Manumission in Virginia Law

Manumission is the legal process of voluntarily freeing an enslaved person. It differs from emancipation, which results from direct government action, or abolition, which is the legal process of ending slavery. Manumission was always a private act, but in Virginia—as in other slave colonies and states—the process was regulated by statutes and modified by court decisions. The General Assembly began regulating manumission in 1691, requiring newly freed slaves to leave the colony at their master's expense. Starting in 1723, a slaveholder who wanted to free a slave needed approval from the General Court. In 1782, in what was seen as a victory for antislavery activists, the General Assembly passed a law allowing slaveholders to free slaves without the government approval that had previously been required. But as the free black population in Virginia grew, and as the economy became more dependent on slavery, the General Assembly made it more difficult for masters to free their slaves. Ultimately, the Virginia Constitution of 1851 required all newly freed slaves to leave the state or be returned to slavery, authorized the General Assembly to restrict manumission "as they shall deem proper," and prevented the assembly from ever freeing a slave. Most slaveholders manumitted their slaves by filing a deed with the county court or through a will. Manumission by will often led to litigation, as disappointed heirs discovered they would not receive the valuable legacy they were expecting. The state supreme court heard a number of manumission cases that illustrate the complexity and tragedy of slavery. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the court—like the General Assembly—worked against black freedom and in favor of slavery, even stating in Bailey v. Poindexter's Executor (1858) that enslaved blacks were not people in the eyes of the law.By 1860, it was nearly impossible for a Virginia slave to gain freedom by manumission. MORE...


Early Manumission Laws

When slavery emerged in Virginia between 1640 and 1670, manumission was legally permissible. Sometimes the slaveholder initiated the process, wanting to free a favored slave (often his child); other times, it involved a financial arrangement. For example, in 1641 a black servant named John Graweere successfully petitioned the General Court to purchase his son from the owner of his son's mother and then raise his son as a free person. In effect, Graweere bought his son and then manumitted him.

As slavery became more a firmly established practice in Virginia, lawmakers worked to limit enslaved people's access to freedom. In 1691 the General Assembly passed its first law regulating manumission. It was designed to prevent future manumissions. "Great inconveniences may happen to this country by the setting of negroes and mulattoes free," warned the assembly. Members claimed that free blacks would mix with enslaved people, deal in stolen goods, and ultimately become incapable of supporting themselves, "bringing a charge upon the country." Under the new law, a master who freed a slave was required to pay to transport the manumitted slave out of Virginia within six months or face a financial penalty. This made manumission less likely because the master would have to pay for his charitable act in addition to losing the value of his slaves. Furthermore, it effectively exiled freed slaves from everyone they knew. The law dissuaded free blacks who sought to purchase and then manumit their enslaved children or spouses, as well as slaveholders who wanted to reward favored slaves for their long service without removing them from the colony.

This law remained the rule in Virginia for nearly a century. In fact, the General Assembly restricted manumissions further in 1723. Members passed a bill stating that "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." Slaves set free by will or deed had only one month to leave the colony; otherwise, churchwardens were required by law to return the freed person to slavery at public auction. Only about twenty petitions for freedom are found among the journals of the Council between 1723 and 1773.

In 1769 Richard Bland introduced a bill in the House of Burgesses to allow for private manumission without forcing the former slaves to leave the colony. The only member to support this proposal was Thomas Jefferson, then a freshman legislator. The proposal died without a hearing.

"An act to authorize the manumission of slaves" (1782)

In the run-up to the American Revolution (1775–1783), public attitudes toward manumission in Virginia began to change. Quakers and some Methodists and Baptists had become opposed to slavery and were beginning to free their slaves when permitted to do so. Some slaveholders took seriously the assertions in the Declaration of Independence that "all men" were entitled liberty; others manumitted their slaves to serve in the Continental army. Still others served with black troops—the Continental army was the most integrated American army until probably the Vietnam War (1965–1973)—and came to despise slavery for being so contrary to the ideology of the Revolution. Other slaveholders saw manumission as an incentive to motivate slaves to work hard.

