Despite Judge Thomas Ruffin’s ruling in State v.Mann (1829) from which a seemingly apparent total acceptance and commitment to slavery becomes unarguable evident, I argue that while Ruffin’s opinion shaped both antebellum North Carolina slave law as well as other Southern judicial decisions regarding the status of slaves, further examination upon Ruffin’s public and private correspondence illuminate not only a man with committed religious, moral, and paternal justifications for slavery but also a equal commitment to protecting and perpetuating North Carolina’s antebellum legal codes and institutions. The basis of my argument rests on evidence found in primary sources such as letters, court rulings, and public speeches as well secondary sources such as legal scholar interpretations of Thomas Ruffin’s judicial rulings and their impact on antebellum North Carolina.
Before introducing my argument regarding Thomas Ruffin’s public and private sentiment towards human property in African slaves, a contextual framework for how I interpreted Ruffin’s primary sources needs to established. First, as a general historical paradigm, I have refrained from following the modern hermeneutical approach of twentieth century social historians. Put another way, I reject a critical conception of history in understanding past events and historical actors. To illustrate this point, I have utilized arguments presented by historian Bruce Kuklick in “On Critical History,” which assesses the enterprise of higher criticism specifically put for in F.H. Bradley’s 1874 work, The Presuppositions of Critical History. (Kuklick and Hart 1997, 57) According to Kuklick, Bradley’s work “examined the past and tried to figure out what was true of it in terms of our best sense of what would pass muster in the present.” Furthermore, “Contemporary authority--- our own experience of the way the world worked, the prized truths of scientific investigation today--- was the background to our analysis of the past. If we would not believe something today, we would not believe it for the past.” Similar to Kuklick, I find Bradley’s idealistic perspectivism troubling. (Kuklick and Hart 1997, 57-58) For instance, in following Bradley’s logic, can we charge morally sound and intelligently coherent nineteenth century men such as Thomas Ruffin for beliefs in the racial superiority of white’s over black slaves if eighteenth and nineteenth century “prized truths of scientific investigation” championed scientific racism? While records not indicate if Thomas Ruffin personally adhered to racial and biological studies on African slaves propounded by men such Carl Linnaeus, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, and Thomas Roderick Dew, an argument can be made that influential men such as Ruffin merely adhered to leading scientist of the era for a justification for racial superiority.
Secondly, rather than adhering to interpretation methods used by critical historians, I follow a mental framework argued by Kuklick: “As an historian---and more significantly in every aspect of my experience---my duty is to establish the grounds of my beliefs [Thomas Ruffin’s view of slavery] not on what I wish or hope for; not on what I have learned for various authorities;but on what can be best established as true. “The will to truth” becomes “primary.”[italics used for emphasis] (Kuklick and Hart 1997, 57). Furthermore, a question posed by historian Grant Wacker in an article short paper entitled “Understanding the Past, Using the Past”, seems pertinent before analyzing Ruffin’s sentiments towards slaves. Wacker asks, “should historians deliberately impose value judgments upon their narratives above and beyond the layers of evaluation that are already present in everything that they do?...Differently stated, whenever historians make a self-conscious decision to make the story appeal to or repel the reader, they impose value judgments above and beyond what is presented in the materials.” (Kuklick and Hart 1997, 162) Therefore, in reflecting upon the rationality and decisions Ruffin behind Ruffin’s pro-slavery ideology, purposeful intent is to follow three levels of historical questioning most succinctly put forth by historian Philip Gleason. According to Gleason, “The first is the descriptive: what happened? The second is the explanatory: why did it happen? The third,” and the one I try and refrain from answering, “is the evaluative: was it a good thing that it happened”? (Kuklick and Hart 1997, 163) In analyzing Ruffin’s pro-slavery convictions which appear in both private and public correspondence, my intent is to posit his personal beliefs in the social framework of antebellum North Carolina rather than use a modern conception his actions being morally right or morally wrong.