Abstract: Accounting for Honor: Transparency, Financial Numeracy, and Masculine Identity in the Late Antebellum South

Sean H. Vanatta


In the months after the Panic of 1857, Fitz William McMaster and Charles Francis McCay nearly fought a duel. Their dispute was expressed in the usual language of Southern masculine honor: McCay had, according to McMaster, made "allegations he knew were false" and conducted himself with all "the ear-marks of low and despicable cunning." Behind these well-worn tropes, however, their conflict marked a unique departure, for the crux of their quarrel was bookkeeping, disputed actuarial practices, and the questionable use of corporate proxies. McCay's offense was a lack of financial transparency—not the stuff of which duels are usually made. Yet, the culture of Southern honor was also always premised on transparency, veracity, and undisguised intention. By examining McMaster and McCay's dispute, this paper demonstrates how, through the concept of transparency, the language of honor and the linguistics of capital became strange but recognizable bedfellows in the late antebellum South.