Manumissions in Virginia, 1751-1864

The Library of Virginia possesses a massive amount of data relating to slavery in the state. I thought it might be fun to play around with it a little bit. In particular, I wanted to see if any chronological patterns emerge when examining data on manumissions of enslaved laborers. Sure enough, they do!

As you can see, an initial plateau in manumissions between 1787 and 1793 fades around 1795, with spikes thereafter in 1805, 1817-1818, and the 1830s/early 1840s. These patterns correspond with noteworthy historical events that had a dramatic impact on the evolution of the institution of slavery in the Commonwealth.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, certain plantation owners manumitted their slaves in a show of egalitarian sentiment. George Washington was among these individuals, freeing his enslaved laborers upon his death in 1799. This practice became decidedly less popular with Eli Whitney's invention and patenting of the cotton gin in 1793-1794, which transformed slavery into a vastly more profitable enterprise. Enslaved people in the Upper South, a region which includes Virginia, became more valuable, as they could be shipped down major river systems to the Black Belt, where massive new cotton plantations were springing up on land taken by force from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek. Scholars agree that the trail-off in manumissions in Virginia in the aftermath of 1793 corresponds with the increase in the profitability of slaveholding as an investment.

The spike in 1805 is a more interesting case. In 1806, the Virginia General Assembly promulgated a new law that made it much more challenging for enslaved laborers to be manumitted. In 1805, as news of this measure spread, those who wished to free their human 'property' took steps to ensure that they would not be caught on the wrong side of the 1806 deadline. Coincidentally, this also lines up with the date of an uprising at Chatham in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, which may have been an added incentive for 'owners' to free their chattel. Although a fairly minor uprising in comparison with those of Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and Nat Turner in 1831, the Chatham revolt bears mentioning in this context.

The 1817 spike matches up with the date of the foundation of the American Colonization Society, which sought to resettle emancipated people in Africa. This racist and paternalistic undertaking caught on rapidly among certain segments of the slave-owning elite in the Upper South, and some elected to manumit their enslaved laborers with an eye toward resettling them in Liberia. Nevertheless, as the data show, only around 110 enslaved people were manumitted during the 1817-1818 spike, which showcases the limited appeal of the ACS in the face of the entrenched beliefs of the slaveholding class.

The spike in the 1830s, in the wake of Nat Turner's uprising, is the product of a fascinating historical episode. After the suppression of the revolt, legislators in Virginia received around 40 petitions to consider the ethical and practical dilemmas raised by the 'slave question.' The 'slave question' captivated the Commonwealth between 1831 and 1832, with legislators even considering full abolition of the institution in the state. Ultimately, in January of 1832, the General Assembly elected not to follow that course, which prompted the owners of enslaved laborers sympathetic to the abolitionist cause to take matters into their own hands. Afterward, a gradual spike in manumissions peaking in 1842 began to develop, trailing off with the hardening of sectional resentment in the mid-to-late 1840s.

This comparatively simple exercise serves as an example of how data can be mobilized in the service of history. As ever-larger segments of the historical record are digitized, more opportunities like this are certain to arise. It’s an exciting prospect, and one that I’ll be sure to follow closely as time goes on.

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