views updated


Manumission is defined as the formal process by which a slave owner can give his slaves their legal freedom. During the period of American slavery from the 1600s to 1865, it was one of the main avenues available for a slave to obtain his or her freedom. This legal or formal release from bondage was one of the most employed methods available to free African Americans within the American judicial system. Slave owners used the promise of manumission to ensure their slaves' obedience, and often rewarded faithful servitude with manumission. Manumission evolved from a liberal legal interpretation to a process designed to remove freed African Americans from a slave-owning society.

Early Manumission

Within the seventeenth century, manumission was employed liberally throughout the American slave-owning communities. It usually involved both African Americans and Native Americans, who were used as slaves on plantations or farms in settlements along the Atlantic coast. Slave owners used manumission to reward the servitude of the slaves with no restrictions issued by colonial courts or governments. Closer to the eighteenth century, governments, particularly in the American South, began to make requirements regulating the liberation of slaves and their role in the community. In Virginia, both African American and Native American slaves could receive their freedom through manumission, but they could not obtain white settlers as indentured servants during the course of their freedom. They could, however, obtain their own African Americans or Native Americans as slaves. In Maryland, the slave owner could grant a slave's manumission through a verbal order or promise. This form of manumission exposed another reason for the legal liberation of slaves, which was the abandonment of elderly and weak slaves into colonial society. Colonial governments moved to require additional restrictions on manumission by making liberation as more of a complex matter within the courts. By 1752 Maryland outlawed the granting of manumission through a simple promise or a last will and testament.

In a number of southern colonies, the rewarding of manumission status was defined as a reward of service to the slave master. Within the court system, the terms faithful or meritorious service were used as the main legal reason for granting manumission. A slave's obedience was a major factor in this legal determination for the granting of his freedom. Faithful service was used to reward a particular slave for many years of service to a master and his family. Meritorious service was a reward for a particular act performed by the slave to his or her master. No restrictions were placed on the granting of manumissions by the court.

In seventeenth-century North Carolina, manumission was handled by the county courts, which was the lowest level of judicial court within the colony. These courts would be officered by members of the county, who were appointed by the state General Assembly. In the same period, Georgia saw manumission as a private matter of the slave owner, and did not report the granting of liberty to slaves to any organ of colonial government. Much of the liberal nature of manumission laws came from the desire of slave owners to free slaves and their children, who came as a result of cohabitation between owners and slave women. In the eyes of many owners, these mulatto children were part of their natural family, and they did not wish for them to remain in the horrific system of slavery. This reasoning for manumission was very common among Quakers in northeastern North Carolina before the church membership moved toward a desire to emancipate, or free, African Americans.


Thomas Day (c. 1801–1861), a cabinetmaker, was born as a free person of color in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, in 1801. Day's father, John, was also a cabinetmaker by trade, who plied his work in the Petersburg furniture industries in the 1700s. Oral family tradition stated that John Day was an illegitimate son of a white South Carolina plantation mistress and her coachman. The woman went to a Quaker community in North Carolina to give birth, and left funds to educate and train the boy as a skilled craftsman.

Similar to other free blacks, Day followed into the cabinetry business, which provided custom-built furniture for markets in both North Carolina and Virginia. Because he was never raised a slave, Day and his relatives operated without reservation in the white communities within the Tidewater regions. By 1823, Day had appeared in Milton, North Carolina, and by the age of twenty-six Day had acquired enough funds to purchase property for his furniture business.

In 1830 Day traveled to Virginia to marry Aquilla Wilson, another free African American. He could not reenter North Carolina due to a new law preventing the immigration of free persons of color. Day appealed to the North Carolina General Assembly, and a special act was passed to allow him and his bride to reenter the state because of the signatures of sixty-one white citizens, including a former North Carolina governor and legislator. Day became a member of the local white church and white society, and remained so until his death in 1861.

SOURCE: Barfield, Rodney D., and Patricia M. Marshall. Thomas Day: African American Furniture Maker. Raleigh, NC: Office of Archives and History, 2005.

Another form of manumission can be found in what can be described as self-purchase arrangements. In these particular cases, a slave would work and generate funds, which would eventually lead to the slave being able to "purchase" himself from his master. Many of these slaves would be trained in a skilled profession, such as blacksmith, craftsman, mechanic, or artisan. They would be contracted to other masters to work in small towns and ports to generate funds for their particular owner. These agreements were designed to motivate skilled slaves to work without immediate supervision. Older slaves would purchase their freedom from their master, and the master can take those funds to buy younger slaves. In some cases, the slave owners would retain the legal rights to the children of the manumitted slave for the life of the children. In other cases, the children would be entitled to freedom when they reached adulthood. The process of "self-purchase" was a profitable system for the slave owner in which he would earn maximization of his investment in the slave.

