Window into NC lawyers in the 19th Century, Kemp P. Battle’s memories

Kemp Plummer Battle

Kemp Plummer Battle

At the second-hand bookstore in the Raleigh-Durham airport the other day, I came across a copy of Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, the compendium of Kemp Plummer Battle’s memories and anecdotes. Himself a lawyer (also a railroad president, university president, Edgecombe County farmer, and more), so were his father, William Horn Battle, and others in his family.

So Battle’s memories include many a lawyer story. Those stories are windows into the North Carolina Bar in the mid-nineteenth century. Below is a good one that shows lawyers and also Battle’s densely-packed style.

Judge Thomas Ruffin, the younger, had probably the ability of his father. In his younger days, he was not a hard student of legal principles, although he gave his whole mind to the trial of his cases. Indeed, so eager was he for victory that there were accusations of sharp practice. But I personally had no evidence of this. On the contrary, when thrown intimately with him for a day or two once, I was struck by his high-toned principles. I remarked to one of the best of men, his law partner Judge Dillard, “Ruffin is a lawyer who can be relied on for utter fairness.” Dillard smilingly said, “He is a rascal like the rest of us.” He meant only that in the hot excitement of trials he might take positions which non-lawyers might think not strictly fair. But it should be remembered that lawyers giving their minds to the cause of their clients, studying mainly the arguments for their side, necessarily become biased. It is impossible for them to act as impartial judges. This is illustrated by what Judge James C. MacRae told me about a trial over which he presided. A certain lawyer made a speech advocating a construction of the law which did not meet the judge’s approval and he said, “Surely you do not claim that to the be the law?” “Well, Judge, I can’t say that I do, but I did not know how it would strike your Honor.”

Come to think of it, this practice may have survived the 19th Century.

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