'Our Experiences Make Us Who We Are': Lessons from Thomas Ruffin and Dirk Hartog

42 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2022 Last revised: 5 Dec 2022

See all articles by Jessica Lowe

Jessica Lowe

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: November 21, 2022


It was 1804, and Thomas Ruffin, future Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, was having doubts about slavery. Ruffin was a young student at what would become Princeton University, experiencing New Jersey's debate over gradual emancipation; looking for help, he wrote home to his father in Virginia. The elder Ruffin was a recent convert to Methodism, but despite the anti-slavery leanings of that sect, Sterling Ruffin took a hard line: he advised his son that, whatever moral qualms there might be, southern slavery needed to be based on “servile fear” for it to operate. That stark advice would echo twenty-five years later in Judge Ruffin’s notorious opinion in the slave law case of State v. Mann. This essay, originally prepared for the retirement conference of legal historian Hendrik Hartog, delves into the striking similarities between Sterling Ruffin’s letter and Judge Ruffin’s opinion, meditating on the other options available to Ruffin and the importance of the choices we make when our worldviews are threatened. A version will be published in a forthcoming volume edited by Kenneth Mack and Jacob Cogan.

Keywords: Slavery, Thomas Ruffin, Religion, State v. Mann, South, North Carolina, Virginia, Methodism, Christianity, Princeton University, religion and slavery, slavery and the law, legal history, American legal history, American Civil War

Suggested Citation

Lowe, Jessica, 'Our Experiences Make Us Who We Are': Lessons from Thomas Ruffin and Dirk Hartog (November 21, 2022). Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2022-76, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4283087

Jessica Lowe (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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