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Judge Thomas Ruffin and the Shadows of Southern History

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 66-89 | 10.1353/scu.2011.0045

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Thomas Ruffin’s statue, of heroic scale on a pedestal of polished white marble, makes a commanding presence, even from the alcove of the court building. Dressed in swallow-tail coat and cravat, Ruffin stands with an “air of power and of elevation.” His squarely frontal yet unguarded position invokes a classical style of “ideal masculinity” that was refined in the eighteenth century. Photograph courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.

A visitor to the North Carolina Court of Appeals could be forgiven for failing to notice Judge Thomas Ruffin’s statue in an alcove in the building’s foyer. Obstructed by a latter-day handicap access ramp, the larger-than-life bronze figure nevertheless stolidly presides. From its opening in 1914 until 1940, this building was the home of the North Carolina Supreme Court, of which Ruffin was chief justice from 1833 to 1852. After 1940, when the Supreme Court moved next door to a building constructed by the Works Progress Administration, the building became known as the Library Building; in 1967, it became home to the newly established Court of Appeals.1

Ruffin’s statue was created by Francis H. Packer, a New York artist of some renown who had studied with Saint-Gaudens. One of his statues already graced Union Square, as the lawn of the capitol is called. It depicts Worth Bagley, son of prominent North Carolinians and the first American officer killed in the Spanish-American War. As historian Gaines Foster has persuasively written, this war served as a powerful antidote to the Civil War, rallying the reunified nation to a common cause. Bagley’s death, Catherine Bishir notes, “was hailed in the national press as sealing the ‘covenant of brotherhood between north and south.’” The monument’s inscription, first fallen , 1898, echoed that of the nearby Confederate monument, first at bethel , last at appomattox . The threads of American history thus came together in these monuments, as well as others near the capitol, to be joined, only a few years later, by the statue of Ruffin, the state’s most distinguished jurist.2

The appearance of all of these monuments in Raleigh around the turn of the century reflected a local response to a sweeping national phenomenon. “[T]he decades between 1870 and 1910 comprised the most notable period in all of American history for erecting monuments in honor of mighty warriors, groups of unsung heroes, and great deeds,” writes Michael Kammen in The Mystic Chords of Memory. “The movement carried with it a kind of ‘contagion’ that spilled from Civil War saints to battles and martyrs of other wars.” Although the poverty of the South after the war meant that the monuments there were slow in coming, the political elite throughout the region poured substantial resources into the business of memorialization.3

In North Carolina, the creation of what Bishir aptly calls “landmarks of power” took place in two phases. From the 1880s into the 1890s, the focus of the memorial movement shifted from cemeteries, where statues of fallen soldiers spoke a language of grief that transcended sectional loyalties, to public spaces, as dutiful citizens heeded a more partisan call. This period culminated in 1895, with the erection on Union Square of the 75-foot monument to the state’s Confederate dead. The second phase came in reaction to an unexpected political development: in 1894 and 1896, the Democrats lost control of the legislature and the governorship to a “Fusion” ticket backed by Populists and Republicans. The response to this embarrassment was swift and sharp. In 1898, the Democrats rushed back into power on a platform of white supremacy, leaving a trail of violence, most notably the deadly coup d’état in Wilmington. In 1900 the party reclaimed the governorship and enlisted Jim Crow to seal the victory.4

Against this backdrop, the second phase of monument building reflected a “remarkable sense of shared purpose,” Bishir observes. “With competing visions of the state’s past, present, and future all but silenced in official discourse, leaders shared a powerful sense that both in politics and in the culture at large, matters had been returned to...



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