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Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 3-7

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"The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect."

In the year 1829, Judge Thomas Ruffin of the North Carolina Supreme Court used these chilling words to settle the vexing case of State vs. Mann, a decisive legal battle in the evolution of American slavery. According to court records, one John Mann of Chowan County, North Carolina, had rented the services of a slave named Lydia, only to shoot and wound her when Lydia defied his authority and struggled to escape a whipping. In the view of modern historians of slavery, incidents like these were numbingly familiar in the antebellum South and rarely attracted official attention. Something about this incident stirred feelings in Chowan County, however, and John Mann was successfully prosecuted for battery. Lydia's story reached the state's highest court when Mann appealed his conviction, arguing that the law could place no limit on the violence that a master might visit on a slave.

One of the South's most respected jurists, Thomas Ruffin acknowledged that [End Page 3] "a judge cannot but lament when such cases as the present are brought into judgment." By their own lights, at least, Ruffin and his fellow judges were compassionate men and they did not approve of wanton cruelty. Slaveholders all, they preferred to think of themselves as the father figures of extended families--"our family, black and white," they liked to say--and described their human property as perpetual children who gladly labored in exchanged for guidance, protection, and the occasional application of loving discipline. Maiming by gunshots was not supposed to be part of this picture.

Well understanding these assumptions, the prosecuting attorney had tugged hard on the twin sentiments of authority and paternalism, comparing slaves to wives, children, pupils, and apprentices. He took it for granted that powerful men could beat their dependents, but only for their own good and not to excess. When John Mann shot Lydia (who did not actually belong to him, after all), he crossed this line and the state had the right to restrain him.

While professing regret, Thomas Ruffin would have none of this argument. Shredding the rhetoric of paternalism, Ruffin's opinion declared that the power of slavery rested only on force and the awesome finality of the master's will, not on the delicate network of moral obligations that underpinned the authority of a husband, a father, or a teacher. If slaves once learned that their masters' violence could be second-guessed in court, the power of all masters would collapse before the relentless testing of emboldened chattels. No matter how brutal a master might become, so long as he spared the slave's life, the state must not intervene. Thus, "the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect," and John Mann went free.

Down through the years since 1829, Thomas Ruffin's decision in State vs. Mann has stood out in the history books and the legal treatises as one of the most sweeping assertions of the cruelty of antebellum slavery and the power it gave some human beings over others. Abolitionists flayed the decision and repeatedly cited it as proof of slavery's unchecked horrors. Scholars likewise quote its language to illustrate the implications of the "peculiar institution," even when the authorities supposedly deplored them. In the words of historian Eugene Genovese, "Never has the logic of slavery been followed so faithfully by a humane and responsible man."

While slavery itself is mercifully past, the question of absolute power lingers on, tingeing the atmosphere of southern history like the echo of Lydia's screams. What survives of the absolute power claimed by John Mann and defended by Thomas Ruffin? How has the exercise of power shaped life in the South in the more than a century and a half since the court laid down its memorable doctrine? Did the legacy of slavery infuse a strain of tyranny into southern society that has not completely disappeared? Not a pleasant question, surely, but a...