages, who come to identify with the hostage-takers. The whole “conservative movement” is a perfect illustration of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Friendship, kinship, and motherhood are non-rational relationships. You can’t figure them out. They may confer certain duties, but a mother’s unreasoning and self-sacrificing love for her child is not part of human moral reality according to the philosophers, any more than an unreasoning attachment to friends, neighbors, or place impose moral obligations. If we think for just a moment, we could never have arrived at a point where we believe that Americans have a duty to admit, protect, and nurture hostile aliens from cultures and religions that are completely opposite to our own, if we took into account our duties to friends and family. So, back to Gone with the Wind. At the Wilkes’s barbeque, Charles Hamilton observes that Rhett Butler looks like one of the Borgias. Scarlett (who is no great reader) asks: “I don’t know them. Is he kin to them? Who are they?” Scarlett is a self-obsessed flirt, but kinship is the only way she has of relating to the world. She’s a hardly alone, nor is thinking in terms of kinship a prerogative of the illiterate in Gone with the Wind. Hear again: “Half of Atlanta was kin to or claimed kin with Melanie and India. The ramifications of cousins, double cousins, cousins-in-law and kissing cousins were so intricate and evolved that no one but a born Georgian could ever unravel them.”

Atlanta was far from unique in the South. Indeed, Atlanta when compared with Charleston or Savannah was a frontier town filled with crude individualists. Scarlett disliked Savannah and “did not like the people who called on them with their airs and their traditions and their emphasis on family.” South Carolina was even more obsessed than Savannah with family and kin. Professor Lorri Grover, in her book All Our Relations has argued that networks of siblings and extended kinfolks are at the heart of Charleston’s social and political life from the earliest days of the colony:

“They not only contributed to the success and persistence of particular colonists, but also dramatically shaped economic and political life in South Carolina. Kin support proved essential to the development of early merchant firms, businesses, and plantations in and around Charleston. Even in the 18th century, the South Carolina low country and coastal Georgia were noted for the strength of kin relations at a time when such bonds were weakening in England and the more developed parts of Europe.”

Several reasons have been given by people who call themselves historians. One is that a high death rate and low life expectancy somewhat diminished bonds between parents and children. This development correspondingly strengthened bonds within the generation, between siblings, in-laws, and cousins. This must have played some part in this, but perhaps it’s not the whole story, because, after all, brothers and sisters who have lost one or two parents would have to depend more on each other and on aunts and uncles and cousins. Forging and maintaining these bonds of kinship was somewhat easier in the Low Country with its urban capital of Charleston that provided second homes to planters, as opposed to either the back-country of South Carolina or Virginia, though it’s certainly true that Virginia was dominated by interrelated networks of elite families like the Randolphs and Lees.

To get a handle on how kinship and marital alliances functioned here, consider the career of Thomas Lynch, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence and heir to this plantation of Hopseewee. He was the son of Tom Lynch, Sr., and Hannah Motte, the sister of Isaac Motte. She was the granddaughter of Jake Motte. Jacob was the father of 19 children, including Jacob Motte the Second, who married Rebecca Bruton Motte, sister of Miles Bruton, who was a very wealthy planter and merchant. Other daughters married Thomas Pinckney, William Henry Drayton, General William Moultrie (Note the pronunciation please because I’m really tired of hearing civilized South Carolinians say “mole-tree,” as a graduate of General William Moultrie high school. Let’s get this name straight).

Thomas Lynch Sr.’s first wife had been Elizabeth Allston of Brookgreen [plantation] up the road. This was a family that would give South Carolina some of its most prominent people in the 19th century, especially. Thomas Jr. married Elizabeth Shubrick, whose sister Mary married Edward Rutledge, and her sister Hannah married Thomas Hayward, both signers of the Declaration of Independence and at the top of the Low Country social and political hierarchy. So, I race through this. There will be a test in 20 minutes to make sure you memorized the genealogical tree. But the point is not the details, but image that you should get of kin networks that dominate the political structure of the Low Country from Georgetown to Buford. These aristocratic marriages were mirrored by the middling and professional classes who were equally prone to establish kin-based associations of power and wealth.

