Tag Archives: State v. Mann

Landmark court opinion defining rights of enslaved people arose in Edgecombe County

In 1834, on a plantation in Edgecombe County, a slave named Will refused to share a hoe he had made with his own hands, an act of defiance that got him shot in the back by his white overseer. As he lay wounded, Will reached up and fatally slashed his attacker on the hip and the arm, earning himself a trip to the gallows.

Josh Shaffer, The News & Observer, June 8, 2017

The upshot was a landmark decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court that was a major step forward in the ongoing definition of the status and rights of enslaved people.

Will was sentenced to death in the Edgecombe County Superior Court, Judge Donnell presiding, but plantation owner James S. Battle became convinced that Will had acted in self-defense and so he hired Bartholomew F. Moore to represent Will on appeal. In an opinion written by Justice William Gaston, the Supreme Court reversed Will’s conviction — holding that, if a free man was entitled to the defense of self-defense or to a lesser charge of manslaughter, then the same analysis should apply to an enslaved person. This was a step forward. It moved away from Justice Thomas Ruffin‘s earlier opinion in State v. Mann, in which Ruffin seated his reasoning on the nature of slavery, while Justice Gaston, four years later, focused on Will’s humanity, not his legal status as property.

Will’s case is recognized as a landmark. And so, on June 10, 2017, a historical marker is erected where his case began, at 275 New Hope Church Road in Battleboro, North Carolina.

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Henry Frye’s portrait at Supreme Court alongside Thomas Ruffin’s

HenryFrye

Brooks Pierce photograph of Henry Frye

Henry Frye’s portrait was unveiled at the North Carolina Supreme Court last Tuesday afternoon. It will be hung in the courtroom, as portraits of every other North Carolina Chief Justice have been since Chief Justice Ruffin’s was put up in 1858.

Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin was among the most distinguished North Carolinians of his day. He was a jurist of the first rank. Authorities such as Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Justice Felix Frankfurter ranked him as a pioneer in adapting the English common law to the quasi-frontier conditions in the United States.His decisions were followed more than any others by the southern and western courts. Roscoe Pound rated him one of the ten foremost jurists in the United States.

Mathew Brady photograph of Thomas Ruffin

Mathew Brady photograph of Thomas Ruffin

Today though, Justice Ruffin is most often remembered for his opinion in State v. Mann (1829), on the incidents of slavery. In short, he concluded that a slaveholder was not liable for abusing an enslaved person and was within his rights to beat a slave savagely without cause. Contemporary scholars have concluded that Ruffin, himself a slaveholder and at one time a slave trader, was actively seeking to protect the institution of slavery in State v. Mann and other opinions, and was, in his personal life, a cruel slave master.

Justice Ruffin’s is the earliest portrait in the courtroom. Justice Frye’s will become the latest.

Speakers last Tuesday (Chief Justice Martin, Governor Hunt, US Court of Appeals Judge Wynn, and Brooks Pierce partner, Jim Williams), celebrated Chief Justice Frye as one of the most distinguished North Carolinians of his day, and also a first rank jurist.

Henry Frye is North Carolina’s first African American Chief Justice. He was the first African American member elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in the 20th Century. He is a champion of voting rights for African Americans and disenfranchised people; and Tuesday’s speakers universally affirmed that, in his person, Henry Frye is a gentle man.

Esse quam videri. Ruffin and Frye.

 

Supreme Court of North Carolina

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