Monday, January 08, 2018

Thomas Ruffin and the Confederate States of America.

Is it possible to be in favor of a new country (the Confederate States of America) and not be a believer in secession? Yes, it was. Thomas Ruffin was one of those individuals.

Most folks are probably more familiar with Thomas Ruffin's more famous, historically speaking, cousin, Edmund Ruffin. Edmund Ruffin was an agricultural reformer and Southern national who championed Southern independence. He supposedly fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, and after the demise of the Confederacy, committed suicide. Many years ago, I read Edmund Ruffin's diaries (three volumes, if I remember correctly). It was an interesting reading list, to be sure.

Thomas Ruffin is an entirely different story. Ruffin was born in Virginia in 1787. He graduated with honors from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and moved to Orange County, North Carolina, in 1807. He finished studying law in 1808, served in the General Assembly in 1813, and as Speaker of the House in 1816. Later that year, he was appointed a superior court judge. Ruffin resigned in 1818, but he was reappointed in 1825. In 1829, he was appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and in 1833, was appointed Chief Justice. After twenty-three years on the North Carolina Supreme Court, Ruffin retired in 1852, returning to his plantation on the Haw River in Alamance County. He was later mentioned as a possible U. S. Supreme Court nominee, but declined.

When the Secession debates began, Ruffin was "a moderate voice in support of compromise and conciliation" (Huebner 155). He was the senior member of the Peace Conference in Washington, D. C., in early 1861. "I came here for a purpose which I openly and distinctly avow. I proclaim it here and everywhere. I will labor to carry it into execution with all my strength and ability which my advanced years and enfeebled health have left me... I came to maintain and preserve this glorious Government! I came here for Union and peace!" he was recorded as saying (155). Many of the delegates supported Ruffin's views.

However, Ruffin became frustrated at the unwillingness of others to compromise. When the US House refused to hear the proposal hammered out by the delegates, and the US Senate defeated the proposed amendment, Ruffin's support for the Union began to falter. In April 1861, at a meeting in Hillsboro, Ruffin encouraged his neighbors to "Fight! Fight! Fight!" A month later, as a delegate to the Secession Convention in Raleigh, Ruffin introduced the following proposed ordinance: "By reason of various illegal, unconstitutional, oppressive and tyrannical acts of the Government of the United States of America, and of unjust acts of divers of the Northern non-slaveholding states, it is the settled sense of the people of this state that they cannot longer live in peace and security in the Union heretofore existing under the Constitution of the United States." (156)

Ruffin described his position as a belief in the "sacred right of revolution"--"the right of a whole people to change their form of government by annulling one Constitution and forming another for themselves." Ruffin was not a secessionist, but a revolutionary! To quote Timothy Huebner, Ruffin "endorsed secession not because he believed in a constitutional right to separate from the Union but only as a revolutionary act against an oppressive federal government that he believed had already destroyed the existing Constitution." (156)

For more on Thomas Ruffin, see Timothy S. Huebner, The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790-1890, (1999)
J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, The Papers of Thomas Ruffin (especially volume 4).


Charlsie Russell said...

Great post. Another voice tone heart in contradiction to the "it was all about slavery" crowd.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for another insightful and enlightening post about North Carolina's lesser-known history!