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Ruffin's Other Court Decisions

Thomas Ruffin decided several other cases that revolved around slavery. The State v. Mann decision was one of Ruffin’s first on the bench of the Supreme Court of North Carolina and his first regarding slavery. However, he had several cases regarding slavery that took place after the Mann decision. The most notable of these cases is the State v. Caesar decision of 1849. This case regarded the question of “how much abuse would slaves have to endure at the hands of white men before they could fight back and claim that they had been so provoked that a homicide was reduced from murder to manslaughter.” (Brophy 2009, 815) The court decided that there was a point where a slave had the right to fight back against his master in fear of his life, but Ruffin’s dissenting opinion claimed that slaves did not have that right. Ruffin stated:

Every individual in the community feels and understands that the homicide of a slave may be extenuated by acts which would not constitute a legal provocation if done by a white person. So, it follows, as certainly as day follows night, that many things which drove a white man to madness will not have the like effect if done by a white man to a slave. (Brophy 2009, 816)

This opinion by Ruffin states that a slave does not have the right to defend themselves against a threat to their life. By this opinion, Ruffin believes that a slave should allow a white man to assault them to the point of death, and not do anything to stop it, unless the slave wanted to be charged, and convicted by an all white jury, of murder. Had this decision been the majority’s, instead of a dissenting opinion, this may have been Ruffin’s most notable decision. He again protected the institution of slavery by taking away the rights of the slave.

Thomas Ruffin also ruled on many emancipation cases while on the bench of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Emancipation was difficult to achieve in North Carolina, as “an 1830 act of the North Carolina legislature largely prohibited emancipation by wills; emancipation was largely limited to cases where the county court found there had been meritorious sevice.” (Brophy 2009, 818) In the case of Sorrey v. Bright in 1835, struck down a form of emancipation known as quasi-freedom, which “in essence [gave] slaves their freedom while still holding them as property.” (Brophy 2009, 819) Ruffin denied this form of emancipation by stating: “every trust for emancipation, and every direction in a will to that end, where the emancipation is to be absolute or qualified, is illegal and void.” (Brophy 2009, 819) Ruffin continued his protection of slavery in this case by obstructing the ability of slaveowners to emancipate their slaves. 

Ruffin also kept two slaves from emancipation in the White v. Green case of 1840. The case revolved around two slaves who had been given their freedom, along with a small plot of land and a few animals, through their master’s will. (Brophy 2009, 819) Ruffin ruled against the slaves and claimed that the two were “part of the general estate and thus subject to be used to satisfy the estate’s debts.” (Brophy 2009, 819)

Ruffin’s jurisprudence in cases regarding slaves resulted in unfavorable outcomes for slaves throughout his time on the North Carolina Supreme Court bench. He used his prominent position to actively protect the institution of slavery and keep slaves from obtaining their freedom. Cases such as State v. Caesar show that Ruffin had no regard for the lives or rights of slaves. Ruffin denied emancipation to slaves that had earned it under the eyes of their master, keeping them within the system.