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Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves. Different approaches developed, each specific to the time and place of a society's slave system.
The motivations of slave owners in manumitting slaves were complex and varied. Firstly, manumission may present itself as a sentimental and benevolent gesture. One typical scenario was the freeing in the master's will of a devoted servant after long years of service. This kind of manumission generally was restricted to slaves who had some degree of intimacy with their masters, such as those serving as personal attendants, household servants, secretaries and the like. In some cases, master and slave had had a long-term sexual relationship. Owners sometimes freed the woman and children born of such relationships. While a trusted bailiff might be manumitted as a gesture of gratitude, for those working as agricultural labourers or in workshops, there was little likelihood of being so noticed.
Such feelings of benevolence may have been of value to slave owners themselves as it allowed them to focus on a 'humane component' in the human traffic of slavery. In general, it was more common for older slaves to be given freedom, once they had reached the age where they were beginning to be less useful. Legislation under the early Roman empire put limits on the number of slaves that could be freed in wills (Fufio-Caninian law 2 BC), which suggests that it had been widely used.
Freeing slaves could serve the pragmatic interests of the owner. The prospect of manumission worked as an incentive for slaves to be industrious and compliant. Roman slaves were paid a wage (pecunium) with which they could save up to, in effect, buy themselves. Manumission contracts found in some abundance at Delphi specify in detail the prerequisites for liberation.
Greek slaves generally became metics upon being manumitted. That is, they became resident aliens, non-citizens in the city where they lived. Their freedom was not absolute. In Athens, freeborn metics were required to nominate a sponsor or patron (prostates): in the case of freed slaves, this was automatically their former master. This relationship entailed some degree of continuing duty to the master.
Failure to perform the duty could lead to prosecution at law and re-enslavement. Continuing duties specified for freed slaves in manumission agreements became more common into the Hellenistic era, and they may have been customary earlier. Sometimes extra payments were specified by which a freed slave could liberate himself from these residual duties. Freed persons were commonly required to live nearby the former master (paramone). As ex-slaves risked beatings for failing to meet the continuing duties, their freedom was limited. But ex-slaves were able to own property outright, and their children were free of all constraint. Children born into slavery were also considered the property of the master. Free individuals could be subject to paramone.
Under Roman law, a slave had no personhood and was protected under law mainly as his master's property. In ancient Rome, a slave who had been manumitted was a libertus (feminine liberta) and a citizen.
A freedman customarily took his former owner's family name, that is, the nomen (see Roman naming conventions) of his master's gens. The former owner became his patron (patronus). As a client (cliens), the freedman retained certain obligations to his master, who in turn owed mutual favors. A freedman could also acquire multiple patrons.
A freedman became a citizen. Not all citizens, however, held the same rights and privileges (women were citizens, but could not vote or hold public office; see Roman citizenship). The former slave's rights were limited or defined by particular statutes. Freedmen could become civil servants but not hold the higher magistracies (see for instance apparitor and scriba), priests of the emperor, and hold other highly respected public positions. If they were sharp businessmen (or in some cases businesswomen), there were no social limits to the wealth they could amass. The children of a freedman held full legal rights, though Roman society was stratified. One of the most famous Romans to have been the son of a freedman was the poet Horace, who enjoyed the patronage of Augustus.
Jewish manumission laws
Judaism was one of the oldest religions to legislate laws of manumission. Manumission of a Canaanite slave was seen as a religious conversion, and involved a second immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh). The Talmud made many rulings which had the effect of making manumission easier and more likely. The costly giving of gifts, on the occasion of manumission, is mandated in the Bible related to the automatic 7th-year manumission. The price to buy freedom was set as the total fee for a hired servant, over the outstanding period of service. The classical rabbis changed the price to be the original price for which the servant was purchased, pro-rated for the amount of service already worked. If the servant had become weak or sickly, and worth less in the market, the price of freedom was to be reduced further. The rabbis ruled the price could never be higher than the original one, regardless of any increase in strength or skills by a servant.
African slaves were freed in the North American colonies as early as the seventeenth century. Some (such as Anthony Johnson) went on to become landowners and slaveholders in the colonies. Slaves could sometimes arrange manumission by agreeing to "purchase themselves"; that is, to pay the master an agreed amount. Some masters demanded market rates; others set a lower amount in consideration of service.
Regulation of manumission began in 1692, when Virginia established that in order to manumit a slave, a person must pay the cost for them to be transported out of the state. A 1723 law stated that slaves may not "be set free upon any pretence whatsoever, except for some meritorious services to be adjudged and allowed by the governor and council." The new government of Virginia repealed these laws in 1782 and declared freedom for slaves who had fought for the Colonies in the American Revolutionary War. However, as population of free negroes increased, the state passed laws forbidding free negroes from moving into the state (1793) and requiring newly freed slaves to leave within one year unless they had special permission (1806).
Various other states at this time established laws governing manumission and tended to make it easier to accomplish. In the first two decades after the American Revolution, many of the new states passed laws allowing slaveholders to declare slaves free by filing papers, and numerous manumissions were made in the idealism of the war. The percentage of free blacks as a proportion of the total black population increased in the Upper South from less than 1 percent to nearly 10 percent in this period. Together with several northern states abolishing slavery during this period, the percentage of free blacks nationally increased to 13.5 percent of the total black population.
After invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which enabled the development of extensive new areas for new types of cotton cultivation, manumissions decreased due to increased demand for slave labor. In the nineteenth century, slave revolts such as the Haitian Revolution and especially the 1831 rebellion led by Nat Turner increased slaveholder fears, and most southern states passed laws making manumission nearly impossible until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery after the American Civil War in 1866.
In the Upper South in the late eighteenth century, planters had less need for slaves as they switched from labor-intensive tobacco cultivation to mixed-crop farming. Slave states such as Virginia made it easier for slaveholders to free their slaves. In the two decades following the American Revolutionary War, numerous slaveholders accomplished manumissions by deed or in wills, so that the percentage of free blacks to the total number of blacks rose from less than one percent to 10 percent in the Upper South. Some northern states quickly abolished slavery, adding to the national population of free blacks; New York and New Jersey adopted gradual abolition laws that kept the free children of slaves as indentured servants into their twenties.
Of the Founding Fathers of the United States as defined by the historian Richard B. Morris, the southerners were the major slaveholders, but northerners also held them, in generally fewer number, as domestic servants. John Adams owned none; George Washington freed his slaves in his will (his wife independently held numerous dower slaves); Thomas Jefferson freed five slaves in his will, and the remaining 130 were sold to settle his estate debts; James Madison did not free his slaves but some were sold to pay off estate debts, and his wife and son retained most to work Montpelier plantation; Benjamin Franklin freed his slaves; Alexander Hamilton likely owned slaves and freed them, as he was an officer of the New York Manumission Society; the society was founded by John Jay, who freed his domestic slaves in 1798, the same year as governor he signed a gradual abolition law in New York; John Dickinson freed his slaves in a manumission process between 1776-1786, the only Founding Father to do so during this time.
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- Wilson, Black Codes (1965), p. 16.
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