U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Racial Paternalism, Rawls, and the Rule of Law: Intruder in the Dust Part II

Editor's Note

This post is the second and final of a pair on William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Readers might check out the first entry if so inclined.

Last time out, I considered the thread of social obligations running through Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Today’s installment concerns whether doing one’s duty in an immoral system can lead to moral outcomes. The question is different from whether a person can be good in an immoral system. Rather, can a mostly immoral or unjust system permit moral outcomes if people respect the rule of law? What did “rule of law” in the Jim Crow South mean anyway? With Intruder in the Dust Faulkner acknowledged the changes coming to the South immediately following the Second World War. Certain characters in the novel made the case for a better paternalism, reflecting familiar patterns of white Southern liberalism at the time. Respectable Southern men would do their duty. Beyond that, they would commit themselves to justice only when pushed. Their interest in a just society governed by fairness among equals could only come on their terms, not by recognizing black Southerners’ ability to free themselves collectively, to act politically.

From the film version of Intruder in the Dust (1949)

Around twenty years ago, Richard King mentioned that the book “helped establish a sub-genre of Southern fiction—the racial thriller.”[1] I would add that the subgenre includes courtroom melodramas like To Kill a Mockingbird or later, A Time to Kill and others. Together, novels like this contributed to a wider civil rights imaginary, where stories of white moral performance at the expense of black agency somehow live alongside stories of black people acting on their own behalf. In Intruder, Lucas Beauchamp calls in the debt owed him by Chick Mallison, but the political message is clear: white Southerners must change their society for themselves and for the Black Southerners in their midst.

The Rule of Law

A “system” here can refer to codified rules, or laws enacted by legislators in a state. These rules govern the activity of citizens, designating the boundaries for the exercise of liberties, assigning punishments for transgressions of those boundaries. Whether or not we agree that any such system is ultimately just, we can, for the moment, grant that it is legitimate when “the rule of law” exists. When citizens regard the laws and those who made them as legitimate, whether because they respect or esteem the process that led to those laws, or because the state can overawe them such that the penalties for transgressing the law are so great it makes little sense at all to break the rules, we can say that rule of law exists.

Political theorists refer to this largely neutral form of rule of law as “formal.” Modifying this idea, among the many features of the “just” or “near-just” systems that the political philosopher John Rawls outlined in his A Theory of Justice (1978) was what he described as “justice as regularity” with respect to the rule of law. He defined it as “regular and impartial administration of public rules.” Rule of law fails when administrators don’t apply the law correctly or when they misinterpret it in such a way that tilts toward one party’s interests or another.

Rawls yokes justice to fairness in the rule of law because, as he puts it, “a legal system is a coercive order of public rules addressed to rational persons for the purpose of regulating their conduct and providing the framework for social cooperation. When these rules are just they establish a basis for legitimate expectations.”[2]  If we don’t expect the regular, impartial (meaning fair) administration of rules, we can’t rely on one another because the proper boundaries for our liberties aren’t set.

In totalitarian states, just to contrast, fear and injustice become pervasive because coercive power is arbitrary rather than regular, and citizens are cowed by the absence of legitimate expectations anywhere. The state expresses this arbitrary administration of rules all the way down to neighbors and friends reporting one another or even meting out punishments on one another. No one knows when and where the other shoe will drop. In chaotic situations, on the other hand, there can be little expectation that rules will be followed by anyone, and so social cooperation breaks down.

Southern Paternalism

Faulkner does not depict a totalitarian society in Intruder, but a paternalist one governed by caste and class. This is so for a number of different reasons peculiar to the historical context, which I’ll come to after a bit. I’ll quote from the last post to highlight some basic problems in Faulkner’s novel:

Lucas has refused to tell his story to the authorities, because he knows well enough how Jim Crow justice works. A black man, carrying a pistol and found over a white man’s dead body is guilty. It’s evidence enough. These, Chick tell us, are the “facts” of the case, and a white person would be delusional in that time and place to disregard them…

