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 emancipation.
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 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.
The first wills of manumission in Virginia were made and recorded not only prior to the statute of 1691, but also in advance of any statute in regard to slavery. The first law which could be construed as delegating to or conferring upon slave-owners any right to make free men of their slaves was enacted in 1691, but it appears from the records of the county courts that manumissions had been taking place several decades before this act was passed.
The origin of that practice has its explanation in the close relations of indented servitude and slavery in the seventeenth century. Before slavery as an institution had fully diverged from indented servitude it borrowed from that system the practice of manumission by individual masters. Under the system of indented servitude the time or term of service for which a servant was bound was, though the servant himself was not, regarded as property. The unexpired time of a servant could be alienated, like other property, by gift, sale, or bequest.
By the year 1690 the free negro class had become an object of suspicion and fear. The increasing frequency of manumissions created apprehensions as to the consequences of allowing the practice to continue, and restrictive legislation was deemed expedient. The preamble of the restrictive act, which was passed in 1691, declared a law to be necessary to prevent manumissions, because "great inconvenience may happen to this country by setting of negroes and mulattoes free by their either entertaining negro slaves or receiving stolen goods or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country."
Under the provisions of this act no negro or mulatto was to be set free unless the person so doing should pay the charges for transporting the manumitted negro beyond the limits of the colony. Thus was devised a scheme which would offer three obstacles to the increase of the free negro class: A charge of transportation would restrain the master; the prospect of banishment would restrain the desire of the slave to be free. Should both of these restraints fail in any case, removal would prevent addition to the free colored class.
Notwithstanding the effort made to prevent servile insurrection, new conspiracies were discovered within the next dozen years, and the fears of the people were again much aroused. The free negroes, suspected and accused upon every occasion of an outbreak, became in this instance the objects of restrictive legislation. By an act passed in 1723 they were forbidden to visit or meet with slaves and to carry or own a firelock. They were deprived of the right to vote at elections and discriminated against in the levying of taxes; but still, despairing of success in restraining the free negro by drastic police measures, the legislature determined to prohibit entirely manumission by individual slave-owners.
The Revolution increased the movement toward private emancipation, or manumission, of slaves. Prior to the act, passed in 1782, masters desiring to free their slaves needed a special act of Assembly. The law enabled them to free slaves by will or deed presented to the county court.
The preamble to an act passed by Virginia in 1783, recited that many slaves during the war "were enlisted into the army as substitutes, being tendered as free men," and "that on the expiration of the term of enlistment of such slaves, that the former owners have attempted again to force them to return to a state of servitude, contrary to the principles of justice and to their own solemn promise..." and "whereas it appears just and reasonable that all persons enlisted as aforesaid, who have faithfully served agreeably to the terms of their enlistment, and have thereby of course contributed towards the establishment of American liberty and independence, should enjoy the blessings of freedom as a reward for their toils and labors..."
By the constitution of 1776, by the judicial expositions of the same by their highest tribunals, as well as by the proceedings of the convention by which the constitution was amended, that free men of color in North Carolina were deemed citizens of the state, and exercised the right of suffrage for more than half a century, till in 1835 it was taken from them.
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