The Code of the West is not a set of rules. Rules can be broken. There are not enough rules in the world to make people do what is right. The Code of the West is a set of principles, which speak to the character of the man who owns them. They cannot be broken. Therein lies the difference between rules and principles. Rules define what you do, whereas principles define who you are.
Here are the principles that defined life on the open range. I challenge any man to find at least one of these that needs some improvement in his life, and then work on improving it.
Live each day with courage
Courage was not something spoken about amongst cowboys except to notice its absence. Courage was a job requirement when dialy facing stampedes, quicksand, indians, blizzards, bandits and herds of cattle that weigh over a ton a head. A cowboy without courage would not be a cowboy for long. His hesitation and fear could cost those he rode with their lives and he would not long find himself employed. A cowboy is said to be “a man with courage and a horse,” and the virtues of fortitude and courage were as basic a requirement as breathing and having a pulse in order to do their jobs.
Modern application of the code: Having courage is not just jumping into a pool to save someone’s life. It is also being willing to speak up and say that something isn’t right, even against your friends, colleagues, partners, and bosses.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. ~1 Corinthians 16:13
Take pride in your work
Cowboys did not see themselves as simply hired hands, but thought of themselves as knights of the planes sitting tall in their saddles. Their pride growing from their skills in riding and roping, their capacity for hard work and their indifference to danger or hard living on the range. Cowboys certainly did not enjoy all aspects of their job, but they did everything to the best of their abilities. Digging fence posts is not glamorous work and no cowboy ever enjoyed it, but they all did it. They dug deep and straight so that the fence was solid and straight, they took pride in riding by the fence the next time through and thinking “I built that.”
Modern application of the code: There are a great many jobs that nobody enjoys doing, but still need to be done. If you sweep the floor, do it so that it shines. If you flip burgers, cook them in such a way that you would enjoy eating them. Whatever you do, do it well. If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing it right.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. ~ Colossians 3:23-24
Always finish what you start
If a cowboy signed on for a ride or a season, you knew that he would see it through to the end. Cowboys hated quitters, whiners, and complainers. In the movie Red River some cowboys have to make a hard journey that is known to be perilous, and John Wayne delivers a speech at the onset of the ride. “Nobody has to come along. We’ll still have a job for you when we get back. But remember this: Every man who signs on for the drive agrees to finish it. There’ll be no quitting along the way ~ not by me, not by you.”
Modern application of the code: If you begin a job, finish it. If you start a project, see it through to the end. Whatever it is that currently has your attention, stay the course.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. ~2 Timothy 4:7
Do what has to be done
Cowboys stand up for what is right. They deal with injustice and exact retribution when due. To do anything less would be down right uncivil. A cowboy was honor bound to do the right thing, even when the odds were stacked against him. The test of a cowboy’s honor was in how much he would risk to keep it untarnished. Standing up for the little guy, or just for the principles in which he believes are stock and trade for a cowboy.
Modern application of the code: Every boy growing up dreams of being a hero, and standing up for truth and justice, but somewhere along the way we lose the action that goes along with the ideal. Have you ever witnessed an accident where everybody is just standing around and nobody called 911? Dozens of observers all assumed somebody else was doing it, and it didn’t happen. Has the phrase “somebody should do something about that” ever crossed your mind? Take personal responsibility for your life and the lives of others around you. Do not merely strive to not be a part of the problem but actively seek to be a part of the solution, wherever you find yourself. Help your neighbors with their groceries, do good deeds, leave the campsite cleaner than when you got there. Make a positive impact on every life you touch.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. ~ Galatians 6:9
Be tough, but fair
The toughness of a cowboy is not to be disputed. They are depicted as hard men, tough as nail in all modern media both print and on screen. They had to be to survive hard times, hard lands, and the many aspects of their job that wanted to kill them; beasts, bandits, Indians, and the like. The cowboys toughness, while legendary, was also tempered by his fairness. Cowboys would share their last scraps of food with a stranger before turning them away, and would not cheat in business dealings. Every cowboy had a turn at being down on his luck and in need of assistance from someone, and they in turn would not fail to help someone in need.