Gail and I lived for some years in McClellanville and in McClellanville, if you weren’t a McClellan, a Morrison, Graham, Lofton, or Seabrook, you were nobody. And if you live there long enough, you will you have to deal with a mental genealogical tree and carry it always in your mind to understand why so-and-so hates so-and-so. When the British came to the New World, they found it hard to make their way as rugged individualists, according to the American myth, and they had to depend on friends, neighbours, and family more than they did in the Old World. This flies in the face of several cherished American myths [such as] rugged individualism and American Exceptionalism.

In fact, the settlement and migration patterns of the first of all, the coastal stage, but then as they move westward, indicate that coastal American tended to be settled by kinfolks from very specific villages and regions of Britain. Now, when they moved west as Daniel Boone, for example, did, he didn’t move, Boone, didn’t move as an individual. He moved with family and kinfolks. Part at least of the American myth stems from a misunderstanding of Thomas Jefferson, the enlightened intellectual who declared that men were born free and equal and who seemed as at home in Paris as he did on his plantation in Virginia. But there were two Jeffersons, the Jefferson who penned the Declaration and filled it with nonsense about “self-evident truths” and the Jefferson who wrote the Notes on the State of Virginia and looked after family and kinfolk as if they were his most prized possessions. After leaving the White House, Jefferson spent most of the rest of his life living with his family and corresponding with nephews and grandchildren. All you have to do is look through his correspondence to see who Jefferson cared about (other than John Adams).

Attachment to kinfolk is not simply a Charleston mania. You know, there’s the old joke, everybody knows this, right? “Why are the Charlestonians like the Chinese? They worship their ancestors.” Exactly. It’s the human norm of all great civilizations. There’s a scholarly study [called] prosopography. Prosopographers study the significance of prominent careers. And they have a field day with the Athenian clans, for example, or the kin-folk, kin relations in Rome. My old teacher, T.R.S. Broughton literally wrote the book on the aristocratic families of the Roman Republic. You get a similar great work from Lewis Namier about the British aristocratic families.

In the Old and New Testaments, among Greeks and Romans, and in most previous and subsequent ages, there was no worse crime than parricide (killing somebody who had begotten you), and no sin more serious than disrespect for parents. Christ in Matthew 10, speaking of the persecution of the Apostles that will come says: “the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and father the child, and the children shall rise up against their parents and cause them to be put to death.” This is a picture, of course, of a nightmare. Similarly, St. Paul says: “in the last time men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affections.” By the way, you could write a whole book based on that notion of natural affection. Jesus and Paul’s nightmarish depiction of the last days has a lot in common with the predictions made by Hesiod, a Greek poet who comes right after Homer: “There’s a future age where children will be born with gray hair, fathers and children will quarrel, brothers will not love each other or respect their parents.” This is the end of the world, when kin relations dissolve.

Now, coming back to 18th century South Carolina [and] Eliza Lucas, of course, who marries Mr. Pinckney and is known as Eliza Lucas Pinkney. She’s forever admonishing her siblings and children on the importance of respecting parents. She even went so far as to write (this is very funny if you know the people involved) a “Dear Billy” letter to a 19-year-old William Henry Drayton, complaining that the young man had written a letter with too much warmth toward his father: “Consider my child how much duty, deference, and affectionate respect is due to a parent.” Of course, William Henry Drayton becomes one of the dominant figures during the [American] Revolution. The fact that Eliza can speak to 19-year-old Billy in this way is very endearing.

The relationship of parents and children, and between siblings, while these are the most immediate and demanding of blood ties, is not the only degree of kinship that imposes obligations. There have been many societies, not all of them primitive or non-European, in which second or third cousins enjoy the right to inherit property or find themselves subject to penalties for crimes committed by distant relatives. Kinship and its duties are not an ideal, but an essential part of humanity’s survival kit. In the modern or postmodern world, though, both law and mass culture have made steady inroads into the solidarity of families and kindreds. Nonetheless, family reunions, Christmas letters, genealogical databases, and social networking sites are used frequently to remind even distant cousins of their connections. One way of looking at kinship is to see it as a balance sheet, a collection of pluses and minuses, the capacity to inherit property balanced by a liability for punishment.

