The Business of Freeing a Slave in Virginia

Public officials, slave owners, and others in eighteenth-century Virginia judged freed slaves a "great inconvenience" as they were frequently suspected of receiving stolen goods and encouraging slaves to run away or worse, rebel. Moreover, "being grown old [they bring] a charge upon the country"-that is, aged or infirm former slaves who were unable to work became eligible, in principle, for support from the parishes of the Church of England (the only source of public welfare in British Virginia) in which they lived. Although the Virginia assembly never considered re-enslavement of the former slave population, legislators enacted strong measures to discourage slave holders of "ill directed generosity" from setting their enslaved workers free through last wills or deeds of manumission.

In 1691 the General Assembly passed a law aimed at making masters think twice before freeing any of their slaves. While manumission by deed or will was legal under this law, it required newly freed slaves to leave the colony within six months and their former masters to pay for the trip. This legislation may have checked the urge to manumit to an extent, but there is no way to know in what numbers slaves were freed and forced to leave Virginia during the 32 years it was in effect. Manumission became much more difficult in 1723. A bill passed that year stated:

No negro, mullatto, or Indian slaves, shall be set free, upon any pretence whatsoever, except for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by the governor and council, for the time being, and a licence thereupon first had and obtained.

Should a slave be set free in any other manner (by will or deed, for example), the act required parish churchwardens to return the person so freed to slavery by sale at public outcry. The "meritorious service" in which Virginians were most interested was, of course, for slaves to alert authorities to slave conspiracies and insurrections, and indeed, one or two slaves gained their freedom on these grounds. Over time, though, petitioners learned to expand the meaning of "meritorious service" to include such qualities as exemplary character and faithfulness in service or marriage-and the governor and Council advanced their own thinking in approving petitions for freedom on those grounds.

The consequences of the 1723 act were many and deep. For example, if a former slave was intent upon freeing his enslaved wife and children, the various steps he had to take were fraught with pitfalls. Perhaps years before petitioning the governor and Council, this father and husband had to persuade the owner of his family members to agree to sell them to him and to set a price. Even if the owner was willing, he or she might die before the amount could be paid off. It is not hard to imagine that even after receiving payment, a master might not honor the agreement. Even if the deal went through, the former slave now owned his family and was faced with the expense and gaining access to the legal knowledge about how to make the case for their manumission.

Fewer than 25 souls in Virginia gained freedom in this manner between 1723 and the American Revolution. In May 1782, perhaps under the egalitarian impulse of the time, Virginia legislators passed a law that permitted slave owners to free their enslaved workers at will (barring any other claims on the slave owners or his or her estate), only obligating former owners of persons over 45 years of age to provide for their living if needed. A modest increase in the free black population followed this action. Legislators took a step back in 1806 by once again requiring the person so freed to be transported out of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Many remained in the neighborhoods where they were known without difficulty; others petitioned the House of Delegates for permission to remain in Virginia.

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