Rather than bother with exhuming Vinson Gowrie’s body for confirmation, in his capacity as Lucas’ lawyer, Gavin Stevens plans to work out a deal where Lucas pleads to manslaughter, which he thinks the District Attorney will accept. Gavin doesn’t want to see Lucas lynched, but he has no plans to go the extra mile on his behalf. This is the respectable position, the one where sometimes innocent men, if they happen to escape ritual murder, go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

For white Southerners in the age of Jim Crow, this kind of thing qualified as “justice as regularity.” It’s clear that white people could have “legitimate expectations” while black Southerners could not. The suspense heightens in the novel as white folks from the surrounding areas descend on the town square in anticipation of a lynching, a terrifying extra-legal act if there ever was one. The upholders of the rule of law don’t want that to happen, and for a time, they’re perfectly willing to take the customary way out among respectable middle class sorts, to commit an injustice by imprisoning Lucas.

Characters do the right thing only when pressed by the revelation that someone has moved Vinson Gowrie’s body from his grave and replaced it with another one. (The corpse moving hi-jinks only grow more complicated as the novel moves on.) Lucas could not have moved the body since he was imprisoned at the time. This evidence comes from the efforts of Chick, Ms. Habersham and Aleck Sander at enormous personal risk under cover of night. They return with the news, and only then do Gavin Stevens and Sheriff Hope Hampton take up the cause of exonerating Lucas. Yet they do take it up, and that amounts to something. According to a certain white Southern logic, one could read in their actions a heightened respect for rule of law in this society precisely because they question Lucas Beauchamp’s assertions of social equality. If only he had known his place, the mess wouldn’t have presented itself in the first place. Going the extra mile for someone you don’t think deserving of that effort best demonstrates your respect for duty and the rule of law. It’s classic paternalism.

The question here is whether this situation is extraordinary and singular, or whether these events somehow goad Hampton and Stevens to conceive of the rule of law according to a fuller sense of justice requiring its fair application among equals. Does the story have such suspense because it augurs deeper changes in social attitudes on the horizon for the South, or because Lucas is extraordinary for a Southern black man and Chick has a rare obsession with social debts?  Recall that Lucas’ sense of superiority stems from his birthright in Southern masterdom and not from his blackness. Recall that Chick’s shame and feeling of obligation stem not necessarily from his feeling that Lucas should have made claim upon his conscience, but from his gnawing shame and pride as a white Southerner who wants to be a man, to properly pay his debts. Yet the group of unlikely confederates, whatever their various motivations, do end up freeing Lucas.

Gavin Stevens plays the role of moral teacher for his nephew Chick, instructing him on the meaning of the events. The conscientious white Southerner must be the one to free Lucas and those like him to give black people equality under the law, “but it won’t be next Tuesday.” Northerners can’t do it with laws right away,

by the simple ratification of votes of a printed paragraph: who have forgotten although a long quarter century ago Lucas’ Beauchamp’s freedom was made an article in our constitution and Lucas’ Beauchamp’s master was not merely beaten to his knees but trampled for ten years on his face in the dust to make him swallow it, yet only three short generations later they are faced once more with the necessity of passing legislation to set Lucas Beauchamp free (152).

Southern white pride won’t permit Northern meddling. White Southerners must resist. The memory and lore of the Civil War and Reconstruction still haunts them. Northern meddling will mean disaster. Racists will come out of the woodwork from everywhere. Later on in the novel Gavin effectively predicts “massive resistance” to the Brown decision a decade before the fact, and then something resembling white Northern backlash in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, “a concorded South which has drawn recruits whether it would or no from your own back-areas, not just the hinterland but your fine cities of cultural pride you Chicagoes and Detroits and Los Angeleses and wherever else live ignorant people who fear the color of any skin or shape of nose save their own” (211).

In Theory of Justice, Rawls moves from his conception of a just rule of law as the legitimate expectations of rational persons by noting how this works on multiple levels, from an association organized for some purpose, a group of people playing a game, and all the way to the state. The differences there are important, obviously, in that the coercive power of the state is a great deal stronger than those of a local PTA meeting. States, after all, have ultimate coercive power either because of the monopoly that they hold on violence or because the state is the final arbiter in disputes, the holder of the laws of the land. Nonetheless, Rawls suggests that if citizens don’t have legitimate expectations about the regular administration of rules, it can have reverberations on multiple levels of social interaction, all the way down to the everyday obligations people have to one another.