These changing religious, political, and social forces led to pressure for a change in the law. In 1782 the revolutionary assembly passed "An act to authorize the manumission of slaves," which allowed slaveholders to free slaves of a certain age without governmental approval. It also allowed for the manumission of slaves of other ages if the slaveholder guaranteed their support. The sheriff could hire out former enslaved people who could not pay their taxes, but otherwise freed slaves faced no disabilities except those already imposed on all free blacks, such as being barred from voting or holding public office. The preamble to this law noted, "Whereas application hath been made to this present general assembly, that those persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do." In other words, public pressure and petitions to the assembly mattered.

Under the 1782 law, Virginia developed one of the largest populations of free blacks in the country. The free black population increased from 3,000 in 1783 to about 30,000 in 1810, composing almost 4 percent of the state's population. In this period free blacks were the fastest growing segment of Virginia society.

Most manumissions were fairly straightforward: the slaveholder filed a deed of manumission with the county court, or manumitted a slave through his will. There are significant examples of both. Robert Carter III manumitted between 500 and 600 enslaved men and women through his Deed of Gift in 1791, probably the largest manumission by an individual in the United States before 1860. Richard Randolph, of Prince Edward County, died in 1796, leaving a will that begged his slaves for forgiveness, freed them, and provided land for them to live on as independent free farmers. George Washington also freed slaves through his will. Manumission was a moral decision, but it was a financial one, too. As Alan Taylor writes in The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (2013), "Most of the manumissions occurred in the older, economically stagnant counties of the Tidewater … where many planters had more slaves than they could employ. Masters with debts and few scruples sold their surplus slaves; only the solvent and the principled would manumit them."

Manumission Statutes in the Nineteenth Century

In 1806, as the economy became more dependent on slave labor and white fears of black insurrection swelled, Virginia backed away from its experiment in liberty and easy manumission. A new law provided that newly freed slaves had to leave the state within twelve months or be sold back into slavery. Not surprisingly, after this law the free black population grew less rapidly. In 1815 the General Assembly allowed slaves who had been freed "for extraordinary merit" to petition local courts for permission to remain in the county where they lived. The assembly specifically provided that this right should not be granted "'upon proof of good general character and conduct' alone, however excellent such general character and conduct may be." The assembly clearly did not want to return to an era when the free black population grew rapidly. It is not known how many free blacks gained permission to remain in the state under this law, but census figures suggest some did: Virginia's free black population grew from about 30,000 in 1810 to almost 37,000 by 1820. Much of this growth would have been due to births, but some must have come from newly manumitted blacks.

The 1815 law also provided that blacks obtaining the right to remain in the state under this statute could be expelled at the discretion of local authorities if they committed any crimes, however minor. Even more punitive, the expulsion clause was inheritable, so that "If any descendant, however remote, of any such female slave as may have obtained leave of residence as aforesaid, shall, at any time, be convicted … of any offence against the laws of this Commonwealth, it shall be lawful for the court of that county or corporation, within which the conviction may be had, or for the court of the county or corporation, in which such descendant may reside, in like manner, to revoke the leave of residence of such descendant, and to order him or her to depart this Commonwealth: and, if he or she shall remain within this Commonwealth more than twelve months after, such order made, he or she shall forfeit his or her right to freedom, and may be, in like manner, apprehended and sold." It is not known whether any free blacks lost their liberty under this clause, but the statute underscores the state's deep hostility to free blacks, even as the assembly recognized the desire of some masters to manumit their slaves and the value of offering slaves freedom for "extraordinary merit."

This law did not settle the issue, and in the next two decades the General Assembly received numerous petitions to allow some manumitted slaves to remain in the state. Almost every year the assembly passed special acts in response to some of these petitions. Attending to such private petitions was an inefficient use of legislative time and forced legislators to make decisions without adequate information about the circumstances of any particular manumission.

Some slaveholders sought alternative residences for their freed slaves. Edward Coles famously took his seventeen slaves out of the state to free them: he manumitted them in Illinois in 1819. John Randolph of Roanoke provided in his will that his slaves be transported to Ohio where they could be free. His heirs contested the will for more than a decade, but in the end his more than 350 slaves were able to start new lives in Ohio. In 1817 a group of white Americans called the American Colonization Society (ACS) established Liberia—a colony in Africa—for the express purpose of moving free blacks and recently emancipated slaves there. Virginians played a major part in the society. Bushrod Washington, a Supreme Court justice and George Washington's nephew, was the national president of the ACS from its creation until his death in 1829. Chief Justice John Marshall was the president of the Richmond branch, the largest and most important affiliate in the state and perhaps the nation.

