As the practice of slavery grew and spread in the colony of Virginia, the General Assembly wanted to tighten their control over their enslaved population. One particular concern was the small but growing population of free Black people who lived in the colony. Many free Black people had purchased their freedom from their owners. The Assembly feared that this community would inspire or help enslaved people revolt.
To combat this problem, the General Assembly passed a new law in 1723. It not only required that every petition for manumission be reviewed by the governor and council of the colony, but it stated that manumission would only be granted if there was evidence that the enslaved person had performed “meritorious services.” Only the governor and council could decide whether a service was meritorious enough.
The new law worked. Between 1723 and 1773 there are records of only about 20 manumission petitions in the council’s records. Petitioning was beyond the power of most enslaved people, and too much of an inconvenience for slave owners.
These three petitions made after the new manumission law was passed in 1723 demonstrate how the governor and council enforced the law. The first is the petition of Abram Newton. Abram was an enslaved man who had been purchased years earlier by his free Black wife, Elizabeth Young. Knowing the law, Elizabeth maintained their official status of owner and enslaved person until her death. In her will, Elizabeth freed Abram, and called on the council to confirm his manumission on account of his years of work providing for their family. The council agreed that this counted as meritorious service, and Abram was set free.
In the second petition, Edward Cartmill asks the Assembly to free an enslaved woman named Margaret. He cites his mother’s will, which said that Margaret was to be freed to reward her for the many years of quality care she provided during her owner’s long illness. Again, the council agrees that Margaret performed meritorious service, and she is freed.
The final petition is the most revealing. Recently widowed Elizabeth Joliffe petitions the council to free a young enslaved woman named Jane. Her husband’s will stated that the enslaved people he owned were to be freed when they reached their eighteenth birthday, and it would seem that Jane was the first person to reach this milestone. The council denies the petition on the grounds that the will did not prove that Jane did anything particularly special. There is no record of Elizabeth petitioning again for Jane or any of her other enslaved people.
The 1723 law put total control of manumission in the hands of the government. It also implied to the enslaved people of Virginia that if they worked hard enough, they too could be set free. If they were not freed, then it must mean they had not done enough. It was a powerful new tool of oppression.