The Code of the West
Some Things Never Go Out of Style
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
We’ve been hearing about the Code of the West lately, the Cowboy Code. Montana Senate president Jim Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo, and a Republican, wants it officially established as the Code of Montana. That would be in the footsteps of Wyoming, whose Code of the West was signed into law in March 2010 at the capitol rotunda in Cheyenne, making it the official code of ethics for the state of Wyoming.
What does it mean, though, to have a state adopt a cowboy code? We all know, or ought to, that government cannot legis-late morality (unless criminal) and that when it tries, it sets in motion unenforceable laws with unintended consequences.
The Code of the West, though, established officially by the state of Montana or Wyoming, does not have the force of law. It is merely an official declaration of principles, a collec-tive recognition that people ought to do the right thing. Even so, the prospect of such a declaration has caused a stir—in Montana and Wyoming, on editorial pages and in blogs.
It all started in the early days of the American West, according to Western historian Ramon Adams. As he explained in his 1969 book, The Cowman and His Code of Ethics, certain unwritten rules applied in those days. “Back in the days when the cowman with his herds made a new frontier," Adams wrote, “there was no law on the range [and that] made it necessary for him to frame some of his own, thus developing a rule of behavior which became known as the Code of the West. These homespun laws, being merely a gentleman’s agreement to certain rules of conduct…were never written into statutes, but were respected everywhere on the range.”
The Code of the West, Adams tells us, governed cowboy behavior, or at least was meant to, and went something like this:
A horse thief pays with his life; Don’t run on at the mouth, use words sparingly; Set your guns aside before sitting to dinner; Help those in need, even strangers and enemies; Cuss as you please, but only in the presence of men; Be pleasant even if forlorn; Complaining is for quitters—cowboys aren’t quitters; Be grateful for what comes your way; and, Remain loyal to your brand, to friends, and those you ride with.
Zane Grey, the famous author of Western novels, and specifically one called The Code of the West published in 1934, popularized these and other standards of cowboy behavior (for the full code see page 20). In fiction, Grey seized upon the cowboy tradition, the cowboy mythology that spread to the motion picture industry, creating in the popular imagination ideas about the historical American West and its cowboys that we have today.
Jim Owen’s more recent book Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, written in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, took the Cowboy Code a step further and applied it to modern times, to business and social ethics, and it was Owen’s version of the Code, ensconced in a coffee table book, that lawmakers in Cheyenne and Helena proposed as a measure to be voted upon and installed in the official record.
Owen was in attendance at the 2010 signing ceremony in Cheyenne and spoke as the Code was signed by Gov. Dave Freudenthal. In his manner (see YouTube), Owen comes across as a genuine fellow interested in bringing back character and integrity to modern life. And, to many, that’s why his Code matters.
The Code of the West stated by Owen in his book, now officially adopted in Wyoming, and pending in the Montana legislature, includes such principles as: Always Finish What You Start; When You Make a Promise, Keep It; and Ride for the Brand—the latter, according to the Casper-Star Tribune, being an injunction to put group welfare above personal gain.
As a retired investment manager living in Austin, Texas, Owen has said that behavior on Wall Street in the recent past drove him to codify the values of the American West, those reminiscent of the original unwritten Cowboy Code. Owen believes that Americans, especially young Americans, can benefit from such values, and that the country would be better off if such a code guided everyday behavior.
Not a cowboy in his own right, Owen immersed himself in Western movies, Cowboy literature, and correspondence from hundreds of ranchers across the West as he wrote and compiled photos for Cowboy Ethics.
“I grew up with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry,” he told the Tribune, “and they were my heroes. And today, my hero is the working cowboy. And it’s that optimism, the courage, the hard work, that built the country. We’ve gotten away from these common-sense core values.”
Hollywood cowboys, though —packaged for public consumption? Working cowboys as heroes, when there are barely any left? Isn’t this merely the stuff of dreams and nostalgia? Owen seems to admit that by referencing movies he watched as a kid, and some might call his outlook corny or old fashioned, but the idea of the Cowboy Code does indeed resonate with those who value core principles of right and wrong, ordinary Americans who lament the loss of the Gary Cooper style of behavior, that of a simpler more honest and straight forward time.
It’s hard to say how prolific such values actually were in the Old West, given the land and water wars, the campaigns against the Indians, the pursuit of gold, and the many incorrigible outlaws. Yet among hard working cowhands, ranchers too, the need for a code of conduct must have been great and the effort to live by it fulfilling. What’s more, an imperfect history is no reason to reject honorable values.
As to why now—why the Cowboy Code at this time? It seems—in this time of moral uncertainty, of situation ethics and scandalous politics—that aspects of the Cowboy Code, as depicted in movies, as chronicled by Ramon Adams, and as espoused by Jim Owen, are simply too satisfying to ignore, and while such things come more neatly packaged as fiction, the attraction to the Code reveals a need among many to recap-ture some lost sense of right and wrong, of justice, a cosmic order.
In Lonesome Dove, the best TV mini series ever made, Tommy Lee Jones as Texas Ranger Woodrow Call, on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, runs his horse full throttle into a bully harassing his young cowhands, including a boy he suspects is his son, and then beats the man brutally with a branding iron before smashing him face first into an anvil. Lassoed away by fellow ranger Gus McCrae, then seeing to the injured, Call calmly declares, “I hate rude behavior in a man—I won’t tolerate it.”
It’s the kind of moment in film that sends shivers up the spine (if you have one) as raw moral courage trounces petty thuggery in a way that rings like a tuning fork (were the incident real) across the dusty plains and settlements of the West. No miranda warning, no equivocation, just manliness in the service of others, as it ought to be.
