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History & Genealogy

1619 - 1865

By John Henderson Russell

Submitted to the Board of University Studies
of The Johns Hopkins University in Conformity
with the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy


pg. 42


     Manumission is the term which may be applied to all the various processes by which negroes in Virginia were taken from a condition of slavery and legally raised to a status of freedom, saving only that act of the nation by which slavery was abolished in all the States and to which is properly applied the term emancipation1.  There are three general methods by which slaves in Virginia were manumitted or legally set free during the life of the institution of slavery: (1) by an act of legislature, (2) by last will and testament, and (3) by deed.  A still more general classification recognizes only two kinds of manumission - public and private, the first of the three methods above being classed as public manumission and the last two of the three bearing the names of private manumission.
     According to strict legal theory and the conception of slavery maintained by the courts of Virginia in the nineteenth century, there were no private manumissions.  A so-called private manumission, that is, a manumission by will or deed, was not in fact the act of the slave-owner, but was "the conjoint act of the law and the master."2  "The question of emancipation," said the Virginia supreme court of appeals in 1830, "is a question of statutory law and can only be resolved by referring to the terms of the statute."3  In theory, a maser who freed a slave exercised a power dele-

1. Emancipation in Virginia came as a result of the Civil War and was an accomplished fact at its close in the spring of 1865.  Emancipation was formally accepted by the General Assembly in a joint resolution of February 6, 1866  (Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1865 - 1866, p. 449, cited as Acts: Richmond Whig.  August 11, 1865; J. P. McConnell, Negroes and their Treatment in Virginia from 1865 to 1867, p. 11)
2. Wood v. Humphreys, 12 Grattan, 333 (1855)

3. Thrift v. Hannah, 2 Leigh, 319.

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grated to him by statute.  To regulate or determine the status of individuals was a sovereign power.  By manumission, individuals who were "in truth civiliter mortuus"4 and who had the character of property rather than of persons were raised to life and personality within the State and accorded civil rights and civil liberty.  The power to do this was of such a high and sovereign character that not even the legislature could exercise it except by delegation from the constituent legislative authority.  Indeed, a practical application was made of the theory in 1849, when the constitutional convention expressly denied to the General Assembly the power to manumit a slave.5
     Viewing slavery as a legal status imposed upon persons by the laws, it is not surprising that the colonial legislature, which enacted the first slave laws and freely imposed the slave status upon certain persons, should assume that it had the power to set slaves free.  The first use in Virginia of the legislative power to break the bonds of a slave was made in 1710.  A negro slave named Will had been "signally serviceable in discovering a conspiracy of divers Negroes for levying war in this colony," and in recognition and reward of this public service an act was passed conferring freedom upon him.6  However, it was never the policy of the colonial legislature to exercise is power to manumit slaves except for some such special service or merit as that for which the slave Will received his freedom.  In 1723 it delegated to the governor and the council the power to pass upon the merit of any claim to freedom based upon meritorious service performed by a slave.7  But upon an occasion which arose out of circumstances connected with the Revolutionary War the legislature deemed it expedient to resume the exercise of its right to pass a private act of

4. Peter v. Hargrave, 5 Grattan, 12
5. Constitution of Virginia, 1851, sections 19, 20, 21; Journal, Acts, and Proceedings of a General Convention, 1850, appendix, p. 8.
6. "The said Negro Will is and shall be forever hereafter free from his slavery . . . and shall enjoy and have all the liberties, privileges, and immunities of or to a free negro belonging"  (Hening, vol. iii, p. 536).
7. Hening, vol. iv, p. 132.

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manumission.  The circumstances were that while Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, who had deserted his office and fled the province, was absent from the seat of government, application was made for permission to manumit the slaves of John Barr, of Northumberland County, who had in his will expressed the desire that they should be free.  In the absence of His Excellency the consent of the governor and the council obviously could not be obtained.  Fortunately for the petitioners, the Assembly considered that the peculiar circumstances, justified a special legislative dispensation.  An act was passed confirming Barr's will, but specifying that the act should establish no precedent except in cases exactly similar.8
     The act did, however, become a precedent in one respect, namely, as to the location of the power to pass upon applications for permission to manumit slaves.  The Assembly continued to perform the function, previously exercised by the council, of receiving and passing upon the merit of applications.  "Application having been made" in 1779, a special act of the legislation was passed manumitting three slaves, - John Hope, a mulatto named William Beck, and Pegg.9  Upon similar application made in 1780 the legislature set free Ned, the property of Henry Delony, and Kate, who belonged to Benjamin Bilberry.10
     As indicative of the policy of the legislature with reference to the use of this power of freeing persons from slavery, as well as in illustration of the form of such acts, we quote from the laws the following specimen of acts of manumission: -

An act for the manumission of a certain Slave

     WHEREAS a negro man slave named Kitt the property of Hichia Mabry, of the County of Brunswick, hath lately rendered meritorious service in this commonwealth, in making the first information and discovery against several persons concerned in counterfeiting money, whereby so dangerous a confederacy has been in some measure broken, and some of the offenders have been discovered and

8. Hening, vol. ix, p. 320
9. Ibid., vol. x, p. 211
10. Ibid,

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brought to trial; and it is judged expedient to mamumit him for such service; Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, The the said Kitt be, and is hereby declared to be emancipated and set free; any law or usage to the contrary notwithstanding.11

     From the Revolutionary War onward a more extensive  and general use was made of this form of manumission than merely to reward acts of public service.  The legislature became a sort of court of equity for granting relief to masters who were confronted with legal or other difficulties in freeing their slaves as well as for extending mercy to slaves of a deserving or piteous character.12  In more than one instance special legislative acts were obtained to give legal validity to wills of manumission recorded before the act of 1782 authorizing this procedure.13  Hundreds of colored petitioners sought special acts that they might not be deprived of freedom became of mistake or oversight or fraud in the execution of a will or of an expressed intention of a master to set them free.14  Among the acts of a private nature passed in the period of the Commonwealth down to about 1825 are to be found a large number of acts setting slaves free or granting such as were already liberated a legal right to reside in the State.15
     The method of manumission by an act of the legislature is not the method the genesis of which requires the more detailed explanation.  The colonial House of Burgesses, the sovereign legislative body in Virginia, inferred from its right to make, its right to unmake, a slave.  But what was

11. Hening, vol. x, p. 115 (1779).  It was further enacted that the treasurer of the Commonweath "pay to Hinchia Mabry . . . the sum of one thousand pounds [of tobacco] out of the publick treasury, as a full compensation for the said slave."  In all cases where the special act of manumission was in reward of a public service, provision was made for compensating the owner of the slave for his loss.  Cf. Hening, vol. iii, p. 619; vol. xi, p. 309.
13. Hening, vol. xii, pp. 611-613; vol. xiii, p. 619
14. For example, see MS Petitions, Henrico County, 1818, A 9290.
15. Acts of a private character, 1811 - 1812, p. 131; 1813 - 1814, p. 153; 1814 - 1815, p. 151.  The private acts of almost any year within the above-named period will afford examples.

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