Judging Thomas Ruffin and the Hindsight Defense
50 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2008
Judge Thomas Ruffin of the antebellum North Carolina Supreme Court enjoys the reputation as one of the great judges of the nineteenth century; some rank him among the greats of all American history. This reputation has been little tarnished by his authorship of State v. Mann, an opinion that has become one of the central texts of the American law of slavery due to its savage endorsement of the right of the temporary hirer of a slave to shoot her in the back without risking criminal sanction.
Scholars have hesitated to condemn Judge Ruffin for his Mann opinion. To some extent, this is because Ruffin professed great personal anguish in that opinion at the harshness of its outcome. In addition, the archival record seemed to contain few clues (beyond the Mann opinion itself) about Ruffin's attitudes toward slavery and his own slaves. Finally, and relatedly, scholars have wished to honor what the article calls the "hindsight defense" of historical actors - the claim that present observers cannot fairly assess the behavior of figures from the past because they will inevitably ignore the culture and morals of that earlier time.
This article reviews a great deal of newly discovered archival evidence that places Judge Ruffin and his Mann opinion in a much more troublesome light. The evidence reveals Ruffin to have been a batterer of slaves, a speculating slave-trader at a time when that trade had become disreputable, and a serial breaker of slave families. These new disclosures not only force a reconsideration of Judge Ruffin and his Mann opinion, but also suggest that the "hindsight defense" of historical actors is often excessively simplistic and reductionist.
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