As in the case of Maryland's liberal manumission policy, colonial governments moved to place restrictions on manumissions to ensure that elderly, weak, or particularly rebellious slaves were not liberated into society. In both New Jersey and New York, the slave owner was required to provide a bond, so that the liberated slave would receive an annual payment. By 1717 New York had removed the requirement for an annual payment, but still required the slave owner to post a bond with the colony. Connecticut required its slave owners to assume responsibility for their former slaves, and to provide support and care for the liberated slave. This practice of manumission in the northern states continued until nearly all the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line had emancipated their slaves in the period after the American Revolution.

Even as British colonies, the southern states moved to place restrictions on granting manumission by placing controls on the liberated slaves. In 1712 South Carolina required manumitted slaves to leave the colony, once the courts approved their manumission status. Southern states saw the potential danger of their white population being outnumbered by their slaves, and feared that liberated slaves would become potential leaders in slave insurrections. Initially, North Carolina required liberated slaves to leave the colony prior to the American Revolution, but the weak county court system did not enforce this law with the freed African American population. Many of the state court systems had operated with a liberal interpretation of the state manumission statutes, and allowed for manumission cases to move forward without any restrictions. In addition, religious groups, who advocated emancipation, used the manumission laws to free numbers of slaves within society. In North Carolina, Quakers used the lax enforcement of manumission laws to free slaves in Quaker-dominated communities.

Nineteenth-Century Manumission

In the nineteenth century, manumission was seen as one legal method to control the African American population in the southern United States. The occurrence of slave insurrections by Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831) prompted the southern states to place further restrictions on the practice of manumission. Southern leaders were becoming increasingly convinced that freed slaves coupled with support from abolitionist and religious organizations would prompt more numerous and stronger slave revolts in the future.

Initially, southern states sought to control the process of manumission through the court system. In North Carolina, manumission cases were moved from the county courts to more restrictive superior courts in 1830. Slave owners had to file a written petition to the superior court, if he wished to liberate a slave through manumission. In addition, he had to publish a notice in the newspaper stating his intentions six weeks prior to the act of liberation, and enter a bond for $1,000. Religious organizations attempted to circumvent the courts to by granting manumission through a deed or trust to other family members or to the church as a private corporation. Through these methods, groups like the Quakers used manumission to move slaves from bondage into the Underground Railroad, a loosely organized system that worked to transport slaves from slavery to the free North. In these cases, the higher state courts ruled that manumission could not violate the state laws pertaining to the African American slave community. State supreme courts began to rule in favor of the restrictive slave laws, and successful manumission cases were becoming small in number.

Nearly all southern states passed laws that required manumitted slaves to leave the state once a manumission petition was granted. In North Carolina, a freed slave had within ninety days to leave the state. If the freeman returned, then he could be arrested and sold back into slavery. Other southern states were similar to North Carolina in their restrictions concerning manumission petitions and requiring freed slaves to leave the state. For example, Louisiana required its slave owners to post a bond of $150 to transport the manumitted slave back to Africa in 1852. Through this method, states hoped to reduce the number of free African Americans living in their state, which would also reduce the danger of freed slaves leading a revolt against the civil authority. The Denmark Vesey insurrection was planned and executed by free African Americans living in Charleston, South Carolina, and states sought to prevent that kind of revolt from happening again within their societies.

In addition to the fear of insurrections, the prosperity of cash crops on the plantation system also served to reduce the number of manumissions found in the southern states. Slave labor was invaluable to the production of large cash crops such as cotton and tobacco. Owners were less likely to manumit slaves, if the owners were sure that their labor was needed to harvest crops. The migration of white property owners into the "Black Belt" of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi ensured the reduction of manumission rates in the lower South. Slaves remained an important financial safeguard, where land could be bought and sold in local communities. During times of economic distress, manumission petitions surfaced in state courts as slave owners attempted to weed their chattel of sick and weaken slaves, despite that requirement of posting a bond to the court and transportation out of state.

In the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, manumission rates dropped throughout the South. The fear of slave rebellions and the economic prosperity generated by the production and harvest of cash crops removed the white population's desire to manumit slaves. Religious groups, such as the Quakers, migrated northward to the American Midwest due to the restrictions based on their church organization and their attempts to free slaves through manumission and transference of deeds. Freed African Americans lost many of the civil liberties that they had enjoyed during the colonial government period. They were now forced to register with county superior courts so that their movements could be tracked within the white community. By 1860 the majority of southern states removed all legislation that supported any kind of emancipation including manumission. By this removal, the leadership of the white community could be assured that the African American community, whether free or slave, was under its control and supervision.


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

Blogger, Tommy L. Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790–1860: The Darker Side of Freedom. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Crow, Jeffery J., Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley. A History of African Americans in North Carolina. Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1992.

Curry, Leonard. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981.

Franklin, John Hope. The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1710–1860. New York: Russell and Russell, 1943.

Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Johnson, Guion. Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Miller, Randall M., and John David Smith, eds. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

Morris, Thomas D. Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780–1861. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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

Wikramanayake, Marina. A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.

                                            William H. Brown

About this article


Updated About content Print Article