Ruffin's Activity in Slave Industry
Thomas Ruffin’s activity within the slave trade and his treatment of his own slaves show that he may not have had “the struggle… in the judge’s own breast between the feelings of the man and the duty of the magistrate” and instead was actively protecting the institution of slavery in his decision in State v. Mann. (Item 44) Ruffin owned thirty-two slaves between his two plantations in Rockingham County and Almanac County, by 1830, the year of the Mann decision. (Hadden 2001, 5) Because of large number of slaves, it is likely that Ruffin and his family were outnumbered by them. Ruffin could have wanted for “the power of the master to be absolute” in order to quell any fears of revolt that he or his people may have had. (Item 44)
Ruffin’s slaves were also treated with cruelty by his overseer. Ruffin had a busy work schedule that took him away from home often, which forced him to place his slaves under the care of his overseer. The overseer had no accountability to Ruffin while he was away, and was able to treat his slaves cruelly. Ruffin’s neighbor and friend Archibald Murphey eventually wrote a letter to him about “the evil and barbarous treatment of your negroes by your overseer” in June of 1824. (Item 601) Murphey claimed that some of the overseer’s treatment was “too revolting to put on paper” and that he was “literally barbecuing, peppering and salting” the slaves.” (Item 601). Murphey stated that these events “concerns your [Ruffin’s] Character no more than your intent to interfere.” (Item 601) He made this statement to show that he was not judging Ruffin for his overseer’s actions, unless he did nothing to stop them. Murphey must have believed that Ruffin had not heard about his overseer’s behavior and was ignorant of it. This was not the case. According to Sally Hadden, Ruffin’s wife Anne Ruffin informed Thomas in an 1823 letter, “how the overseer mistreated Ruffin’s slaves and how likely it was several of them would run away.” (Hadden 2001, 6) This means that Ruffin was aware of his overseer’s actions yet did nothing to stop him. The lack of action on Ruffin’s part shows that he did not care about the well being of slaves under any circumstance, despite that the overseer’s action had been “the subject of communication with some of the Neighbors.” (Item 601) Ruffin knew about his overseer’s actions, and knew that his neighbors did as well, yet never told his overseer to stop torturing his slaves. Thomas Ruffin also physically beat slaves on his own as well. Thomas Ruffin’s activity involving slaves went much deeper than simply owning them for use on his property.
Thomas Ruffin had a slave named Bridget that he did not care for. He believed that she would ruin other slaves due to her poor character, claiming, “from her detestable character I thought she would impair the value of the other slaves which I got from you over part of which she had great influence with the residual fruits” and that “she would impair the value of her descendants.”(Item 602) He despised Bridget to the point that he ordered that “she should not be sold or live short of a thousand miles from this place.” (Item 602) Unfortunately for Ruffin, Archibald Murphy wanted to buy her because he used to own her and did not have the same opinion regarding her. After Bridget was sold, Ruffin heard rumors that she had been seen visiting the plantation on more than one occasion. Ruffin found Bridget on his land on Saturday, October 28, 1831 and “upon the instant I gave her a good caning.” (Item 602) This incident gains further importance due to its proximity to the State v. Mann decision a year prior. Ruffin knew that he could face legal ramifications for this assault, because of he only had stranger’s rights to Bridget. (Muller 2009, 783) According to Muller, “Under the North Carolina law of the day, at a minimum, a stranger’s assault on the slave of another exposed the stranger to liability in damages to the slave’s owner.” (Muller 2009, 783) Ruffin could have also been indicted on criminal chargers. In the 1823 decision State v. Hale, “the Supreme Court of North Carolina held that a white man who beat the slave of another could be indicted at common law for battery.” (Muller 2009, 783) This incident involved a North Carolina Supreme Court Justice committing an act that could have held him civilly and criminally liable. This event is significant, according to Muller because it brings, “important context about the capacity for brutality in the judge who presented himself to the public as so deeply distressed by the harshness of State v. Mann.” (Muller 2009, 785)
Thomas Ruffin was involved in a slave trading partnership with a man named Benjamin Chambers, starting in February of 1822 and continuing until Chambers’s death in 1827. (Item 596). The agreement between the two men called for an initial investment of four thousand dollars by Ruffin and two thousand dollars by Chambers. Chambers was responsible for running the business, and Ruffin provided nothing more than the initial capital (Item 596). Ruffin’s involvement in the slave trade ended abruptly with Chambers’s death three years before Mann was heard. When the Mann case was heard in 1830, Ruffin may not have ruled out a return to the slave trade with a new partner. For this reason, he had a plausible motive for ruling strongly in favor of protecting the rights of slaveowners.
