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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Judging history at UNC

In a continued response to the controversy over the Bell Award given in honor of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, Chancellor Moeser awarded a grant that is enabling historian Annette Wright to write a new history of the university. It will primarily take the form of a web site. It's a daunting, difficult, but highly appropriate assignment for UNC to be taking on at the beginning of the 21st century. She's working hard to meet some summer deadlines with the goal of having it online by University Day, October 12.

A nineteenth-century UNC trustee named Thomas Ruffin was chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1833 to 1853. In 1829-30, at the beginning of his career on the court, he wrote State v. Mann, a decision that sanctions the "absolute" power of a master over a slave, a case that came to be probably the most-studied case in the history of slave law. As you might guess, official histories of the university to date have not chosen to dwell on that case or even to mention it. See, for example, the documentation on Ruffin Dormitory:

Thomas Ruffin (1787-1870) was a native of Virginia. He graduated at Princeton in 1805, and read law with Judge May in Petersburg, Virginia, in whose office as a law student was General Winfield Scott. He read the Statute of Laws of North Carolina in the office of Judge Murphy, of Orange, where he began the practice of law. He was UNC-Chapel Hill trustee for 24 years, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for 19 years, President of State Agricultural Society, member of the Peace Convention, and a member of the convention of 1861. In 1830 as a member of the Board of Trustees he drafted a report on the financial crisis of the University and made an eloquent plea to the General Assembly for aid to the University. Mr. Frank Nash of Hillsboro wrote in 1905 in a piece for the News and Observer "he was great as a lawyer, great as a judge, great as a financier, great as a farmer - rugged, indomitable soul in a frame of iron, made to conquer, and conquering every difficulty on every side."


I had coffee with Annette last week to talk with her about Thomas Ruffin. She was most interested to incorporate a fuller version of his story into her history. I left her with a draft copy of an essay I wrote that is set to be published in the selected papers from an architectural history conference in Savannah in 2003. It's about Ruffin, and a statue of him over in Raleigh, and the whole tangled subject of historical memory here "at the South." Since it still may be a long time before the book is out, here (sans notes) is how it starts.

Judge Thomas Ruffin and the Shadows of Southern History

Historical criticism of the American South has become deepened and enriched by a movement, well established in other fields, to study the central role of collective memory in shaping received notions of the past. The work of interrogating the nature and sources of cultural authority has proven especially fruitful in southern studies, perhaps because of the sheer tenacity with which the dominant interpretations of the past have managed to persist. In the era following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the ranks of memory were closed. The broken South sought valiantly to grieve its dead, heal its wounds, reaffirm its cherished sense of honor and duty, and return, as best it could, to life as it used to be. Look away, indeed. Look no farther, in fact, than the square of any southern city to find tangible evidence of a story that, if unable to claim victory, at least holds out for redemption. The fallen heroes of the Civil War live on, united with the legendary figures of the American Revolution—all, in turn, imbued with the virtues of classical republican democracy. The most divisive of national calamities—a civil war—is refigured as the long unbroken march of history. The story told through monuments in public squares across the South is as sure, as inevitable as solid stone itself.

These monuments are often also memorials, which is different, strictly speaking: a monument marks a victory, a memorial commemorates a defeat. “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget,” writes Arthur Danto. Tellingly, in the South the two concepts are not easily separated. Moreover, the explicitly funereal memorials—the soldier statues erected out of love and grief—participate in a grammar of mourning that follows its own rules, independent of partisan loyalties. The southern soldiers are virtually indistinguishable from the northern ones. Together, they strengthened the cultural narrative of healing and forgetting. At the same time, the invocation of large themes of American history in southern commemorative practice suggests a hopeful, providential end: the stories of the postwar South share with other nineteenth-century disaster narratives, such as those of the great Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake, the theme of adversity overcome. Christian tropes of trial and redemption informed the secular “panorama of Progress” that was unfolding across the country in the late nineteenth century. Many types of narratives, in other words, coalesced to form the strikingly coherent official story of the Lost Cause. In its service, in repositories of stone and bronze, the past is recollected, solidified, and celebrated. A cohesive tale is told of pride and patriotism and loyalty to abiding principles; future generations are advised to take heed. But in order to be remembered, a thing first has to be forgotten. And “[i]n the end,” as Louis Menand writes, “the only way to make the past usable is to misinterpret it.” With this realization, we begin to understand what a tricky business it is to sustain pubic memory.

The southern Civil War monuments stood largely unchallenged (even unremarked) through two world wars. As the civil rights revolution forced a change in the cultural landscape, however, the very presence of these monuments began to suggest untold stories. Today they are more likely to be viewed as sites of disputed memory, of what Fitz Brundage describes as “a dialectic . . . between the willfully recalled and the deliberately forgotten.” The Raleigh statue of Thomas Ruffin (1787-1870), the most highly acclaimed judge of nineteenth-century North Carolina, is a product of the rhetorical excesses of the champions of the Lost Cause. For almost a century it has quietly presided over anxious lawyers as they come to plead their causes to the highest tribunals in the state. But though the statue remains the same, an exploration of the history that it embodies can lead to a renewed appreciation of the uneven dynamics at play in the historical struggle of African Americans for justice.

A single opinion Judge Ruffin wrote early in his career on the North Carolina Supreme Court gave masters almost unbridled physical power over their slaves—in language so candidly descriptive of the brutal reality of the lives of the enslaved that it became the most talked about opinion in the public discourse on the law of slavery. A slender body of criticism that began with the abolitionists has been fully embraced, more than a century later, by contemporary legal historians, for whom Ruffin has become emblematic of all that was wrong with the antebellum South. Yet, at least formally, none of this criticism has had an impact on Ruffin’s reputation in the halls of power in North Carolina. In considering the history of his statue in Raleigh, my intent is not so much to upset its foundation as to enlarge our understanding of what it represents. It marks one brief chapter in the history of the reassertion of white dominance in the South after the Civil War—a story that, through the very strength of its imagery, rendered alternative versions almost incomprehensible. Even so, within the contours of this narrative of Anglo-Saxon triumph can be found another one of resistance and refusal. This counternarrative has the potential to change the way we view Ruffin’s statue: the statement of the fixed and immutable power of law that it was no doubt intended to make unfolds into a conversation about the uses of law by the powerful. Such a shift of perspective, in turn, invites us into a broader reconsideration of our ways of navigating the contested terrain of public commemorative art.