Search using this query type:

Advanced Search (Items only)

Early Sentiments

Letter of  Sterling Ruffin to Thomas Ruffin, June 9, 1804

Item number: 75. Letter of Sterling Ruffin to Thomas Ruffin, June 9, 1804.

Early on in Ruffin’s life, he had a general sympathy for slaves. This is evident in a letter that Thomas received from his father Sterling Ruffin. His sympathy was limited only to feelings about brutality because after he graduated from law school and started law in North Carolina, he bought a farm where he owned slaves. Ruffin accepted the practice of slavery but felt bad about any brutality that might come out of it.

Thomas Ruffin’s father wrote him a letter when he was 17 years old detailing his feelings about slavery and how he sympathized for the fate of slaves. On the second paragraph, Sterling Ruffin said “like all others who are not entirely void of every spark of sensibility, you feel for them, lament, greatly lament for their uncommon hard fate”(Item 75). This indicates that Thomas Ruffin had previously written a letter to his father indicating that he felt bad for the state of slaves. By this time, caution for the treatment of slaves was not as popular as it would become in the years leading up to the Civil War.

In the letter, Sterling Ruffin offered no opinion on how the slave trade could be ended. He states that the answer to that question is for greater minds than his own. Sterling Ruffin notes that there are too many slaves under white control which leads to the brutal treatment of them in order to keep order. The fact that Ruffin received this letter indicates that he was at least aware that slaves were treated badly by some masters. It was called to his attention but the subject was not as popular as it would be later in his life.

In the years preceding the case of State v. Mann, Thomas Ruffin practiced law in Hillsborough, North Carolina where he was also a farmer. On his farm he had an overseer who managed and bought many of his slaves. This overseer had full control to do whatever he felt necessary to keep the slaves in order and get work done (Item 599). There is no evidence that Ruffin had personally done anything to harm his own slaves but he did have an instance where he punished a slave of a neighbor for visiting his plantation (Item 602). Early on Ruffin realized that this instance may have some legal consequences that he would have to deal with. 

Based on the context of Sterling Ruffin’s letter to his son, it can be assumed that Thomas Ruffin had similar feelings that were expressed by his father while he was young. He may not agree with everything his father said but he at the very least had a family member that taught him a sense of compassion for slaves.