Of course, it’s easier in the movies, but movies, like mythology, especially westerns, serve as modern day expressions of collective yearnings. The Woodrow Call incident just described, as Call rides for his brand, runs out of the same strain in the human heart where we would beat down abusers, give them a taste of their own medicine and know it’s for their own good in the long run, so that they might see the error of their ways. No need to kill, just take the wrong doer down a few notches. Satisfying. We don’t assume though that this is exactly what Jim Owen had in mind with his Cowboy Ethics, though Call’s insistence on ethics is clear. Owen’s recommendations are more along the lines of the phrase waved in front of Bill Clinton during his presidency, rightly so, for his repeated failings of character, most of which were eclipsed by his own sex scandals—that popular maxim being: Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.
Keep in mind, in this age of unprecedented freedom, in this time when so many insist on answering to no value higher than that of their ego, that codes of ethics, guidelines meant to curb bad behavior and encourage good, were almost universal throughout human history and the basis for successful societies.
Cowboys of another kind come to mind, from times long ago, who codified principles of conscience and honor deemed to have absolute value—Moses, Christ, Confucius, and Lao Tsu. Kant’s categorical imperative may be the most developed method of all for determining the morality of any action—multiply that action until it becomes the norm. In other words, to determine the morality of driving 100 mph, imagine a world where everybody did so, then decide if it’s moral. A similar practice might be to live by the Golden Rule.
Organizations like the Boy Scouts and American Legion Baseball foster such values in their codes—I will keep my pride under in victory and a stout heart in defeat.
Critics of the Code
These are good things for young men and women to learn and for all to live by. Through the ages, something from within inspired people to answer to a higher way through a sense of personal honor and a connection to higher moral authority. We call it conscience. So, what’s wrong with that?
Apparently, quite a bit, if conscience now takes the form of the Code of the West, according to recent editorials. Ride for the Brand, some say, is an unacceptable philosophy and was criticized in print recently the Billings Gazette’s Ed Kimmick, who quickly blogged on the issue when Peterson’s bill came before the Legislature. Kimmick believes lawmakers supporting such a code are hypocritical because they may also favor repealing the Medical Marijuana Initiative—since it was passed by a sound majority of voters in the last legislative session. Kimmick’s rationale though hasn’t gained traction, in that everyone knows medical marijuana has been widely abused. And, in general, Kimmick’s snide tone in dealing with the Code encourages little in the way of serious consideration.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle editorialist Marjorie Smith thinks the intent of the Code, Ride for the Brand in particular, must be to protect corporate wrong doing, even though Owen’s intent in promoting his ten principles was precisely the oppo-site—the subtitle of his book reads What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.
Owen wrote Cowboy Ethics in response to the lack of ethics among certain Wall Street players and the decline of ethics in general. Watch the video of Owen at the signing of the code into law by Gov. Freudenhal and you will see a sincere man, and so it’s hard to understand how Kimmick and Smith so readily condemn him and what he stands for except it be that they are informed solely by ideology, as partisans, rather than common sense.
Smith went so far in her Feb. 14 editorial to suggest that Ride for the Brand means Arizonans ought to feel humiliated over the Garielle Giffords shooting, because the shooter’s motivations, she implies, reflect attitudes in the state. “Last month I was sending condolences to my dear friends who moved to Tucson a few years ago,” Smith wrote, in reference to Ride for the Brand. “How humiliating,” she went on, “to live in a state where something as terrible as the massacre aimed at Gabrielle Giffords occurs.”
In other words, loyalty to one’s community would be misplaced due to the actions of a deranged assassin. Such logic would put the entire state of Texas on the hook for the actions of Lee Harvey Oswald.
One must ask how the Chronicle allowed such words to be published, and the fact that they did, and that Smith wrote them, drives home the need for ethics—a sense of fair play and intellectual honesty. And let’s be honest ourselves, such objections are leveled for political reasons. Otherwise, why object to principles that extol decent behavior? Similarly, in that regard, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has threatened to veto the Repub-lican sponsored Code of Montana, branding it frivolous.
Politics aside, does any benefit derive from writing the Code of the West into Montana’s official record? Government, after all, cannot make us better people. We must do that for ourselves, and another Code of the West, the traditional code of western civilization, the Ten Commandments, already exists on record for that purpose and has since Moses, rules that served as the standard of morality and formed the collective basis for our sense of right and wrong that eventually became English common law, and, by example, the rule of law in much of the world due to the breadth of British and American influence.
The Supreme Court of the United States itself displays Moses carrying the Ten Commandments, as a central figure, alongside other lawgivers such as Mohammed and Confucius. The nation’s founders, what’s more, readily affirmed Judeo-Christian ethics as formative in their sense of political justice. It is certainly traditional then and appropriate that a culture recognize its moral and ethical roots. And so why not Montana?
Lately, though, tradition has been discarded and anything goes. Freedom is a wonderful gift, one that flourished in the American West, but it is also a great experiment—freedom to do what? And so a code is necessary to remind people of the responsibility they have to their own conscience, a set of guidelines, and it’s always been that way.
Given the uproar about the Code of Montana though, you’d think it contained some pretty tough language, but the Code’s tenets are tame, and in instances lamentably vague. The remaining seven principles, besides the three mentioned, read: Live Each Day with Courage; Take Pride in Your Work; Do What Has to Be Done; Be Tough But Fair; Talk Less, Say more; Some Things Aren't for Sale; and Know Where To Draw the Line.
Not exactly Moses, and it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about.