An Act to Authorize the Manumission of Slaves (1782)

Per Encyclopedia Virginia: This law enacted by the  General Assembly  in May 1782 allowed  enslavers  to manumit enslaved people at will, without government approval. The law also mandates that anyone manumitting enslaved people shall provide support for those over or under a certain age and that enslaved people pay the taxes and levies required by the state.
Virginia General Assembly
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 4.

An act to authorize the manumission of slaves (1782) 

I. WHEREAS application hath been made to this present general assembly, that those persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and the same hath been judged expedient under certain restrictions: Be it therefore enacted, That it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the county court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the court of the county where he or she resides, to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely and fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act. 

II. Provided always, and be it further enacted, That all slaves so set free, not being in the judgment of the court, of sound mind and body, or being above the age of forty-five years, or being males under the age of twenty-one, or females under the age of eighteen years, shall respectively be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them, or by his or her estate; and upon neglect or refusal to do so, the court of the county where such neglect or refusal may be, is hereby empowered and required, upon application to them made, to order the sheriff to distrain and sell so much of the person's estate as shall be sufficient for that purpose. Provided also, That every person by written instrument in his life time, or if by last will and testament, the executors of every person freeing any slave, shall cause to be delivered to him or her, a copy of the instrument of emancipation, attested by the clerk of the court of the county, who shall be paid therefor, by the person emancipating, five shillings, to be collected in the manner of other clerk's fees. Every person neglecting or refusing to deliver to any slave by him or her set free, such copy, shall forfeit and pay ten pounds, to be recovered with costs in any court of record, one half thereof to the person suing for the same, and the other to the person to whom such copy ought to have been delivered. It shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit to the gaol of his county, any emancipated slave travelling out of the county of his or her residence without a copy of the instrument of his or her emancipation, there to remain till such copy is produced and the gaoler's fees paid. 

III. And be it further enacted, That in case any slave so liberated shall neglect in any year to pay all taxes and levies imposed or to be imposed by law, the court of the county shall order the sheriff to hire out him or her for so long time as will raise the said taxes and levies. Provided sufficient distress cannot be made upon his or her estate. Saving nevertheless to all and every person and persons, bodies politic or corporate, and their heirs and successors, other than the person or persons claiming under those so emancipating their slaves, all such right and titles as they or any of them could or might claim if this act had never been made. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/An_act_to_authorize_the_manumission_of_slaves_1782.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What does this act allow white Virginians to do?
    It allows enslavers to emancipate enslaved people, giving them “full freedom.”
  2. Question
    Certain enslaved people cannot be freed without support from their former enslavers. What are these circumstances?
    Enslaved people who are not of “sound mind and body,” over 45 years old, under 21 years old (males), or under 18 years old (females) must be taken care of by the (former) enslaver.
  3. Question
    What must all emancipated people carry on themselves? What results if they do not?
    Physical evidence of their freedom (“a copy of the instrument of emancipation”).
    They are to be kept in the area (i.e., in jail) until they provide evidence of their status and pay the “gaoler” (jailer) fee.
  4. Question
    What circumstances would lead to an emancipated person being forced back into labor for another?
    If the emancipated person does not pay their taxes, they can be forced into labor until they are able to pay the amount.
  5. Question
    Though they are to “enjoy as full freedom,” what societal status would free black Virginians have due to this act? What legal precedent does this set?
    Though they may be free, requiring they carry proof of their emancipated status at all times limits their lived freedoms. Additionally, this provides the framework to re-enslave the individuals under pretense of lacking the required paperwork or inability to pay a tax. This sets a legal precedent of the formerly enslaved people not being full citizens, including being subject to a race-based legal system.
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