It was 1804, and Thomas Ruffin, future Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, was having doubts about slavery. Ruffin was a young student at what would become Princeton University, experiencing New Jersey's debate over gradual emancipation; looking for help, he wrote home to his father in Virginia. The elder Ruffin was a recent convert to Methodism, but despite the anti-slavery leanings of that sect, Sterling Ruffin took a hard line: he advised his son that, whatever moral qualms there might be, southern slavery needed to be based on “servile fear” for it to operate. That stark advice would echo twenty-five years later in Judge Ruffin’s notorious opinion in the slave law case of State v. Mann. This essay, originally prepared for the retirement conference of legal historian Hendrik Hartog, delves into the striking similarities between Sterling Ruffin’s letter and Judge Ruffin’s opinion, meditating on the other options available to Ruffin and the importance of the choices we make when our worldviews are threatened. A version will be published in a forthcoming volume edited by Kenneth Mack and Jacob Cogan.
Jessica Lowe, ’Our Experiences Make Us Who We Are’: Lessons from Thomas Ruffin and Dirk Hartog, in In Between and Across: Legal History Without Boundaries, Oxford University Press (2023).