Modern application of the code: The golden rule used to be a way of life, but has been regulated to nothing more than a Sunday School teaching for suckers. It needs to be the very core of your moral compass if you truly want to be known as fair in your dealings. It is simple to apply. In any situation you can simply ask yourself “How would I want to be treated?” and this should provide you an excellent guide to what is a fair deal. This can be applied to dealing with customers, business partners, spouses, children and strangers alike. If you truly treat others the way you want to be treated yourself, you will find that you strike a “square deal” much more easily.
“So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” ~ Matthew 7:12
When you make a promise, keep it
Cowboys come from a time when a handshake was a binding contract between men, and reneging on a debt was unheard of. No man would ride with a cowboy that couldn’t be trusted. They came from a time when honor was a key to life, and failing to keep your word was akin to lying and cheating, both hangable offences on the open range. If a cowboy said he’d do a thing, then there was no question that he would.
Modern application of the code: The code is simple, only make promises that you can and will keep. The trick is not in keeping promises, but in taking more care with what you promise. Do not promise things that are out of your control. This applies especially to your children, and spouse, but equally so to business partners. Only make promises that you can keep, and then be sure to keep them. We need to turn away from our legalistic, 1,000 page binding contracts and get back to a time when men would shake hands and mean it.
But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your “No,’ ‘No.’ ~ Matthew 5:37
Ride for the brand
Once a cowboy signed on with an outfit, he was obliged to put its needs before his own. Loyalty was forged quickly among men that needed each other for survival on the open range. This loyalty was not a blind unquestioning allegiance to the boss simply because he was the one that paid them, but was given only if deserved and returned.
Modern application of the code: Be loyal to your outfit. If you hire on at a job, do not badmouth them on facebook. If they are not worthy of your loyalty, find another place to earn your keep. Be loyal to your family. So many men today speak poorly of their wives and complain about their kids with their friends. If you cannot say good things about them, then keep your mouth shut. You would punch another man for disrespecting your wife, you should hold yourself to an equally high standard.
One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. ~ Proverbs 18:24
Talk less and say more
Cowboys are often viewed as men of little words, the strong silent type. It might have been the isolation of his work, or the grandeur of a life in open places beneath a big sky that rendered small talk useless, but cowboys were doers, not talkers. Cowboys often said what needed to be said, and they were straight to the point about it. They understood the importance of words and used them with great care. Many cowboys were uneducated and thus not bound by the rules of grammar or polite discourse, but instead pulled their words from their experience, giving them powerful imagery and a blunt directness in their conversations.
Modern application of the code: If something you said can be interpreted in more than one way, you didn’t say it clearly enough. Say what you mean, avoid ambiguity, and mean what you say. If you find yourself talking more than listening in any conversation, you need to practice this principle more.
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. ~ Proverbs 10:19
Remember that some things aren’t for sale
Often the best things in life are not things, and there are things that money cannot and should not buy. Many of the previous aspects of the code are things a cowboys would not compromise for money; honor, integrity, pride, or his word. Many a cowboy lost everything of material value in order to keep a firm grip on the things that truly mattered to them.
Modern application of the code: If you have to sell your principals as part of a deal, you made a very bad bargain. Know what you believe in, then stand up for those things. Like the mastercard commercials often tell us, there are some things that that money can’t buy. Figure out what matters to you more than money, then be sure not to sell them.
The righteous who walks in his integrity – blessed are his children after him! Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright. ~ Proverbs 20:7,11
Know where to draw the line
A cowboy knew his principles and would not cross them. He knew where to draw the line. This aspect of the code is simply a reminder that there is a code, and that it matters.
Modern application of the code: If you have a code, be it the Code of the West or something of your own creation, live by it. Draw the hard line, and do not cross it.
Whoever walks in integrity will be delivered, but he who is crooked in his ways will suddenly fall. ~ Proverbs 28:18
Further study can be done with the excellent books by James P. Owen titled Cowboy Ethics, Cowboy Wisdom, and Cowboy Values. They are excellent resources, can each be read in a short sitting, and have amazing photography. They make great conversation starters if left on a coffee table, and I have referenced them more than a few times over the years.