Manumission Laws in North Carolina

A friend who follows this blog asked me why Horton Howard and other Quakers would have had difficulty in freeing their slaves. Why couldn’t they make such decisions about their own property? This is a complex issue – requiring a longer and more technical bit of writing than most of my blog post.

The southern states relied heavily on slave labor for necessary agricultural work. Once the slave was purchased, the cost of maintaining the slave was minimal. Freeing of slaves led to many fears among slaveholders: fear of economic disruption from losing their labor pool, fear that freed slaves would be a bad influence on remaining slaves – perhaps encouraging them to want freedom, and fear that the freed slaves (who had been denied education and therefore had limited skills) would become a burden on the state, counties or local governments.

So how did the North Carolina slaveholders protect their interests? Laws of 1715 and 1723 prohibited manumission of slaves except for meritorious service as approved by a county court. Slaves appropriately freed had to leave the state within 6 months, and any former slave returning to the state could be taken up and sold into slavery to the highest bidder.

The Quaker population, meanwhile, grew increasingly opposed to slavery and found ways to work around these laws. Some of them deeded their slaves to a local Meeting, with one or more of their members appointed as Trustees. The slaves then lived in virtual freedom, they might receive wages for their work or obtain work on their own, until their legal freedom could be obtained.

In 1777 addition restrictions prohibited a slave owner from allowing slaves to hire themselves out, thus preventing the slaves from accumulating funds to buy themselves out of slavery. Any slave transgressing this law could be taken up and put to hard work for the benefit of the county for as much as 20 days. This would have made the Quaker trust ownership of slaves less advantageous.

That is enough information for now – I will write more on this subject later.



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