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Abstract

In the years preceding the Civil War, two North Carolina Supreme Court Justices, Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin and Associate Justice William Gaston, offered starkly different legal opinions on issues relating to slavery. Despite broad similarities in their backgrounds and their agreement on many other legal and judicial issues, Ruffin and Gaston approached slavery from sharply contrasting perspectives. Both men used their positions on the bench to influence the treatment and legal status of slaves. While Ruffin vigorously defended the peculiar institution and took the concept of chattel to a logical extreme, Gaston denounced many of its dehumanizing elements. In fact, Gaston's opinions frequently attempted to ameliorate conditions for slaves. The contrast is especially noteworthy given that Ruffin and Gaston served on the same court, at the same time, with very similar backgrounds, including the fact that both were slaveholders. This Article analyzes their opinions on slavery and also partially seeks to explain the differences between the two men through their backgrounds in the areas of legislative service, religious affiliation and judicial aims.

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