So what are we to make of the rule of law and the social obligations that appear in Faulkner’s novel? The drama here is very old, played out again and again in U.S. history. It’s the drama of federalism, the problem of worlds within worlds, of systems within systems, of laws within laws. Gavin Stevens is worried that Northern laws and power will make it worse for black Southerners. They will endure as black people long have in Southern history, but “by that time divided we may have lost America” (199). White Southerners will have to redeem America or it will be lost. Ironically, they must also remain white Southerners to do it. But which rule of law will they accept in the offing? Paternalism can’t accept full recognition of the other. Who will rewrite Southern rules when the regular patterns and processes of the legal system would have saved Lucas Beauchamp from extra-legal murder only to consign him to prison? Is this a singular case or a bellwether? Faulkner is too slippery, too stubborn. We have no reliable way of knowing.

Rightly, Chick resists this logic, “But you’re still excusing it” (199). But Faulkner doesn’t give us much to draw from here. Change is coming, but Chick’s obligations to Lucas are deeply flawed by mixed motivations. Lucas’ resistance is similarly flawed owing to his singular birthright. As others have noticed, Faulkner never understood or even noticed the deep wells of resistance developing in his own midst, the power of a freedom movement coming into being from out of those parallel institutions created by black people under Jim Crow.  The deeper irony is that portions of this perspective survive in what might be called a civil rights imaginary, where for some, the needful myth of Atticus Finch’s heroism lives comfortably with stories about Rosa Parks.

[1] Richard H. King, “Lucas Beauchamp and William Faulkner: Blood Brothers,” in Arthur F. Kinney, ed., Critical Essays on William Faulkner: the McCaslin Family (Boston, 1990), 237. I’ve drawn from some of the ideas in Richard’s essay for this piece, so my thanks to him for sending it my way.

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard Belknap, 2005),  207.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. A thought-provoking post. I haven’t read Intruder in the Dust (nor the first installment of the series). That said, I find the discussion of the rule of law here a little peculiar.

    You write:
    “When citizens regard the laws and those who made them as legitimate, whether because they respect or esteem the process that led to those laws, or because the state can overawe them such that the penalties for transgressing the law are so great it makes little sense at all to break the rules, we can say that rule of law exists. Political theorists refer to this largely neutral form of rule of law as ‘formal.'”

    Maybe that’s from Rawls’s discussion (I haven’t looked at that part of A Theory of Justice in a long time), but legitimacy to me implies not simply that people obey the rules, but that they see most of them as justified. Someone obeying a rule because he or she fears the penalties, and for no other reason, is not really viewing the rule as legitimate, I would say.

    More to the point of the post, Jim Crow justice did not count as “the rule of law” for black Southerners in any sense of that phrase, as I think the post makes clear (“It’s clear that white people could have ‘legitimate expectations’ [that they would be treated impartially and fairly] while black Southerners could not.”) Since the rule of law did not apply to a substantial part of the population, the opening question — “can a mostly immoral or unjust system permit moral outcomes if people respect the rule of law?” — does not seem especially well put.

    I would argue that systems characterized by gross and pervasive injustice, and in which race and caste and economic status determine (not influence, but determine) legal outcomes, do not have “the rule of law,” even in the so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘formal’ sense. Even a purely ‘formal’ rule of law must imply a certain baseline degree of impartial administration. What grossly unjust systems have is, instead, a simulacrum or facade of the rule of the law: there is a legal system with courts and lawyers, but it is not administering anything approaching impartial justice.

    (p.s. This may be just a typo, but the publication date for the orig. edition of _A Theory of Justice_ is 1971, not 1978.)

    • First, thanks first for catching the typo. I hate that kind of thing, but it happens because I have to write these posts up quickly. Second, that definition was mine, not Rawls’s definition, so I’ll take the blame. (Rawls, as I understand him anyway, takes the position you describe. This is why I used the phrase “Modifying this idea.”)

