His pro-slavery rhetoric was extreme. And his portrait dominates our top NC courtroom.

One morning in late October 1831, a plantation owner took a walk around his Alamance County property. He ran a brutal operation there on the Big Alamance Creek. His overseers burned his slaves, rubbing salt and pepper into their wounds. He sold husbands away from wives and children away from parents. And he was silent partner in a slave-trading business that bought people in the border states and sold them at a profit in the deep south.

That morning the man worried over a rumor that a young enslaved woman named Bridget—whom he had decided was a bad influence—was trespassing on his property. He spotted her near his mill buildings. They had words and she gave him – he wrote – “a look of insolent audacity which Patience itself could not swallow.” Grabbing a rod, he “gave her a good caning.” Regretful, the man soon sought forgiveness — from Bridget’s owner, for damaging his property.

As it happens, you can still see this man: in Raleigh. To find him, go to the the third floor of the Law and Justice Building on Morgan Street. Enter the paneled courtroom of the state Supreme Court and look up at the bench. You’ll find him framed on the wall at the focal point of the room, between two majestic columns. You really can’t miss him; he is three times the size of the other portraits. He is Thomas Ruffin, chief justice from 1833 to 1852 and still, as his portrait’s position suggests, the most celebrated judge in the state’s history.

Extreme rhetoric

Ruffin’s reputation was solidly earned. A “thorough improvement man” in a North Carolina emerging from decades of indifference to growth — it was called the Rip Van Winkle state — he ruled in ways that hastened economic progress. Perhaps the height of his reputation came in 1936, when Roscoe Pound, dean of Harvard Law School, called him one of the 10 greatest American judges.

Missing from popular accounts of Ruffin’s career, however, is one opinion with far-reaching consequences. It’s missing for much the same reason that Ruffin preferred to keep his slave trading quiet. In State v. Mann (1829), he solidified a master’s powers of discipline. His rhetoric is so extreme that historians consider the case the most shocking opinion in the entire body of slavery law.

The case arose in Chowan County. John Mann was in possession of a young enslaved woman named Lydia. Refusing one day to submit to his chastisement over something small, she fled. He shot her from behind. The state brought charges of assault and battery, and the jury found Mann guilty.

Overturning the conviction, Ruffin held that “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” No one remains enslaved out of devotion, he wrote: “Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body.” Because the basis of slavery is raw power, Ruffin reasons, it follows that the master must hold “absolute” powers of correction.

The chilling message of State v. Mann was that, in the name of discipline, masters could wield virtually limitless force. Its language even made its way into slave owner instruction manuals. In our time, Martin Luther King Jr., quoted from such manuals in a sympathetic discussion of the Black Power movement. Black Power, he contended, “is a psychological reaction to the psychological indoctrination that led to the creation of the perfect slave.”

Ruffin wrote hundreds of opinions involving enslaved people. As legal historian Alfred Brophy observes, these opinions “helped keep the enslaved in their subordinate status” while they “protected owners from liability for abuse and from liability for the actions of their slaves.”

Call to account

The portrait that demands your attention has been with the Supreme Court since 1888. It was no doubt received with reverence then, what with federal troops gone and white supremacy ascendant. State v. Mann likely did not trouble the guests who gazed upon the portrait at the dedication of the Court’s new courtroom in 1940, during the reign of Jim Crow.

But there he has remained, despite Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement and the election of an African American president.

How can Thomas Ruffin not trouble us in 2018? We needn’t worry about judging with hindsight: Ruffin behaved viciously even within his context. He went out of his way not just to inflict hardship on the enslaved people who happened to cross his path, but also to endow brutality with the force of law.

The time has come to call Thomas Ruffin to account — to revisit both his dominating presence in the courtroom and the absence of those he repressed. We owe it to the litigants whose cases are presented there, and their attorneys. We owe it to the enslaved like Lydia, who had no recourse for cruel punishment, and to those who were Ruffin’s merchandise in his slave-trading business.

We owe it to Bridget.

Eric L. Muller is Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor at the UNC School of Law. Sally Greene is an independent scholar and former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.