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December 17, 1861: Henry Ruffner Died

Ruffner was ahead of his time in arguing for a free public education system.
e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia online.

Henry Ruffner died in Malden on December 17, 1861, at the age of 71. He had been one of western Virginia’s most influential citizens. In 1819, at the age of only 29, Ruffner had organized the first Presbyterian denomination in the Kanawha Valley. Then, for nearly three decades, he had taught ancient languages at Washington College and served as the college’s president for 12 of those years.

But his most lasting contribution to history was his opposition to slavery. In 1847, he published what today is commonly known as the Ruffner Pamphlet. In it, he argued that all slaves should be set free gradually over time. Unlike some abolitionists, his gradual emancipation theory wasn’t based on moral grounds. It was more of an economic and social theory. He suggested that slavery was holding back the growth of industry, agriculture, free labor, and education.

In addition, Ruffner was ahead of his time in arguing for a free public education system. He also pushed for equal political rights for western Virginia and asserted that the western counties eventually might need to break away and form their own state.

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