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After 1723, Manumission Takes Careful Planning and Plenty of Savvy

As the institution of slavery matured in colonial Virginia, slaveholders saw the small number of free blacks in the colony as a “great inconvenience” suspected of everything from receiving stolen goods and encouraging slaves to run away to fomenting rebellion. Moreover, “being grown old [they bring] a charge upon the country”—that is, aged free blacks who were unable to work, in principle at least, became eligible for support from the parishes in which they lived. Although the General Assembly never considered reenslavement of the existing free black population, it took measures to prevent slaveholders of “ill directed” generosity from adding to the numbers by setting slaves free.

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 a newly freed slave to leave the colony within six months and the former master to pay for the trip. Although legislation likely had a dampening effect on the urge to manumit, it is not clear how many slaves were freed and forced to leave Virginia during the thirty-two years it was in effect.

Manumission became much more difficult in 1723. Paragraph 17 of the 1723 Act Directing the Trial of Slaves, Committing Capital Crimes; and for the More Effectual Punishing Conspiracies and Insurrection of Them; and for the Better Government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, Bond or Free stated 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.”

Passed in response to rumored slave insurrections, this act permitted manumission only upon approval of the governor and Council and then only as a reward for public service. Should a slave be set free in any other manner (by will or deed, for example), the act required churchwardens to return the person so freed to slavery by sale at public outcry.

Historians have said that the “meritorious service” in which Virginians were most interested was for slaves to alert authorities to slave conspiracies and insurrections, but records of the governor’s Council show that no slaves gained their freedom on those grounds after 1723. Instead, meritorious service came to include such qualities as exemplary character and faithfulness. In spite of the 1723 law, a few slave owners left instructions in their wills to free a slave. It was then up their executors or administrators to petition the governor and Council.

When arrangements prior to petitioning the governor and Council included agreement between a white slaveholder and a slave or free black, the process was fraught with pitfalls. A slave owner might die before a slave or free black was able to fulfill the purchase agreement. It is also not hard to imagine that, after receiving the agreed upon purchase price for a slave, a master might not honor the agreement, perhaps by simply failing to go to the trouble and expense of taking that extra but critical step of submitting a petition to the Council. The following examples and the chart below may help explain why there are only about twenty petitions for freedom to be found among the journals of the Council between 1723 and 1773.

White or free black slave owner wishes to manumit his/her slave

Free black person seeks freedom for enslaved spouse/child owned by someone else

Enslaved person seeks to free self legally

Slave performs “meritorious service” to public






Makes purchase agreement with owner of spouse/child



Makes purchase agreement with his/her owner with understanding that freedom is ultimate goal


Meritorious service comes to attention of governor and Council




Completes purchase; spouse/child now owned by free spouse/parent

Slave completes purchase by legally remains the slave of his/her master




Master petitions governor and Council for slave’s freedom; offers evidence of meritorious service

Master petitions governor and Council for slave’s freedom; offers evidence of meritorious service

Master petitions governor and Council for slave’s freedom; offers evidence of meritorious service

Governor and Council consider rewarding the slave by granting his/her freedom


Governor and Council allow or disallow petitions; if allowed, freedom conferred

From the Executive Journals
of the Council
April 29, 1729

Whereas upon consideration of the many extraordinary Cures perform’d by Papaw a Negro Slave belonging to M[istress] Frances Littlepage of the County of New Kent, it was resolved that means should be used to obtain from him a discovery of the secret whereby he performs the said cures; and the said Papaw having upon promise of his freedom now made an ample discovery of the several medicines made use of by him for that purpose to the satisfaction of the Governor and the Gentlemen appointed by him to inspect the application and operation of the said medicines, It is the opinion of this board and accordingly ordered that as a reward for useful a discovery, which may be of great benefit to mankind, and more particularly to the preservation of the lives of great numbers of Slaves belonging to the Inhabitants of this Country frequently infected with the Yaws, and other venereal distempers, the said Papaw be set free; and that the sum of £50 current money be paid to the said M[istress} Frances Littlepage out of his Majesty’s Revenue of 2 shillings per hogshead, for his freedom; but that he remain still under the direction of the Government until he made a discovery of some other secrets he has for expelling poison, and the cure of other diseases.


