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State v. Mann: 1829

In Defense Of Slavery

The rest of Ruffin's opinion, in fact, was one of the most readable, logical, and capable defenses of slavery that a Southerner ever wrote. Ruffin observed that although Mann did not own Lydia, and that Elizabeth Jones might well be able to sue him for damaging her property, Mann still had the right to use as much force to control Lydia as Jones herself would have had, since Lydia was legally under his control. The question, then, was how much force a master could use against his slave.

Ruffin's conclusion was blunt. Slavery was designed for the good of the master, and not for the good of the slave, he wrote. In order for the master to have the full benefit of the slave, he had to be able to break the slave's will, to make the slave obey him. "Such obedience," wrote Ruffin, "is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body. There is nothing else which can operate to produce the effect." The court could not interfere with the master's power over his slave, continued Ruffin. "The slave, to remain a slave, must be made sensible, that there is no appeal from the master." In short, Ruffin held, the law gave the master absolute power over the slave. He recognized that this was unjust, but clearly it was the law.

The Mann opinion came down just as abolitionism was gaining ground in the North. It highlighted the tension between law and justice, and the fact that more and more people were coming to see that slavery was wrong, even though it was both legal and constitutional. In 1856 Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, wrote Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In this new antislavery book she modeled the character of Judge Clayton after Thomas Ruffin, and she had Clayton deliver an opinion that strongly resembled the one in State v. Mann. The case, as well as Stowe's fictionalized treatment of it, helped widen the breach between North and South and gave the abolitionists further ammunition to use against the legal system and the judges who protected the morally evil institution of slavery.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cover, Robert M. Justice Accused: Anti-Slavery and the Judicial Process. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832State v. Mann: 1829 - In Defense Of Slavery