The benefits of kinship are that it dictates to whom you can be married. So it legitimates marriage and on the other hand it says who can inherit property. In most societies, you can’t marry people you’re vertically related to. You can’t marry your grandfather. You can’t marry your grandchild. There are some genetic advantages to avoiding this inbreeding, but really the whole stability of the family depends on this. Christianity developed some rather too-explicit rules because they combined Roman law with Jewish law and it ended up that you couldn’t even marry a sixth cousin. Now, fortunately the Pope for a consideration could always could always give you an indulgence for this. In the case of Henry VIII, he was not supposed to marry Catherine, but he was given an indulgence. The big trick is those indulgences are non-reversible. You can’t turn them around.

Incest avoidance rules are the means that we have of defining what marriage is. Every society is different, but every society has to say, “This is good, that is not.” Modern governments, though, by a stroke of the pen can legalize any marital union, including a member of the same sex. The incest taboo is the next. A lot of so-called conservatives (a word which I find very amusing), think that the next rule to be broken will be polygamy. (Look, polygamy is comparatively normal compared to what we’re suffering now). But no, it’s incest that’s the next rule. A New York State appeals court has ruled that marriages between uncles and nieces are legal. New Jersey has already legalized such unions. The ethics council that advises the German government has recommended relaxing incest rules against marriage between brother and sister. The elimination of incest rules is part of a general attack on marriage, turning it from an institution for maintaining property and family across the generations into a means of satisfying sexual desires or providing a bond of affection. “Loooove.” This severs the connection between sex and procreation. It’s sex without consequences, contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, and now the elimination of [laws prohibiting] incest. So, the other aspect or part of these ancestral marriage rules, the other big thing is inheritance. This is a really boring subject which I’ll skip. I have some pity and sympathy and people have had dinner.

Property and inheritance laws, more than incest prohibitions, indicate how society structure their prohibitions. Today, you can basically in most states and in most Western societies, write a will disinheriting your natural heirs, your wife and children, and giving your money to the last floozie you had a fling with in Vegas. In the old days, these things were circumscribed by custom and law. In the Middle Ages, of course, there were rules on primogeniture. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about primogeniture law because, roughly by 1600, these laws had been overturned in England. And so, what you did not have was primogeniture law, but a preference among the landed aristocracy, who had the right to give their property to their eldest son, or in some cases to their eldest child. There were some cases where primogeniture worked in favor of the daughter. What matters is not the details of any particular system, but the fact that every society in human history has a way of dictating inheritance laws.

In calculating the costs and benefits of kinship, we have to reckon with the dead as well as with the living. If you’re my first cousin, it’s because we have a pair of grandparents in common. In the ancient world, the primary duty of an heir was to make the funeral arrangements for the deceased, to tend his grave and to carry out religious obligations. So, just as there is no one ideal form of government, there is no one ideal structure of kinship and inheritance. The law is always adapted to fit changing circumstances. The rule of primogeniture passed away. Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson worked relentlessly to prevent people from being able to entail their estate to make sure it was given to the heirs they wanted. Jefferson basically believed the land belonged to the living and therefore every heir had the right to pass it on as he wanted. Jefferson, embedded in a network of kinship and loyalty, nonetheless did his best to undermine the legal and economic basis of those relations. The snake in the pretty grass of Jefferson’s social revolution is the tendency to detach a current possessor from the entangling network of family ties. This effect would not have pleased Jefferson because, if ever there was a man in American history embedded in his family, it was Jefferson.

Even in modern American law, where inheritances are determined by the passing mood of the testator, the property of a man dying intestate is awarded to next of kin, according to a fixed order and formula that varies from state to state, whether it goes directly down or, or it goes down for a while and then goes over to brother and sister, whatever it is. In some states, a surviving spouse splits the estate with his surviving descendants. In some states, it has to go to the wife or [at least] part of it. Far from making a family more dependent on government, these laws reinforce the traditional relationship with between blood and property. Laws of intestate succession represent a legal consensus that acknowledges the propriety of the traditional pattern of inheritance that goes back to the ancient and medieval world.