The slave trading industry was not well respected, and it was rare for someone of Ruffin’s social and political stature to be involved. According to Eric Muller, “men like Thomas Ruffin who managed to rise to positions of high station in Southern society did so despite their slave-trading rather than because of it.” (Muller 2009, 787) Ruffin also saw no conflict of interest with being involved in the slave trade and being a Supreme Court Justice, as he signed his second Article of Agreement to renew the partnership with Chambers only a few days before agreeing to serve. (Muller 2009, 788) Ruffin was aware of the stigma associated with slave traders, so he protected himself in the original Articles of Agreement signed in 1821 by stating, “The whole business of buying & selling is to be conducted by said Chambers,… and to be carried on in the name of said Chambers alone.” (Item 596) Ruffin likely wanted his name kept out of the business as much as possible to uphold his reputation. According to Eric Muller, “We cannot know exactly why Ruffin did not Want his name attached to his business’s slave-trading activities, but worries about their dishonor seems a likely explanation.” (Muller 2009, 14) Despite Ruffin’s attempt to keep his involvement in the slave trade under wraps, “Rffin was exposed to blunt disapproval of his participation in the slave trade shortly after beginning it, but he continued it anyway, even while serving as a superior court judge.” (Muller 2009, 786) Ruffin wanted the financial gains of the industry without the backlash on his reputation.
Although the negative aspects of the industry did not deter Ruffin, it did stop others. Ruffin approached Quinton Anderson in January of 1822, about joining the slave trading partnership between Ruffin and Chambers. Anderson was not as prominent as Ruffin, yet he did not shy away from giving his true opinion on the matter to the judge. Anderson stated his feelings that, “the trafic (sic) itself, against which the feelings of my mind in some measure revolt.” (Item 597) He also gave his opinion on what he thought of men involved in the slave trade claiming that, “their mode of business with their Customers is so strongly marked with tyranny as to disgust a free and Republican Spirit.” (Item 597) Anderson obviously looked down upon the slave trade with disgust and wanted no part in it. The fact that Anderson, who was not as high on the social ladder, turned down this opportunity because of his reputation, and Ruffin, who was a judge at the time, did not, shows that Ruffin was not morally opposed to the slave trade and became involved in it fully aware of the consequences.
Ruffin and Chambers had no qualms against purchasing and selling children away from their families during their partnership. Two documents from 1825 provide documentation of the purchase and sale of slaves. Although some of the slaves were sold together as an adult with their children, many young slaves were bought and sold individually. Winny, a nine year old girl, was purchased for $240 and then sold in Alabama for $310. (Items 603, 604) Some siblings were kept together, such as “Little Charles, 10 and 2 cisters [sic] younger” who were purchased together for $500 and sold for $825. Several other purchases and sales were listed on the two documents, and according to Muller, “Each and every one of these sales separated children from parents, siblings from siblings, or both.” (Muller 2009, 793) These tragic separations were a part of the business conducted by Chambers on Ruffin’s behalf, but Ruffin also played a part in the separation of slave families on his own plantation. One example of this occurred when one of Ruffin’s neighbors offered to buy a slave named Noah away from Ruffin. (Muller 2009, 793) Noah was married to another one of Ruffin’s slaves. (Muller 2009, 793) Ruffin got word from Noah that he was “extremely anxious to spend the remnant of his pilgrimage here on earth in the society of his beloved better half.” (Muller 2009, 793) Ruffin ignored this plea and sold him for $150. (Muller 2009, 793). Ruffin had no issue with breaking up slave families that he knew. He likely came into contact with Noah and his wife often when he was at home on the plantation, and still felt no empathy for Noah and his wishes to stay with his wife.
Thomas Ruffin’s activity in the slave trade shows that he was actively protecting the institution of slavery and the rights of slaveholders in his decision in State v. Mann. His involvement as a slave owner and slave trader give him a motive to protect the interests of the slaveholding population. As a slaveowner, he wanted full authority over his slaves to ensure his dominion over his slaves. Ruffin was only three years removed from his slave trading partnership with Chambers when the Mann decision was made. It is possible that he could have still had interest in participating in the slave trade, and giving him further reason to rule in Mann’s favor.
Ruffin also showed a complete lack of respect for the slaves as human beings. He did not stop his overseer from being overly cruel to the slaves. He broke up families in his slave-trading partnership and on his own accord. Ruffin beat a slave that was not his own, for simply appearing on his property. These actions, when looked upon as a whole, call into question if Ruffin truly did have a “struggle, too, in the judge’s own breast between the feelings of the man and the duty of the magistrate.” (Item 44)