Published on Monday, December 13, 2010
The Code of the West
By Matthew Pizzolato
Anyone familiar with Westerns has heard of the Code, or what popular culture has referred to as the Code of the West. Sometimes it can be intangible, but it's always there. Bits of it run through every single Western story.
Over the years, I've read a lot of Westerns, from Zane Gray to Louis L'Amour to Loren D. Estleman, but I've never seen the Code spelled out as succinctly as I did in the novel The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales by Forrest Carter.
The Code was as necessary to survival on the lean soil of mountains as it had been on the rock ground of Scotland and Wales. Clannish people. Outside governments erected by people of kindlier land, of wealth, or power, made no allowances for the scrabbler.
As a man had no coin, his coin was his word. His loyalty, his bond. He was the rebel of establishment, born in this environment. To injure one to whom he was obliged was personal; more, it was blasphemy. The Code, a religion without catechism, having no chronicler of words to explain or to offer apologia.
Bone-deep feuds were the result. War to the knife. Seldom if ever over land, or money, or possessions. But injury to the Code meant — WAR!
In my opinion, there are three main elements that entail the Code. The first and most important is loyalty. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of the Code can be found in Louis L'Amour's The Sackett Brand.
When Tell Sackett is cornered by more than 40 gunmen, his entire extended family rides to his aid, from all over the country. Men who had never met before but bore one common bond, they were all family and they were all fiercely loyal to that bond.
The second and third aspects of the Code go hand in hand with each other: honor and integrity. Both of these elements can be exemplified in hundreds of occurrences that took place every day in the West. Thousands of cattle were sold on nothing more than a man's word and a handshake.
As a man had no coin, his coin was his word. In those days, when a man gave his word, he kept it. To be called a liar was a deadly insult and often resulted in gunplay.
Today's culture has slipped away from that Code, or from any code at all for that matter. Loyalty has vanished in today's society. People are loyal to nothing but themselves. There are neither family bonds nor loyalty to friendship.
Honor and integrity are long forgotten mementos of the past.
Sure, some would say that philosophy is outdated. Those people would be wrong. The morality of living by the Code hasn't changed. Right and Wrong don't change; they never have and never will.
John Wayne is an American icon that exemplifies the West. One of his most famous quotes rings just as true today as when he said it and it would have applied to the era of the American West.
"A man's got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job."
Growing up reading Westerns, my heroes were the characters I read about. Celebrities and athletes weren't the kind of people that I idolized because they had no Code. My heroes were Louis L'Amour and his characters: Tell Sackett and Milo Talon; as well as Clint Eastwood and the characters that he portrayed such as The Outlaw Josey Wales.
And I strove to emulate the virtues those men represented.