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Manumission, or affranchisement, is the act of an owner freeing his or her slaves. Different approaches developed, each specific to the time and place of a particular society. Jamaican historian Verene Shepherd states that the most widely used term is gratuitous manumission, "the conferment of freedom on the enslaved by enslavers before the end of the slave system".
The motivations for manumission were complex and varied. Firstly, it 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. A trusted bailiff might be manumitted as a gesture of gratitude. For those working as agricultural laborers 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 at which 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 (Lex Fufia Caninia 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 (peculium), which they could save up to buy themselves. Manumission contracts found, in some abundance, at Delphi specify in detail the prerequisites for liberation.
Manumission was not always charitable or altruistic. In one of the stories in the Arabian Nights, in the Richard Francis Burton translation, a slave owner threatens to free his slave for lying to him. The slave says, "thou shall not manumit me, for I have no handicraft whereby to gain my living". Burton notes: "Here the slave refuses to be set free and starve. For a master to do so without ample reason is held disgraceful".
A History of Ancient Greece explains that in the context of Ancient Greece, affranchisement came in many forms. A master choosing to free his slave would most likely do so only "at his death, specifying his desire in his will". In rare cases, slaves who were able to earn enough money in their labour were able to buy their own freedom and were known as choris oikointes. Two 4th-century bankers, Pasion and Phormio, had been slaves before they bought their freedom. A slave could also be sold fictitiously to a sanctuary from where a god could enfranchise him. In very rare circumstances, the city could affranchise a slave. A notable example is that Athens liberated everyone who was present at the Battle of Arginusae (406 BCE).
Even once a slave was freed, he was not generally permitted to become a citizen, but would become a metic. The master then became a prostatès. The former slave could be bound to some continuing duty to the master and was commonly required to live near the former master (paramone). Breaches of these conditions could lead to beatings, prosecution at law and re-enslavement. Sometimes, extra payments were specified by which a freed slave could liberate himself from such residual duties. However, ex-slaves were able to own property outright, and their children were free of all constraint.
Under Roman law, a slave had no personhood and was protected under law mainly as his or her master's property. In Ancient Rome, a slave who had been manumitted was a libertus (feminine liberta) and a citizen.
A freed slave customarily took the former owner's family name, which was the nomen (see Roman naming conventions) of the master's gens. The former owner became the patron (patronus) and the freed slave became a client (cliens) and retained certain obligations to the former master, who owed certain obligations in return. A freed slave could also acquire multiple patrons.
A freed slave became a citizen. Not all citizens, however, held the same rights and privileges (for instance, women were citizens, but their Roman citizenship did not let them vote or hold public office). The freed slave's rights were limited or defined by particular statutes. A freed slave could become a civil servant but not hold higher magistracies (see, for instance, apparitor and scriba), serve as priests of the emperor or hold any of the other highly-respected public positions.
If they were sharp at business, however, there were no social limits to the wealth that freedmen could amass. Their children held full legal rights, but 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.
African slaves were freed in the North American colonies as early as the 17th century. Some, such as Anthony Johnson, went on to become landowners and slaveholders themselves in the colonies. Slaves could sometimes arrange manumission by agreeing to "purchase themselves" by paying 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 to manumit a slave, a person must pay the cost for them to be transported out of the colony. 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." In some cases, a master who was drafted into the army would send a slave instead, with a promise of freedom if he survived the war. The new government of Virginia repealed the laws in 1782 and declared freedom for slaves who had fought for the colonies during the American Revolutionary War. The 1782 laws also permitted masters to free their slaves on their own accord; previously, a manumission had required obtaining consent from the state legislature, which was arduous and rarely granted.
However, as population of free Negroes increased, the state passed laws forbidding them from moving into the state (1778) and requiring newly-freed slaves to leave within one year unless they had special permission (1806).
In the Upper South in the late 18th 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 after the American Revolutionary War, so many slaveholders accomplished manumissions by deed or in wills that the proportion of free blacks to the total number of blacks rose from less than 1% to 10% in the Upper South. In Virginia, the proportion of free blacks increased from 1% in 1782 to 7% in 1800. Together with several Northern States abolishing slavery during that period, the proportion of free blacks nationally increased to 13.5% of the total black population. New York and New Jersey adopted gradual abolition laws that kept the free children of slaves as indentured servants into their twenties.
After invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which enabled the development of extensive new areas for new types of cotton cultivation, the number of manumissions decreased because of the increased demand for slave labor. In the 19th century, slave revolts such as the Haitian Revolution, and especially, the 1831 rebellion, led by Nat Turner, increased slaveholders' fears, and most southern states passed laws making manumission nearly impossible until the passage of the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," after the American Civil War.
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, generally in smaller number, as domestic servants. John Adams owned none. George Washington freed his own 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, and some were sold to pay off estate debts, and his wife and son retained most to work Montpelier plantation. Alexander Hamilton's slave ownership is unclear, but it is most likely that he was of the abolitionist ideal, as he was an officer of the New York Manumission Society. John Jay founded the society and 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 and 1786, the only Founding Father to do so during that time.