Friday, June 20, 2008

Thomas Ruffin: Of Moral Philosophy and Monuments

Well, it's a Friday afternoon in June and though my favorite librarian recently told me I should be relaxing now that I'm moved into Chapel Hill, I'm sweating out a paper for a colloquium next week. It's going to be about University, Court, and Slave. I'm trying to get the introduction written so I can distribute it on Monday. But instead of doing that, I'm blogging about a piece of it....

One of the chapters is on Thomas Ruffin, so I thought I'd post a note about an article that I forthcoming in the North Carolina Law Review (thanks to Sally and Eric Muller's kindness) on Mr. Justice Ruffin. The article was part of Sally and Eric's conference last fall on The Perils of Public Homage. Chapel Hill residents may find this of particular interest because there's a dormitory on campus named (in part) after him. (It's Ruffin Hall and it's also named for his son.) Anyway, the paper is about two things. First, it's about Ruffin's jurisprudence; second, it's about what we make of the fact that there's a building named after him. The payoff on the later point is that I'm not at all sure the building was named for him because he was a proslavery jurist--in fact, I think that by the early twentieth century that piece of his jurisprudence may have been largely forgotten. And so now, somewhat oddly, the building serves as an occasion to talk about the era of slavery and what that meant to our state and our university.

Here's the abstract:
"Thomas Ruffin: Of Moral Philosophy and Monuments " returns to Justice Thomas Ruffin s opinions, particularly on slavery, to excavate his jurisprudence and to try to assess what Ruffin s legacy means for us today. It begins with an exploration of Ruffin s 1830 opinion in State v. Mann, where he self-consciously separated his feelings from his legal opinion to release a man who abused a slave from criminal liability. Anti-slavery activists frequently wrote about Mann, because of its brutal honesty about the harsh nature of slavery. After discussing Harriet Beecher Stowe s fictional account of Ruffin and Mann in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which further developed the theme of separation of law and morals, the paper turns to some of Ruffin s other opinions. It looks to slavery opinions including Heathcock v. Pennington (which released a renter of a slave from liability for his death in a coal mine) and Green v. Lane (which dealt with a trust to give quasi-freedom to slaves), as well as non-slavery cases like Scroggins v. Scroggins (which argued against granting judicial divorces because that would encourage more of them).

Ruffin s jurisprudence took the world as it was, or as he phrased it, looked to the nature of things. His judicial opinions the monuments he left to us illustrate a world of proslavery moral philosophy. That thought separated humanity from law and then decided cases based on precedent and considerations of utility to society. Ruffin was a great expositor of the system of slavery, as well as a great wielder of what Stowe called cold legal logic.

What should we make of this legacy today? Perhaps Ruffin aided the cause of antislavery through his honesty in State v. Mann. And, thus, perhaps we should honor him for that. Moreover, perhaps the honor he received in the early twentieth century (when a dormitory was named in part for him on the UNC campus) derives from his facility with legal reasoning outside of the slavery context. However, honoring him also runs the risk of honoring proslavery values. Conversely, removing his name from a building now runs the risk of concealing the prevalence of proslavery thought in the nineteenth century. That is, removing a name might facilitate a process of forgetting when universities should be trying to provide a proper context for viewing our past.
The paper's available on the social science research network.

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