The question is: “Well look, I’ve worked hard. I’ve built up an estate. Can I give it to whom I want?” And to some extent that answer is yes, but to some extent you’re ignoring the contributions made to your life by your parents and your grandparents. It’s not only that you have inherited their property, but you have inherited skills and abilities, moral discipline, and things which they inculcated in you. My parents were middle class people. They encouraged habits of discipline. Serious reading sent me off to college. They left me a modest stake of money that came in handy when I was an impoverished young writer. I cannot repay my dead parents for all this, but I can discharge some of my obligation by passing what little wealth I have (less every day) on to their grandchildren. There’s also the biological fact that I am genetically the sum of my parents’ contribution to my being, just as my children are the sum of the genetic contribution made by my wife and me. It’s very interesting how genetic and sociobiology confirm what the Bible teaches us about human nature. Wealthy Americans like J. Howard Marshall appear to feel no shame in disinheriting their children or in leaving a large part of their estates to women a third their age. This is the case, of course, of Anna Nicole Smith. In earlier times to disinherit your children and give it to a floozie was viewed as despotic and a sign of mental and social disorder. I’ve interviewed lawyers who deal with wills and they say, “Well, you know, it’s his money. He can do what he wants.”

In the old South and in other traditional societies, the most significant asset that could be passed down was the home place. When Scarlett asks Rhett at the end of the novel where he’s going, he replies: “I’ve reached the end of roaming. I’m forty-five, the age when a man begins to value some of the things he’s thrown away so lightly in youth. The clannishness of families, honour, and security. Roots that go deep.” This Southern sense of roots in place and home is explicitly contrasted with the rootless North. At the Wilkes’s barbeque, everyone is at home except Mrs. Calvert, a former Yankee governess, who, “after fifteen years never seemed to belong anywhere.” Home, as that great Yankee poet named after Robert E. Lee (Robert Frost) observed, is a focus of sentiment. The place for when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The place somehow you don’t have to deserve. In traditional societies home is connected with the ever-present dead. It’s not just the home for the living. In Athens someone who claimed Athenian citizenship had to prove their citizenship and say not only who their ancestors were, but where their people were buried and what the shrines were, where they worshiped. “Where are the family graves?” That citizen’s citizenship depended on knowing where your people were buried.

This familial piety that goes beyond the grave stands in sharp contrast with our attitudes. For Romans and other traditional people, the dead have not entirely gone away. They may, in the manner of Greek heroes, bless their descendants and people in the neighborhood, or if they’re offended, they could prove troublesome. Once a year at the Parentalia, [for] nine days in February, Roman families honored their ancestors whose shades were brought offerings and exorcised any malevolent intentions that might have been provoked by unworthy descendants. Ovid tells a tale that when on one occasion the rights had not been observed, ghosts left their tombs and threatened Rome. Obviously, the cynical Ovid didn’t believe this. In May, they celebrated the Lemuria whose rites were generally aimed at exorcising malevolent ghosts. Traditional Catholics today preserve this understanding of the awesome dead by celebrating All Saints [Day] and All Souls [Day].

Andrew Lytle celebrated familial piety in his family memoir, A Wake for the Living, whose very title is evocative of what I’m trying to talk about. In the world in which Lytle grew up, the connection to kinfolk was a vital necessity; in the world in which he grew old, the bonds had weakened:

“If you don’t know who you are or where you come from, you will find yourself at a disadvantage. The ordered slums of suburbia are made for the confusion of the spirit. Those who live in units called homes or estates, and both words do violence to the language, they don’t know who they are. For the profound stress between that union that is the flesh and the spirit, they have been forced to exchange appetites.”

Mr. Andrew was perhaps fortunate in not living any longer than he did in his long life. He would’ve been far more at home in the Roman Republic than in Schaumburg, Illinois. At an American funeral at the 21st century, relatives and friends arrive at the funeral parlor or church, dressed in every style and color. When they’re not chatting up the widow and children, they speak casually of sports, entertainment, politics. I frequently hear people even older than I am (which is perhaps a little improbable), say things like: “I’m so glad we don’t have to wear black anymore. Dark colors are so depressing, don’t you think? Aunt Joan would not have wanted us to feel sad.” But we still take sufficient interest in the dear departed when there is money or property to be inherited.

