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Against the Family, Against the State: The Opposition to Deathbed Manumissions

The idea of a fatherly plantation owner kindly freeing his slaves as his final deathbed act was one of the most romantic notions of the antebellum South. Placing this provision in ones will was nearly customary. Practically speaking, it made a lot of sense. Whatever usefulness the slaves were to the dying master would be unnecessary upon his expiration. He could feel righteous for manumitting his slaves without undergoing any of the financial hardships that would follow. Though a tradition of sorts, this practice often contained a web of restrictions and grew to be disdained and eventually outlawed all across the South.

Deathbed: Illustration from Truth is Stranger than Fiction:  An autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson
Illustration from Truth is Stranger than Fiction: An autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson

The most famous deathbed manumission was probably that granted by George Washington. Upon his death, he freed 125 of his slaves – the only “founding father” to do so. 1Henry Wiencek An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) 4-5. But this wasn’t quite the whole story – as was so often the case with manumissions of any variety. Washington could free only his own slaves, and not those owned by his wife’s family. Furthermore, he willed that it was upon his wife’s death and not his own when the slaves would be emancipated. 2George Washington, Last Will and Testament (Washington, 1911) 2.

Like Washington, most of the time, the dying enslaver would place some kind of restriction upon the manumission of the slaves. In many cases, they would be free only after they reached a certain age. James Morris of Delaware did this in 1807, leaving his slaves to his son on the provision that they be freed when they each reached the age of thirty. 3Petition 10380702, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina. Available here.

Keep It In The Family

Though the practice of manumission upon death was widespread and practical, it was not without its opposition. Naturally, the master’s children objected. After all, it was they, and not their dead father, who were now strapped with figuring out a way to keep the plantation running without some or even all of the free labor.

In many cases, the surviving family members would try to sell the slaves instead of following the provisions in the will. Others would simply hide or destroy the will before the eyes of a lawyer could be cast upon it. In 1817, for example, the will of slave owner, James Ryan, declared that Grace, his slave and “most Confidential Servant,” was free upon his death. Ryan’s brother, however, not only hid the will, but threatened to sell Grace back into slavery. 4Petition 21381708, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina. Available here.

If the will was found to be plain on the issue of manumission, sometimes the family members would try to convince the court that the deceased owner had been of unsound mind. In the case of Thomas Clark of Virginia, who freed his slaves upon his death, the surviving family made their plea, insisting that “for a long time before his death he lived entirely among his Slaves without any white person in his family and was wholly and completely under their influence and control; that such was his feebleness of body and imbecility of mind that his Slaves particularly Milly Rhody and Silvy who were chiefly about his house and person could and did influence him to do whatever they desired.” His brother attempted to have this “pretended will” annulled and the freed slaves divvied up amongst the heirs. The brother ultimately lost the case, and the freed slaves remained free. 5Petition 21684110, Halifax Circuit Court Building, Halifax, Virginia. Available here.

Vermont: Manumission, 1777
Vermont: Manumission, 1777

Barred by the State

Not only did family members have a vested interest in stopping the deathbed manumissions, but so too did several state governments. In 1800, South Carolina took the first of many broad steps to “protect” the white population from freed blacks. Among various other measures greatly limiting the rights of black people, slaves could only be emancipated by deed. The owner had to bring the slave before the Justice of the Quorum to “answer all such questions as they might ask touching the character and capability of the slave to gain a livelihood in an honest way.” Twenty years later, the state saw even this as far too lenient, declaring that “no slave should hereafter be emancipated, but by Act of the Legislature.” From then on, private manumissions were illegal in South Carolina. 6John Belton O’Neall, ed. The Negro Law of South Carolina (Columbia: John G. Bowman, 1848) 10-11.

By this time, Georgia had already done the same, and by 1859 would outlaw deathbed manumission completely. Florida followed in 1829, strictly forbidding any and all manumission. By 1830, North Carolina still allowed owners to emancipate their slaves, but only if they paid for the slave’s transportation to leave the state. Tennessee had the same law, enacted in 1831; by 1854, the slaves in the Volunteer State could only be freed if they were sent back to Africa. In 1837, Maryland followed South Carolina’s lead and required congressional approval for any manumission. By the time of the Civil War, manumission in Maryland was fully prohibited. Louisiana, too, banned all manumissions by 1857. Arkansas did the same the year after. 7Henry Walcott Farnam Chapters in the History of Social Legislation in the United States to 1860 (Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1938) 199-200.

In 1757, New York tavern keeper Eve Scurlock freed five slaves in her will, citing their fidelity, service, and good behavior.
In 1757, New York tavern keeper Eve Scurlock freed five slaves in her will, citing their fidelity, service, and good behavior.

A Bit of Apprehension

Owners, relatives and Congress weren’t the only parties leery of manumission. The slaves themselves were cautious, but more than anything wanted to have that slice of liberty promised to all persons in the Declaration of Independence. They would work extra hours outside of the master’s control to gain extra wages so that they might purchase their freedom legally. Many, of course, would simply run away.

But if they had been promised manumission upon the death of their owner, it was found that the slaves were ever mindful of this lest the masters strike their very freedom from his wills. These wills could and did change with frequency, never being absolutely final until the master’s dying day. Slaves also understood that a promise of freedom from a dying man could mean nothing following his death, especially if the next of kin needed slaves of his own. 8Larry E. Hudson, ed., Working Toward Freedom (University of Rochester Press, 1994) 174-175.

Most slaves also understood that manumission was rare. The vast majority of slaves were never given their freedom, and were simply passed down to the heir of their dead masters. The deciding factor was often the master’s apparent affection for the slave that resulted in their emancipation. In these cases, and for sadly obvious reasons, male field hands were far less likely to be freed than female house slaves. For most, however, – no matter the law, no matter the master – freedom could come only through the near impossibility of escape or death.

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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.