Ruffin's Language in Decision
After years of practicing law and working with the North Carolina Bankers Association, Ruffin was elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court at the age of 47 (Murray). By far his most important and memorable ruling came in the case of State v. Mann. By this time, the slave question was more popular than it was when he was younger but still not as popular as it would be later in his life.
Ruffin wrote three drafts of his final decision in State v. Mann. All three drafts have similar structure but show a difference in language when talking about slaves. Ruffin’s change of language is a key focus of Mark Tushnet’s book Slave Law in the American South: State v. Mann in History and Literature. Ruffin’s first and second drafts declare that he is upset with the fact that he is the man that is called upon to bring a decision on this case. His final draft also mentions these feelings but Ruffin adds a statement saying that it is useless to complain about the inherent things in the political state. Ruffin’s final draft of his decision is where his shift to seeing slavery as a necessary evil comes to light.
Ruffin’s first draft starts out with the sentence “This is one of those cases which a court will always regret being brought into judgment” (Item 323). By starting out by saying this, it indicates that Ruffin may already see that there is nothing that the court can do within the law to decrease the amount of brutality towards slaves. This also indcates that he would rather not be the one to make this decision. Also within the first draft, Ruffin refers to slavery “in its present form” (Item 323). This gives thought that he believes that the state of slave’s conditions may change in the future. Within this draft Ruffin does not provide evidence of where he believes the change might come from. Towards the end of his first draft, Ruffin states that “the power of the master must be as strong and as absolute as the submission of the slave must be unconditional and implicit. It is inherent in the relation of master and slave” (Item 323). In his final paragraph he concludes by saying that he enjoys that the conditions of slaves are improving every day. This shows that he is ok with the slave practice but not any brutality. Ruffin’s first draft of his decision indicates that he acknowledged that brutality present in the current practice of slavery. By saying that the power of the master must be absolute, Ruffin recognizes that any appeal to a master’s treatment would cause a complete collapse in the order of the slave-slave owner relationship. He did not approve brutality but believed that limiting slave owner’s authority over a slave would cause more harm for society than good.
In Ruffin’s second draft of his decision, he still says that he regrets being the person that is called to judge this case. One interesting thing that he adds is “The struggle in the judge’s own breast between the feelings of the man and the convictions of the magistrate is a severe one- presenting a strong temptation to put aside such questions if it be possible” (Item 610). This sentence will carry over onto his final draft. This gives indication that Ruffin felt what historian Robert Cover calls a “moral-formal dilemma”. Cover argues that judges faced with this dilemma would use tactics that would reduce their personal impact on the case (Cover 1975, 197-256). Ruffin would allow John Mann to be freed of punishment from the court and allow future mistreatment but felt that the rate of mistreatment would decrease due to other factors. The second draft does not refer to slavery “in its present form” like the first draft did. Instead, Ruffin says “while slavery exists until it shall see fit to change” (Item 610). This statement shows that he still believes that slavery has at least a chance of changing in the future.
In his final draft, Ruffin says that it is “useless to complain of things inherent in our political state” (Item 44). This is a change from his previous statements that indicates a possibility of slavery changing its current form. By saying this, Ruffin shows that he believes that slavery is inherent in southern society. Complaining about it would not change anything. This is where Ruffin shows his shift to thinking of slavery as a necessary evil within society. Ruffin gives no indication that the practice of slavery will ever go away. He says that “the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect” and “the slave, to remain a slave, must be made sensible that there is no appeal from his master; that his power is in no instance usurped; but is conferred by the laws of man at least, if not by the law of God” (Item 44). By saying this, Ruffin shows his belief that the slave cannot have a chance to appeal because that would allow slaves to contest every action of punishment from their masters. If this was allowed, the entire practice would be rendered useless and cause a harm to society.
The three drafts show a change in his language regarding slavery. What happened in Ruffin’s logic that led him to believe that there is no use in complaining on the current state of conditions of slaves? Historian Mark Tushnet believes that Ruffin did not see where the court could do anything to improve conditions because slavery was legal within the law and it is the court’s job to interpret the law as stated. Tushnet believes that Ruffin saw other avenues for controlling the brutality of slaves. In was in Ruffin’s hopes that economics, religion, personal morality, and society would be the best avenues for decreasing brutality (Tushnet 2003, 38-65).