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"Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court, 1833-52, noted jurist, agriculturist, is buried 3/10 mi. east." Thomas Ruffin acted as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court between 1833 and 1852. Ruffin was a reputable judge and student of the law, as well as a highly successful agriculturalist. Ruffin is remembered for his work as a judge and was known for his logic, focus on justice, and relative disregard for precedent.
Ruffin was born in Virginia in 1787, into a family that, on his mother’s side, included chief justice of the Virginia State Supreme Court Spencer Roane. Ruffin graduated for the College of New Jersey, present-day Princeton University, in 1805 and then studied law in Petersburg. In 1807 Ruffin’s family moved to Rockingham County, where Ruffin finished his studies under Archibald D. Murphey. Ruffin qualified to practice law in 1808 and moved to Hillsborough, where he married Anne Kirkland in December 1909. He represented Hillsborough in the North Carolina House of Commons in 1813, 1815 and 1816, until he was elected as a Superior Court judge at the age of 29.
After serving only two years as a Superior Court judge, Ruffin resigned from office and returned to practicing law. Ruffin was reelected to the Superior Court in 1825 and served until 1828, when he resigned again to help the State Bank of North Carolina recover from financial disaster. After the Bank regained financial security, Ruffin was elected in 1829 as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. In 1833, Ruffin became the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, serving until he retired in 1852. Ruffin subsequently was reelected as chief justice in 1858, serving for an additional year before retiring again.
Ruffin wrote opinions on over 1,400 cases in a variety of cases. He was best known for his work in constitutional law and the adaptation of English common law to the new American justice system. He ruled over many important cases, including Hoke v. Henderson (1834) and State v. Mann (1830). Ruffin was a celebrated but infamous member of the North Carolina community, due in large part to his rulings on slavery in pre-Civil War North Carolina. Although he was a secessionist, he argued that secession was not constitutionally justified, and instead secession could only be legitimate if perceived as revolutionary action against the United States. Despite his support of secession and rulings against abolitionist ideas, Ruffin was staunchly opposed to the postwar activities of the Ku Klux Klan, not because of the moral implications but instead because of repeated violation of the United States Constitution.
In addition to his work as a jurist, Ruffin was a prominent agriculturist, serving as the president of the State Agricultural Society from 1854 until 1860. He was involved in the development of scientific agriculture and in the extension of agricultural knowledge to the common farmer. Lastly, Ruffin was a devout Episcopalian and member of St. Matthew’s Church in Hillsborough. He donated the land on which St. Matthew’s was built, served on the vestry of the church, and was buried there when he died in 1870.
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
Hugh Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, History of A Southern State: North Carolina (1954)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 264-266—sketch by Blackwell P. Robinson
Hugh Lefler and Paul Wager, eds., Orange County, 1752-1952 (1952)
Related Themes: C.S.A., Confederate States of America, Confederacy
North Carolina Civil War Historical Markers.