In 1831, in the wake of Nat Turner's Revolt, the assembly tried to strengthen the requirement that manumitted slaves leave the state. But the state was still at odds with itself over manumission and free blacks. The next year, 1832, the assembly appropriated $18,000 to send free blacks to Liberia, but at the same time, passed a number of special acts to allow some emancipated blacks to remain in the state. In 1837 the assembly returned the issue to local authorities, providing that "any slave who hath been emancipated since the first day of May, eighteen hundred and six, and who may hereafter be emancipated, shall be at liberty to apply to the court of any county or corporation for permission to reside within such county or corporation; and the court to which such application shall be made, the acting justices … shall have power, upon satisfactory proof made to them that the applicant is a person of good character, peaceable, orderly and industrious, and not addicted to drunkenness, gaming, or any other vice, to grant to him or her permission to remain within the commonwealth, and to reside within such county or corporation only, during the good pleasure of the court." The law allowed local authorities to revoke this right "for any cause deemed sufficient by them," which would mean the free black had to leave the state within twelve months or be subject to reenslavement. Before the local court could revoke a right to remain in the state the free black in question had to be summoned before the court and given the opportunity to "to shew cause against" the revocation. This law superseded the 1815 law that allowed for the expulsion of the descendants of blacks manumitted under that act.

The 1837 law governed general manumission until 1851, when Virginia Constitution of 1851 flatly prohibited manumitted slaves from remaining in the state. The new constitution provided three separate clauses on manumission. First, it took the issue away from the assembly by providing that slaves who remained in Virginia more than twelve months after being freed would be returned to slavery. Second, the constitution specifically authorized the assembly to "impose such restrictions and conditions as they shall deem proper on the power of slave owners to emancipate their slaves; and may pass laws for the relief of the commonwealth from the free negro population, by removal or otherwise." Finally, the new constitution prohibited the state from ever freeing any slaves: "The general assembly shall not emancipate any slave, or the descendant of any slave, either before or after the birth of such descendant." This provision prevented the assembly from ending slavery—either immediately, or through a gradual abolition act declaring that the children of slaves would be born free, as Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey did. The provision also presumably prevented legislative emancipation for individual slaves who performed extraordinary and valuable services to the state.

Had the American Civil War (1861–1865) not intervened, it is likely that the General Assembly would have prohibited all manumissions in the state and forced slaveholders to remove enslaved men and women from the state before freeing them. The state might also have aggressively sought to pressure free blacks to leave Virginia, either on their own or with a moderate amount of help. But with more than 50,000 free blacks in Virginia in 1851, it is hard to imagine a successful initiative to "[relieve] the commonwealth from the free negro population," by removal or some other process.

Notable Manumission Cases in Virginia

Manumission by will often led to litigation, as disappointed heirs discovered they would not receive the valuable legacy they were expecting. The first major manumission case to reach the Virginia Court of Appeals was Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799). The case arose from the wills of John Pleasants and his son Jonathan Pleasants, two Quakers from Henrico County. John Pleasants's will (which Jonathan's mirrored) provided "my further desire is, respecting my poor slaves, all of them as I shall die possessed with, shall be free if they chuse it when they arrive at the age of thirty years, and the laws of the land will admit them to be set free, without their being transported out of the country. I say all my slaves now born or hereafter to be born, whilst their mothers are in the service of me or my heirs, to be free at the age of thirty years as above mentioned." Both men died before Virginia passed the 1782 manumission law, and so their executor, Robert Pleasants (son to John and brother to Jonathan), distributed the slaves among various heirs. After 1782 Robert tried to recover the slaves, to free them. The heirs resisted, and eventually Robert sued a dozen of his relatives. The litigation was long and complex, but in the end the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of emancipating the slaves.

