|Cattle drovers, El Centro, California, 1972|
A popular book Cowboy Ethics with beautiful western photographs by David R. Stoecklein gets mentioned by cowboy enthusiasts, often in connection with National Day of the Cowboy. Its subtitle, What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, gives a curious twist to the subject. Published in 2004, just before the current economic meltdown, it also sounds more than a little prophetic.
Like the Commandments, the author James P. Owen lays out ten rules of conduct that the book calls “The Code of the West.” His source for these rules seems to be the western movies he has seen (Open Range, Shane), not any kind of historical research. Though he claims to have read a stack of books, there’s no list of them to verify that claim.
I’m not writing this to knock Owen’s efforts to get some accountability in the financial industry, or anywhere else for that matter. But while there may be some truth in it, the problem with his argument is that it’s based so thoroughly on myth.
When western fans evoke the Code of the West, it’s nearly always in service of an argument about an ideal American past when men were decent, honest, and incorruptible. My argument is that outside of a handful of idealists, some cowboys among them, that America never existed.
|Land sale poster, Texas, 1800s|
If you don’t read, you don’t know this. Over and again, reading early western novels, I find an America that’s little different from today. What you learn is that the urge to get rich quick prevailed. Everywhere, there were people gaming the system to milk it for every dollar they could get.
The land giveaways in the West are a prime example. For all those homesteaders with the best of intentions, there were many speculators with no higher aspiration than to buy low and sell high. Greed built boomtowns that were no more than bubbles engineered by profiteers. There were phony investment companies and banks absconding with people’s savings.
The railroad monopolies had their part to play in all this, luring settlers into the West with false promises and then bleeding them dry with crippling freight rates. They bought legislators and judges to look after their interests. The American West was a free-for-all for crooks, swindlers and robber barons.
Working cowboys. The code-abiding cowboy probably existed to a degree. The best evidence of that is his poverty. He worked and worked hard for low wages, and unless he turned to thievery, there was little alternative, given his lack of education and social polish. To tighten their grip on the cattle industry, cattlemen squeezed cowboys out of developing equity in a herd of their own by turning “rustling” into a crime.
|Working cowboys, South Dakota, 1888|
We know from reading newspaper accounts of the time that cowboys were regarded as a menace to society. Armed as they usually were, young, and given to drink, cowboys were also prone to high-risk, often lethal misbehavior. Some rebelled against the incursions of Eastern-style law and order. A gang of them, as just one example, gave the Earps trouble in Tombstone.
Historically, it makes more sense to see cowboys as social outcasts. Law abiding or law breaking, they clung to a kind of personal honor that men do anywhere who are disadvantaged and opposed by the same adversaries. The codes they lived by originated before the coming of the law in the West, and they remained mostly extra-legal.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Where men administer their own code of conduct, there are rarely any loopholes—and no need for lawyers. That system of justice has a tempting appeal in today's complex world. And its celebration in western movies accounts in large part for their continuing appeal.
But it has nothing to do with a lost America that many western fans believe once existed and yearn for a return to. I would argue that a return to the America of, say, 1885 would find a world little different from our own. Greed, corruption, and malfeasance up and down the social order—and people disadvantaged by them—would prevail as they do now.
And where there was a belief in progress, a hope for a more equitable future would be found everywhere. As we struggle clumsily for that same future today, an honorable code of conduct would do much to making progress toward that goal a reality. But myths about the past won’t do it.
Just my opinion, of course. I’m open to reasoned argument.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Randolph Scott, Man in the Saddle (1951)