Before coming here with a couple of students, we were headed toward Hampton and we drove down old Georgetown Road to the Brick Church, which is a church of the 1760s, the parish church, officially the Parish Church of St. James Santee today. I was once junior warden there and we used to have, two or three times a year, on Easter and Brick Church Sunday, and everybody would come back for the Brick Church Sunday celebration. And the Bishop often came and children were often baptized, at Easter, especially. And then there was a picnic and there was something so charming and so beautiful. We’d spread out these blankets and on flat tombstones, drinking champagne, eating food, and the distant descendants of the dead frolicking among the tombs of their ancestors. Now, this is something out of Greek and Roman history. This is something alien, unfortunately, to the world we live in. Men and women who have no regard for past ancestors will probably not waste much energy thinking about their descendants. It is all too common for Americans, when they retire, to go in search of eternal youth in Florida or Arizona, moving away from their grandchildren. If they are rich enough, they can afford to pay visits and receive visits from their descendants, but if they’re of limited means visits may be limited to once or twice a year.

I wonder what postmoderns think of the comic French film Le Visiteurs. Anybody seen Le Visiteurs? It’s a wonderful movie; I recommend everybody to see it. A medieval French knight played by Jean Reno is transported to the late 1990s, and the first half of the movie, he’s obviously a fool, he doesn’t know about bathtubs, he doesn’t know about plumbing. But he sees this girl who is his great-great-great-great-great-great, you can’t count it, it it’s a thousand years later, -granddaughter. And he says, “Ah, mes descendants.” “My posterity.” It sounds bizarre in English to say that because we cannot imagine anyone caring about his distant posterity, much less envisioning our whole posterity summed up in a silly French woman that you will then sacrifice everything to help because she is yours. My friend…says, “Okay, that’s the implied meaning of the movie, but no one could make a movie explicitly with that meaning.”

In inheriting property, we also incur liabilities. We may have to pay the debts of the deceased. In a traditional society, kinship entails debts of blood. Blood revenge is embedded in the very concept of the family. It’s the ultimate family value. You kill my brother, I kill you. A lot of the relationship depends on what extent am I related to a brother, a first cousin, a second cousin. And this debt of honor, this debt of blood is owed in proportions. Once you shed my kinsman’s blood, there’s a crisis and it can be resolved in a number of ways. A close relative can slay the killer. This seems to be the initial assumption in the Pentateuch. In the case of willful murder, the family’s avenger of blood is obliged to seek out the murderer and put him to death. The shedding of a man’s blood pollutes the killer and the community that shelters him. For pre-modern peoples, the stain is not theoretical, it’s physical. You feel it. It’s a burden of agony that everyone experiences. This is true among the ancient Greeks. It’s true in the Balkans in the 19th century and up to today.

All killings require expiation, but not all demand revenge killing. If a killing is accidental or extenuated, a society might make some provision for a nonviolent settlement you could pay. And this is a big thing. You see it in the Iliad, you see it in Beowulf. Especially in Germanic literature, every class of human being has a price: “Weregild.” Every class, whether slave, servant, going up and down has a price. If a dispute for blood cannot be settled, the two sets of kinfolks are at feud, in a state of war. If arbitration fails, a family’s only recourse is blood. It has been argued that feuds are distinguishable from war because the feud can be settled by arbitration. But European warfare has always been a question of rules in warfare. To appreciate the horrors of real war, of total war, war to the knife, the civilized world had to wait until the enlightened regimes of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, and George W. Bush.

Of the American feuds known to history, nearly all are in the South or Southwest. The 30-year Sutton-Taylor feud in Texas [and] the Hatfield-McCoy feud of West Virginia were partly fueled by animosities of the Civil War and the ensuing political struggles. And perhaps the most widespread, complex, and horrifying feud was the very intricate set of killings and cross-killings and revenge-killings that mark the Kansas-Missouri border war, which starts basically with the Missouri Compromise problem and ends with the acquittal of Frank James, which is a long way. By the way, Frank James was guilty. Feuds can get out of hand. Mark Twain has a savage portrayal in Huckleberry Finn about a feud:

“It started 30 years ago or somewher’s about that. There was trouble about somethin’. Then a lawsuit settled it. The suit went agin one of the men, and so he went up and shot the man who won the suit, which he naturally would do, of course. Anyone would.”