The technical legal issue for the Court of Appeals was whether the will violated the longstanding rule against perpetuities. A perpetuity occurs when a will prevents the property of the deceased from permanently vesting with some heir within a set period of time. Pleasants's heirs argued that the will created a perpetuity because it was impossible to know when, if ever, Virginia would allow manumission with former slaves being allowed to remain in the state. Because the will covered "my slaves born or hereafter to be born," the heirs argued this could have meant slaves born many years after Pleasants died—enslaved workers who might be the great-grandchildren of Pleasants's original slaves. Thus, all the Pleasants slaves would be in a kind of a legal limbo until such time as Virginia passed a manumission law. The rule applied because at the time the wills were probated there were no laws on this issue. It did not matter that the relevant law was actually passed only a few years later. The Court of Appeals refused to read the will in this way. Instead, Judge Spencer Roane held that the will was valid and that the slaves became free under the 1782 law. This was an emphatic victory for Virginia's law, liberty, and Quaker antislavery.

The Virginia courts continued to hear manumission cases in the six decades between the Pleasants case and the passage of the Constitution of 1851. Some illustrated the human complexity and tragedy of slavery, even where masters were trying to manumit slaves. Maria and others v. Surbaugh(1824) is one such case. Mary, an enslaved woman, was promised freedom by her master when she turned thirty-one. After she reached that age, Mary sued for her freedom and that of her four children, all born before she turned thirty-one. The Court then ruled that Mary was indeed free, but that her children were born to an enslaved mother—Mary—and thus were slaves for life. More creative judges might have seen that Mary's children were equally entitled to their freedom as the children of someone who would soon become free. The court might then have left it up to the assembly to pass legislation to reverse that analysis. But this court had no interest in extending itself towards freedom. The Court of Appeals asserted it had to be "uninfluenced by considerations of humanity on the one hand, or of [public] policy … on the other" and had to leave "it to the Legislature … to deal as they may think expedient, with a subject involving so many and such important moral and political considerations." In 1849 the assembly addressed this issue by in fact providing that any children of a "female so emancipated by deed or will hereafter made, born between the death of the testator, or the record of the deed, and the time when her right to the enjoyment of her freedom arrives, shall also be free at that time, unless the deed or will otherwise provides." This law was far too late for Mary's children, but it might have helped the children of some other slave women who became free through the wills of their masters.

Two cases decided in the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in the nineteenth century demonstrate how Virginia's slave economy and the shifting views of its supreme court conspired to limit the freedom masters wanted to give their slaves. The case Elder v. Elder's Executor (1833) concerned the will of Herbert Elder of Petersburg, who provided that his slaves should have their choice of being freed and sent to Liberia or remaining enslaved in Virginia under the ownership of his brother John. Elder specified that the enslaved persons should be individually polled within a year after his death, and then either sent to Liberia or turned over to his brother. But Elder's debts prevented the executor from immediately fulfilling the terms of the will. He had to hire out the slaves to pay off the debts of the estate and, if there were not enough other assets to pay Elder's debts, possibly sell them. In 1828, John Elder sued the executors to take possession of the slaves because the terms of the will had not yet been fulfilled more than a year after his brother's death. But in fact, Elder's executor had contacted the American Colonization Society immediately after Elder's death to arrange to transport the manumitted slaves to Liberia. The transportation was set for 1829, by which time the estate would be settled. Because of the lawsuit, all of this was delayed.

The Supreme Court of Appeals approached the case as being about a will, not about manumission. Judge Dabney Carr asserted, "In the construction of wills, we are to find out the meaning, the intention, the will, of the testator; and unless that violates some principle of law, it must be carried into execution." To Carr it was "just as clear as any form of words could make it, that this testator wished, that all his slaves … be transported to Liberia, there to be free, if the colonization society would pay the expenses of removal; unless any of them should prefer to stay here and be slaves." Seeing this as Elder's goal, he rejected the idea that all of this had to be accomplished within one year after Elder's death.

The state supreme court found no problem with Elder asking his executor to poll the slaves to determine what they wanted. They were not being empowered to make a legal decision—Elder had already made it in his will. Elder could have asked the slaves what they wanted while he was alive, so the court reasoned he could direct his executor to ask the question after his death. There was even an unstated policy reason for this method. If Elder had asked the slaves what they wanted, they would have known that at the death of their master they would be free and that might have induced one or more of the slaves to try to kill Elder to speed up the time when they would become free. But this was not an issue after Elder was dead. Concurring in this result, Judge William H. Cabell was clear: "It can, therefore, be no objection to the emancipation, in this case, that the testator has directed it on the condition of their willingness to go to Liberia." After the case was decided, the slaves were manumitted and then immediately removed from the state, as the law required, and sent to Liberia—except for one elderly slave, who chose to remain in Virginia.

