Thomas Ruffin (1787 – 1870)

Written By Jonathan Murray

Thomas Carter Ruffin served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina from 1833 until 1852. Now regarded as one of the most important jurists in American history, Ruffin was a powerful exponent of judicial independence, though his renown stems largely from the reviled opinion that he rendered in the case of State v. Mann

Ruffin was born in Virginia in November 1787, but early in his life, his family moved to North Carolina. After attending school in North Carolina, Ruffin was admitted to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He then returned to North Carolina, settling in Rockingham County, where he studied law under attorney and legal educator Archibald Murphey. Admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1808, Ruffin practiced law in Hillsboro and married Annie Kirkland, a native of the borough.

Within a few years, Ruffin’s accomplishments in politics, business, and jurisprudence began to overshadow his career as an attorney. In 1813, Ruffin—a Jeffersonian Democrat—joined the House of Commons of the North Carolina General Assembly, and he rose to Speaker of the House in 1816. In December, he began his first term on the bench, joining a North Carolina superior court. (The state had numerous superior courts but no supreme court until 1818.) He resigned the post in 1818 in order to resume practicing law but retook his seat on the bench in 1825. Ruffin’s second tenure as a superior court judge ended in 1828, when he briefly assumed the presidency of the fledgling North Carolina State Bank. Though Ruffin left the bank only one year later, the limited records of Ruffin’s tenure at the bank indicate that he may have saved it from bankruptcy.

His departure from the bank was prompted by his election to the decade-old North Carolina Supreme Court. Joining the Supreme Court appears to have provoked a drastic change in the lives of Ruffin and family. In 1830, they left Hillsboro for Haw River in Alamance County. After this relocation, Ruffin became a plantation owner and slaveholder. He is likely to have employed more than 100 slaves on plantations in the Piedmont area.

The treatment of chattel slaves was the central issue of State v. Mann, the case on which Ruffin authored his most famous opinion. John Mann, a North Carolinian renting a slave named Lydia, shot and gravely wounded her after she attempted to escape a whipping. Authorities deemed Mann’s response to Lydia’s escape attempt disproportionate and charged him with assault and battery. In the criminal trial, the jury ruled against Mann, who appealed. The case reached the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1829, shortly after Ruffin’s long tenure began, and he wrote the opinion of the court, which, reversing lower courts’ decisions, ruled in favor of Mann. The opinion is now notorious for its claims about the relation between slave and master:

“The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect. I most freely confess my sense of the harshness of this proposition . . . But in the actual condition of things, it must be so. . . . [It] will be the imperative duty of the Judges to recognize the full dominion of the owner over the slave.”

Ruffin’s name will forever be associated more closely with these claims than with his role in securing the independence of the judiciary in North Carolina. His pro-judiciary efforts are documented thoroughly in Walter F. Pratt, Jr.’s article “The Struggle for Judicial Independence in North Carolina.” As Pratt observes, early in the nineteenth century, the higher North Carolina courts became a target of legislative attacks, pertaining both to the freedom of judges from constraints imposed by the General Assembly and to the expense of paying the salaries of full-time judges. An amendment to the North Carolina constitution proposed in 1819 would have permitted the General Assembly to dismiss any state judges “for inability to perform their duty, or any other reasonable cause.” If ratified, the amendment would likely have transformed the higher North Carolina courts into an arm of the General Assembly, effectively obliterating an entire branch of state government. Though the amendment was never ratified, it was popular in many parts of North Carolina.

North Carolina Supreme Court judges were, in the early nineteenth century, the highest-paid state officials, and most superior and Supreme Court jurists were Piedmont natives. Western North Carolinians were especially underrepresented on the higher courts, and they resented the onerous expense of traveling from the western counties to Raleigh to appear before the higher courts. Proposals to reduce or eliminate judicial salaries consequently became popular in western North Carolina and eventually gained traction in the General Assembly. Without salaries, however, judges would have to support themselves by accepting other posts, thereby compromising their impartiality. Legislative attempts to eliminate judicial salaries were therefore likely to destroy the Supreme Court.

When Ruffin joined the Supreme Court, he had achieved some renown in North Carolina both as politician and as judge, but his appointment did not alleviate opposition to the court. In 1832, the General Assembly passed a bill calling for the democratic election of clerks of court—previously, clerks had been selected by judges. The law was challenged in 1833, when Lawson Henderson, a Lincoln County clerk, refused both to run for election and to resign his post. John Hoke had been elected to the office in August.

Though the popular North Carolina politician William Gaston had recently joined the Supreme Court, Ruffin wrote the court’s opinion, contending that the General Assembly had unconstitutionally performed a judicial act by divesting clerks of the titles to their positions. Ruffin’s comparison of the holding of a judicial office to the holding of real property contravened every opinion on the holding of state offices that had ever been published in the young United States. While Ruffin may have utilized dubious legal reasoning in his opinion in Hoke v. Henderson, the opinion defined clear boundaries between the functions of the judicial and legislative branches in North Carolina, protecting the courts from the depredations of the General Assembly.

Ruffin’s later years on the Supreme Court were relatively uneventful. He retired from the court in 1852 to manage his plantations but resumed his seat on the court in 1858, retiring permanently a year later. Though he claimed to support compromise between the North and South before the Civil War (going so far as to attend the 1861 Peace Convention in Washington, D.C.), he afterward supported the Confederacy, holding that the southern states exercised a legitimate right to revolution by seceding from the Union. Pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after the war, he died in 1870.