      The issue, if I understand correctly, comes down to whether or not a person considers the laws legitimate. The more precise concern is over what that word “legitimate” means. So rule of law, in this view, requires, so to speak, a spirit of the law, in that a person follows rules not because they fear penalties alone but because they understand their society as a society of laws. They see the laws as “justified.” Yet, can’t both can exist simultaneously? You’re getting into motivations, and those are hard to plumb. I was aiming for something more like the consistent, impartial application of laws to everyone being the thing that makes people view them as legitimate whatever they choose to believe about their own motivations for following them. That seemed neutral rather than normative. Maybe I cast too wide a net. I’ll think about it some more. I appreciate the comment.

      More to the point, I was simply curious about why, in the way Faulkner depicts the Jim Crow South, certain white Southerners would have understood their society as a society of laws. This is what’s at issue in my discussion. I’m making a case that “rule of law” can be historically contingent, that people within a particular historical context could view themselves as being under the rule of law, while from the remove of time or context, others on the outside could totally disagree. Why, for example, do the sheriff, or Will Legate, or Gavin Stevens do their duty to protect and then exonerate Lucas? They believe, I think, that they must because their society at bottom is a society of laws. They see themselves as Southerners and as Americans, and they view America and the South as a society governed by the rule of law. I’m sorry that you didn’t find my question “especially well put” but it was the way I thought up at the time to express why the respectable types in Faulkner’s novel do their duty as officers of the law. I suppose I could have been more precise, but I don’t think that question is totally nuts given the context. At bottom, I suspect this is the source of the problem. I’m writing history, not doing normative political theory.

      I would encourage you to read William Faulkner’s novel. It’s far from his best one, but it has real momentum. He really ratchets up the tension. Hell, maybe you could even read my first post, but I won’t encourage you to do that. Again, I appreciate the comment. It made me think harder about these issues, and that’s a good thing.

      • Thank you for the reply; your third paragraph in particular clarifies what you were getting at, so I appreciate that. Your post(s) have made it much more likely that I will read _Intruders_. (It wasn’t really on my radar screen before, to use the cliché, and now it is.)

  2. Correction: Intruder not Intruders. (I don’t want to convert it into some kind of aliens/sci-fi thing, which is what the plural “intruders” suggests to me.)

  3. The words “contingency” and “irony” stick out to me here (where’s the “solidarity”? heh, heh). What always struck/delighted me about ‘Intruder’ was the fact that the two heroes achieve a good thing while not necessarily acting out of some sense of pure “goodness” or rectitude. You’ve already laid this out nicely in the two posts, so I’ll just jump to my point.

    I find the book is useful when thinking about the past in this respect, especially for events/actors we tend to revere. What do we say about “positive” historical moments brought about by people who did the right thing for less-than-ideal reasons or by accident? What do we say about these people? What if these accomplishments were far less than what the actors hoped for? What if there were better solutions? Were they known, probable at the time? Or what about the oppressors of history or perpetuators of said oppression who were law-abiding citizens? Can we pass judgment, is it fair to, if so, how and why? What does it say about the sense of justice then and now? On and on. I think works like these (fiction or non) are great for forcing us out of our comfortable spaces and help us sharpen our tools of evaluation.

    The blob is messy. And the particles floating around in it, bumping into one another, too.

  4. Just for the record, at the Plano S-USIH, Peter Kuryla, Tony Hutchison and I presented a panel that was explicitly on the novel of ideas and we approached it from three different ways. Peter’s and my papers have been posted on the blog site here for several months. We have some critical and philosophical references that people might want to follow up. More generally, if you want to see intellectual and cultural history make use of literature, indeed incorporate literature, see books by Daniel Singal, Richard King, Fred Hobson and Michael O’Brien. All in their own way make use of southern fiction writers and poets, not to mention literary critics as the sources of ideas and arguments and the objects of analysis and interpretation. In the cases of Singal, King and Hobson, one could make a strong case for the centrality of a single writer of fiction, William Faulkner, in understanding their work. More generally, in exploring a phenomenon that is central to what historians are engaged with –history and memory, including the problem of historical consciousness–Faulkner and of course southern historians such as Vann Woodward are unmatchable. Just for starters. Strange, no one has mentioned Hayden White either in this exchange; nor has the site carried an obituary of White. He is relevant to this conversation(and much else) and deserves to be remembered.

    Richard (King)

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