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MANUMISSION. The legal term for the freeing of a slave, the word "manumission" is sometimes used interchangeably with "emancipation," although the latter implies a more universal and unconditional release of slaves.

Manumission of American slaves was achieved by a variety of means, including state-ordered manumission as well as private manumission of individuals. In 1777, Vermont became the first state to mandate manumission within its borders through a constitutional ban on slavery. By the early nineteenth century, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were phasing out slavery by providing for the gradual manumission of the children of current slaves; and Delaware and Maryland had enacted liberal manumission laws that made it easier for slaves to acquire their freedom.

By 1792, manumission societies were active in New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts. Such societies, of which some 143 were established in the United States by the early nineteenth century (including more than 100 in the South), called for the gradual manumission of slaves. While less radical than the abolitionism movement that emerged in the 1830s, manumission societies served as the foundation for future antislavery organizations.

Individual slaves could also gain manumission directly from their owners, who occasionally freed their slaves out of acts of conscience, but more often provided for their manumission in their wills—as did George Washington. Slaves who were fortunate enough to win a lottery or otherwise save up the required sum could purchase their own freedom, and in many cases, would then work to free their families. And religious groups (notably the Quakers) and antislavery activists sometimes purchased the manumission of slaves.

Many moderate antislavery proponents found gradual, or conditional, manumission more palatable than the idea of universal emancipation, which they feared would overwhelm white society with difficult-to-assimilate former slaves.

Such was the case with supporters of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, which, over the course of two decades, helped establish a nation-state of former slaves in Liberia, West Africa. Supporters of the society—which was led by such eminent white Americans as Daniel Webster, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Francis Scott Key—advocated manumission with the condition that, once freed, the former slaves would be "repatriated" back to Africa.

During the Civil War (1861–1865), the contrasting strategic and political value of controlled manumission versus universal emancipation became apparent when General John Charles Frémont, commander of the Department of the West, instituted martial law in Missouri in September 1861, and proclaimed manumission for the slaves of rebel owners in that state. Despite his desire to free the slaves, President Lincoln, still fighting what seemed like a losing war, annulled Frémont's order (but not before a number of Missouri slaves had already been freed).

In a similar unilateral move in 1862, General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, issued an order freeing the slaves of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Again, Lincoln forced a retraction, explaining that his military commanders were not empowered to enact such sweeping policy initiatives. Nonetheless, the manumission orders of Frémont and Hunter tested the waters of public approval for universal emancipation and set the stage for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.


Beyan, Amos. The American Colonization Society and the Creation of the Liberian State: A Historical Perspective, 1822–1900. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991.

Foner, Eric. Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Library of Congress Special Collections: Records and Photographs of the American Colonization Society. Available at

McClelland, Peter D., and Richard J. Zeckhauser. DemographicDimensions of the New Republic: American Interregional Migration, Vital Statistics, and Manumissions, 1800–1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Staudenraus, P. J. African Colonization Movement, 1816–1865. New York: Octagon Books, 1980.

Whitman, Stephen T. The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

University of North Carolina, Greensboro: Race and Slave Petitions Project. Available at petitions/index.html.

Laura A.Bergheim

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