But in Bailey v. Poindexter's Ex'or (1858), a case almost identical to Elder, the Court's legal reasoning changed. Like Herbert Elder, John L. Poindexter wanted to give his slaves the option of freedom in Liberia. His will reflected the analysis in Elder: he instructed his executor to hire out his slaves to pay his debts and to earn enough money to transport them out of the state; then, they should be given the choice of remaining in Virginia as slaves, or leaving the state as free people. Poindexter's heir sued to undo the will and gain the value of all the slaves. In a 3 to 2 decision the court concluded that it was illegal to give the slaves the choice of remaining in Virginia as slaves, or leaving the state and becoming free. The court would not allow the slaveholder to have his executor ask the slaves what they wanted. In the court's mind, this gave too much legal power to the slaves. The manumission was denied.

Toward Emancipation

On the eve of the Civil War, the legislative and judicial branches of the Virginia government both worked against black freedom and in favor of slavery. The Constitution of 1851 prevented any legislative emancipation, while the state supreme court made it difficult for slaves to gain the freedom some masters wanted them to have. Slaveholders could manumit enslaved men and women, but first needed to be able to pay their debts without selling their slaves; arrange for their slaves' freedom without any input from the enslaved men and women; and ensure the freed slaves' timely removal from the state. By 1860, Virginia had the largest population of enslaved African Americans in the country; slavery would continue there through the war and up to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

Time Line

  • April 1691 - The General Assembly passes "An act for suppressing outlying slaves," creating penalties for unlawfully absent slaves, outlawing interracial marriage, and requiring all newly freed slaves to leave the colony.
  • May 1723 - As part of a long act devoted to "the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free," the General Assembly declares "That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever." The law also restricts a master's ability to free his slaves.
  • 1769 - Richard Bland introduces a bill in the House of Burgesses to allow for private manumission without forcing the former slaves to leave the colony. The proposal dies without a hearing.
  • May 1782 - The General Assembly passes "An act to authorize the manumission of slaves," which is seen as a victory for antislavery activists.
  • May 6, 1799 - In Pleasants v. Pleasants, the Virginia Court of Appeals rules in favor of Robert Pleasants, who is attempting to manumit the family slaves according to his late father's wishes.
  • January 25, 1806 - The General Assembly passes "An ACT to amend the several laws concerning slaves," legislation that prohibits the importation of slaves to Virginia and forces all emancipated slaves to leave the state within twelve months.
  • 1815 - The General Assembly allows slaves who have been freed to petition local courts for permission to remain in the county where they live. Local authorities can expel them—and any free black descendant of a manumitted slave—for committing a crime, even a minor one.
  • February 1824 - In Maria and others v. Surbaugh, the Supreme Court of Virginia rules that where a master agrees to free an enslaved woman at a certain age, the children born to that woman before she is free are slaves.
  • February 1833 - In Elder v. Elder's Executor, the Supreme Court of Virginia rules in favor of Herbert Elder's executor, allowing him to fulfill Elder's plan to give his slaves the choice of freedom in Liberia.
  • March 22, 1837 - The General Assembly passes a law returning the issue of manumission to local authorities.
  • July 31, 1851 - At the Convention of 1850–1851, the final version of a revised Virginia constitution is ratified. Among other things, it prohibits manumitted slaves from remaining in the state and prohibits the General Assembly from freeing any enslaved person.
  • 1858 - In Bailey v. Poindexter's Executor, the Supreme Court of Virginia rules that John Poindexter's executor cannot legally fulfill Poindexter's intention to give his slaves the choice of freedom in Liberia, because slaves are not people.
  • January 31, 1865 - The U.S. Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a vote of 119 to 56. The amendment abolishes slavery.


Further Reading
Finkelman, Paul, ed. Slavery and the Law. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Taylor, Alan. The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Finkelman, P. Manumission in Virginia Law. (2018, August 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Finkelman, Paul. "Manumission in Virginia Law." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 17 Aug. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: August 17, 2018 | Last modified: August 17, 2018

Contributed by Paul Finkelman, the president of Gratz College, a scholar of slavery and the law, and the author of more than fifty books.