Council Journal, December 11, 1745

On Petition of Abram Newton a Mulatto setting forth that he being Husband of Elizabeth Young a free Mulatto was purchased by her and lived with her til her Death and that the said Elizabeth by a writing under her Hand gave the Petitioner his Discharge after her Death and Praying the Board to grant or confirm to him his freedom Ordered That the party who claims a Property in him be summoned to appear and shew Cause there upon why his prayer shall not be granted.


Council Journal, June 13, 1746

Ordered that the said Abram be manumitted and set free according to the Will of the said Elizabeth and the Prayer of the Petitioner.


Council Journal, November 27, 1769

On the Petition of Matthew Ashby, a free Mulatto setting forth that he had two Children by his present Wife Ann Ashby, while she was a Slave to Samuel Spurr, that he bought her and the two Children of the said Spurr for one hundred and fifty pounds, that he has now two Children alive by her John and Mary, that she has been a faithful and diligent Wife ever since marriage, and praying that he may be permitted to set her and his Children free; the board being satisfied therein, were of opinion, that the said Ann, John and Mary were deserving of the freedom, and it was order’d that the said Matthew Ashby have leave to Manumit and set them free:


Council Journal, March 21, 1772

The Petition of Margaret, late a slave of Dorothy Cartmill, of the County of Frederick, deceased, was presented and read; setting forth that her said Mistress in her late Sickness made her last will and Testament by which she gave the Petitioner to her son Edward Cartmill for five Years, and then she directed that the Petitioner should have her Freedom, as a reward for the extraordinary Diligence and Tenderness with which she waited on her during a long and painful Illness; and praying that his Excellency and their Honours would be pleased to give their Consent that the said Dorothy’s Intentions in her Favour may receive a full Sanction.

On consideration whereof, it was the opinion of the Board and ordered accordingly that the said Edward Cartmill, or any other Person who would be intitled to the Service of the said Slave, if the said Will had never been made, be permitted to Manumit and set Free the aforesaid Margaret.


Council Journal, October 30, 1772

John Carter, Esqr. Having petitioned the Governor and Council, for leave to manumit his Slave, named Agathy, together with her five Children, called Betty, Myrtilla, Lucy, Aggy, and James, & having failed to give the board Satisfactory Proof of their meritorious Services, as the law requires, the petition was rejected.


Council Journal, May 7, 1773

The Petition of Elizabeth Jolliffe, Executrix of William Jolliffe decd. For Leave to manumit Jane, a Negro girl according to her Husband’s will, was rejected for want of proof of meritorious Service as the Law requires.


Virginia Gazette (Purdie), June 16, 1775

TEN POUNDS REWARD. RUN away from the subscriber in Dunmore county, in May last, a negro fellow named SAM, 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high, has a broad face, and is a well looking fellow. As to his clothing, I cannot be certain, he having carried several things with him. He also took with him an old bay horse very gray about the head, an iron pot, a narrow axe, a handsaw, and an old smooth bore gun. About three years ago he purchased his freedom of his old master, Mr. Francis Slaughter, and continued in that state till this spring, when it was discovered he was attempting to inveigle away a number of negroes to the new or Indian country (where he had been most of the last summer) upon which the neighbours insisted on his being reduced to slavery again, and I purchased him. I imagine he will endeavour to pass as a freeman, he having a discharge from his old master, as well as one from Lord Dunmore, having served in the expedition against the Indians last fall. Whoever delivers said slave to me shall have the reward that is offered.


Sam had the proper papers from both his former owner and the governor, but his reenslavement illustrates the threat posed by his suspicious “neighbours.”

Click here to see the entire glossary of terms relating to slaves and free blacks.

This article was written by Linda Rowe, historian in the Department of Historical Research, Colonial Williamsburg. The article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter.