Emancipation and Manumission

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Emancipation is the process of freeing slaves through government action. Manumission takes place when masters free their slaves voluntarily. When a government ends slavery completely, the process is known as abolition. Before the Revolution slavery was legal in all thirteen British mainland colonies. Some of the northern colonies allowed masters to manumit their slaves, and there was a significant free black population in all of them. On the eve of the Revolution, voluntary manumission was illegal in most of the South, and even where it was permitted, the practice was not common.

During the Revolution thousands of masters freed slaves who were willing to fight in the American army or local militias. Throughout New England male slaves became free black soldiers, and many were able to gain liberty for their wives and children as well at this time. Even in the South some masters freed slaves so that they could fight in the army. For example, in the legislative session of 1782–1783, Virginia passed a law declaring that all slaves who had served in the army and been honorably discharged were entitled to their freedom and condemning as "contrary to the principles of justice" those masters who tried to reenslave former soldiers.

Beyond wartime manumissions, a number of the newly independent states of the North began to take steps to end slavery. In its 1780 constitution Massachusetts declared that "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and in fine of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness." In a series of cases, including Commonwealth v. Jennison (1783) the Massachusetts courts interpreted this clause to have ended slavery in the state. New Hampshire's 1783 constitution contained a similar clause that was read the same way. Vermont, which became the fourteenth state in 1791, unambiguously abolished slavery. In 1780 Pennsylvania passed the nation's first gradual emancipation act. The law provided that the children of all slaves born in the state would be free at birth, but subject to an indenture. The law was a compromise between those who wanted to end slavery immediately and those who opposed any emancipation on the grounds that it would take private property from people, in violation of the basic principles of the Revolution. Although the law did not require masters to emancipate their slaves, it seems to have led to that result. In 1790 the first U.S. Census, which was conducted ten years after the law went into effect, found 6,537 free blacks and 3,730 slaves. By 1800 the free black population had grown to over 14,000 while there were just 1,706 slaves in the state. At the end of the early national period the 1830 census found 37,930 free blacks and only 403 slaves in the states. Over time slavery had literally died out in Pennsylvania. In 1784 Connecticut and Rhode Island passed similar laws, and in 1799 and 1804 New York and New Jersey did the same. In 1790 the northeastern states had just over 40,000 slaves and about 27,000 free blacks. By 1830 the slave population was under 2,800 while there were over 122,000 free blacks in the region. Meanwhile, Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), and Maine (1820) had entered the Union as free states. The Constitutions of those states banned slavery, although some slaves were held into the 1830s in Indiana and into the 1840s in Illinois.

Before the Revolution manumission in the South was rare and in many places illegal. The free black population was small. During the Revolution some southern masters freed slaves who joined the army, but most masters did not. During the war, however, some southern masters concluded that slaveholding violated their political principles, their religious principles, or both. In 1782 Virginia allowed masters to voluntarily free adult (but not truly old) slaves. In 1780 Virginia had about 2,000 free blacks; by 1810 that number had increased to over 30,000, as thousands of individual masters—including George Washington—took advantage of this law to manumit their slaves. In this period the free black population in Virginia grew faster than either the white population or the slave population. However, these manumissions did not affect the overall importance of slavery to the state, as the slave population grew from about 288,000 in 1790 to 383,000 in 1810 and to over 453,000 by 1830. The free black population in the state in 1830 was about 47,000. In the rest of the South, there was a similar burst of manumissions during the Revolutionary period. South Carolina's free black population went from 1,800 in 1790 to over 4,500 by 1810; but then the rate of growth slowed, reaching about 7,900 in 1830 and then hardly growing at all in the next three decades.

In Maryland and Delaware, however, manumission was more common in this period. Maryland had only about 8,000 free blacks in 1790, but by 1810 that number had grown to about 34,000; at the end of the early national period, the 1830 census found about 53,000 free blacks in the state. More important, in 1810 the slave population peaked at 111,000 and by 1830 had dropped to 102,000 as manumissions and sales reduced the percentage of slaves. This trend, started in the Revolutionary period, would continue until slavery came to an end. By the eve of the Civil War, Maryland would have about 83,000 free blacks and only about 87,000 slaves. The rate of manumission was even higher in nearby Delaware, which had over 15,000 free blacks by 1830 and about 3,300 slaves.

The Revolution in the North led to emancipation and abolition. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were leaders of the New York Abolition Society while Benjamin Franklin was the president of Pennsylvania's society. Collectively these opponents of slavery worked for a state-sponsored solution to slavery. As governor of New York, John Jay signed the state's gradual emancipation law. But, despite the implementation of ideology that led to southern manumissions after the Revolution, individual opposition to slavery did not threaten the institution in the South. George Washington freed his slaves at his death, but he is remarkable as the only leading southern founder to do so. Washington contrasts sharply with Thomas Jefferson, who manumitted a handful of slaves (all members of the Hemings family); at his death his two hundred or so slaves were sold off at auction.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Abolition Societies; African Americans: African American Responses to Slavery and Race; African Americans: Free Blacks in the North; African Americans: Free Blacks in the South; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; Jefferson, Thomas; Liberty; Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution; Slavery: Overview; Washington, George .


Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Franklin, John Hope. The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943, 1995.

Nash, Gary B., and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Paul Finkelman