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State v. Mann: 1829

In Defense Of Slavery

Defendant: John Mann
Crime Charged: Assault and battery
Chief Defense Lawyer: No record
Chief Prosecutor: No record
Judge: Thomas Ruffin
Place: North Carolina
Date of Decision: December 1829
Verdict: Judgment reversed, and judgment entered for the defendant

SIGNIFICANCE: A Southern judge with little sympathy for slavery rendered a powerful and logical pro-slavery opinion, further entrenching Southern slavery, while opening it to Northern attack.

NI orth Carolina had fewer slaves than most other states in the future Confederacy. But in the two decades leading up to the Civil War, that state's Supreme Court produced one of the most notorious pro-slavery opinions in American history.

In 1829 Elizabeth Jones, who owned a slave named Lydia, hired her out for a year to John Mann of Chowan County. Lydia was unhappy with the arrangement, and at one point Mann decided to punish her, possibly by whipping her. But Lydia escaped during the punishment, and began to run away. Mann shouted to her, ordering her to stop, but Lydia continued to run. Mann then shot and wounded her. Such, at least, was Mann's story.

The circumstances were so odd, however, that a local grand jury took the unusual step of indicting Mann for assault and battery against a slave. During the trial, the judge told the jury that if it believed that the punishment Mann inflicted was "cruel and unwarrantable, and disproportionate to the offense committed by the slave that, in the law the Defendant was guilty," particularly since he was not even her owner. This is obviously exactly what the jury thought, for it found Mann guilty. Mann then appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

Thomas Ruffin was the chief justice of that court, and the appeal put him in a very bad position. He disliked the idea of slavery, and he was horrified that a white man had used such violence against a black woman. On the other hand, he could not escape the fact that slavery was perfectly legal in North Carolina. Torn between his sense of justice and his sense of duty to the law, he penned a startling opinion.

"A Judge cannot but lament, when such cases as the present are brought into court," he began. "The struggle … in the Judge's own breast between the feelings of the man, and the duty of the magistrate, is a severe test." But despite his veiled denouncement of the evils of slavery, Ruffin then proceeded to side with the law. "It is criminal in a Court to avoid any responsibility which the laws impose. With whatever reluctance therefore it is done, the Court is compelled to express an opinion upon the extent of the dominion of the master over the slave in North Carolina."

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