But when pressed for details, Buck cannot tell Huck what the trouble was or who shot first. Feuds do get out of hand, and eventually entire communities are involved. So, we’re talking about the relationship of blood and the responsibility for kinfolks. Friends and neighbors under the circumstances can only long for the law and order which is provided by civil government. But the principle behind the feud, that vengeance for blood is a divinely sanctioned foundation for law and order, has never lost its relevance. “Vengeance is mine saith the LORD” is not a condemnation of revenge, but a divine seal of approval on the power given to legitimate government whose job is to execute vengeance on killers. If rulers fail to protect their people, to execute criminals, defend their borders, then the right of vendetta reverts to the kinfolk. That’s all there is.

The only collective debts owed by kinfolk are not simply blood. In ancient Athens, if you inherited an estate, you also inherited all the responsibilities for it. People could be exiled, their kinfolk could be exiled, the whole kindred could be exiled for the crime of one person. This became very common in late medieval and Renaissance Florence. For example, if you are a Florentine nobleman, and you’re walking down the street and somebody offends you, some commoner, and you say, “Hold on there, sirrah,” and he gives you some lip and you slap him, well, the fine can be, let’s just say in modern terms, $5 million, because you’re a nobleman.

You say, “Well, I don’t have $5 million.”

“Well, how much have you got?”

“Well, I’ve got maybe half-a-million dollars.”

“Well, you’ve got brothers.”

“Well, the brothers and father and children, they can get up to a million.”

“Well, what about your first cousins? What about your uncles?”

Eventually the whole family, up to like the third degree, [if they] can’t come up with the money, you’re gone. You are proscribed, you cannot live in Florence. Now Florence is not a savage place. Florence is one of the places from which we derive our civilization. So, in every society, in every civilized society, you have different formulas, you have different patterns, you have different marriage patterns, different inheritance patterns. The point is not the details, but the fact that this is how society works.

By the late 18th century, collective responsibility was an antiquated notion in the English-speaking world, though it was invoked more than once to outlaw entire Highland clans for the deeds of some of their members. See, we think, “Oh, well this is gone. This belongs to the Middle Ages.” Well, why did my McFarland ancestors get banned from Scotland? Or the MacGregors? Not for something they did, but for something a relative did? 18th-century South Carolinians might have been puzzled to explain such a practice, but upon reflection, they would’ve agreed in principle. Eliza Lucas, when her soon-to-be-famous sons were studying in England, explained that what they might regard as a youthful indiscretion would turn out to harm the entire family. What you do as an individual, doesn’t just reflect on you, it reflects on your family. She says: “Though, you are very young, you must know that the welfare of a whole family depends in great measure on the progress that you make here.”

The point I’ve tried to establish, although in wearisome detail, is quite simple. The human race is the same today as it was when Cain murdered Abel, or when the first ape-man learned to talk, if you prefer a Darwinist myth. Neither our DNA, nor our moral code have changed substantially, though Christians and philosophers have taught us to elevate that code and apply it more humanely and more generally. Nonetheless, our first duties are, as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, following St. Paul, have taught us. These duties are to those we are connected to by nature and blood, to our kinfolk. Kinship is the social mechanism by which individuals and households are integrated into the broader society. Individuals don’t belong to a Commonwealth. We are integrated into the Commonwealth from our family and kinfolk. This is the great insight given by social anthropology. I urge you to read Meyer Fortes and his students on this. If we refuse to rear our children, take care of our aged parents, or assist our cousins when they’re in trouble, we are estranged from everything that really matters in human life, and no government can fill the void or reconnect us. We are truly, to borrow a title from Walker Percy (who would’ve turned one-hundred years old in May), we are truly “lost in this cosmos.” There’s only one way back to sanity, and it does not lie with social experiments or legislation. We have to begin to live again as human beings and as Christians, maintaining the bonds of kinship and charity. The South was among the last parts of European Christendom to maintain these traditions and it is only the South that can serve as a model to America and to the entire West. Thank you very much.


Thomas Fleming

Dr. Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and president of The Rockford Institute. He is now the head of the Fleming Foundation and the author of several books including The Morality of Everyday Life.

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