State v. Mann Exhumed
56 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2009
Date Written: March 21, 2009
State v. Mann overturned a jury's conviction of John Mann for assault upon a slave he had hired from a woman named Elizabeth Jones. Historians seeking to understand the case have faced a significant hurdle: the paucity of evidence of the facts surrounding the trial. The record is not silent, however, on John Mann, Elizabeth Jones, or her wounded slave Lydia. Available evidence enables us to reconstruct sufficient facts to support tentative conclusions.
Elizabeth Jones was a minor who had inherited Lydia upon the death of her parents. She was being raised in rural Chowan County in the household of her brother-in-law, Josiah Small. Small acted in Elizabeth's interest by keeping Lydia hired out. In 1828 Lydia was hired by John Mann, a widowed and bankrupt sea captain living in Edenton. Little about John Mann would have suggested to a Chowan County judge and jury that he ought to enjoy the powers of a master.
Close study of the evidence suggests that Ruffin's reversal would have been seen in Edenton as wrong on the facts. Further study of the law of masters, hirers, and slaves suggests that the reversal was at least questionable on the law. Read in this new light, State v. Mann can be seen to stand on its own as a succinct but powerful treatise in implicit defense of slavery in terms that Ruffin's fellow planters would have readily understood. In justifying the reversal of Mann's conviction, Ruffin successfully enlists the key Burkean themes of conservative southern thought of the day, fatalistic themes emphasizing the surpassing importance of the status quo over any hope of reform. The opinion can be read as part of a broader pattern reflected in the writings of an increasingly defensive slaveholding elite; thematically it foreshadows Thomas Dew's crucially important defense of slavery in his Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832. And yet Ruffin's rhetoric outdid itself. In attempting to silence any criticism of the workings of the system from which its author so clearly benefited, ironically State v. Mann may have hastened slavery's undoing.
Keywords: slavery, legal history
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