Conditional Manumission

These court cases reveal how enslaved Black people in Virginia sought freedom in the courts after the colonial government made manumitting enslaved people the responsibility of the government.

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Council Journal, December 11, 1745

On Petition of Abram Newton a Mulatto setting forth that he being husband of Elizabeth Young a free Mulatto was purchased by her and lived with her til her Death and that the said Elizabeth by a writing under her hand gave the Petitioner his discharge after her death and praying the Board to grant or confirm to him his freedom ordered that the party who claims a property in him be summoned to appear and shew cause there upon why his prayer shall not be granted.
On December 11, 1745, Abraham Newton, an enslaved biracial man is asking the court to set him free. He was the husband of Elizabeth Young, a free biracial woman. Elizabeth bought Abraham when they got married. She just died, and left instructions that he should be set free in honor of their life together. Abraham hopes that the council will honor Elizabeth’s wishes and grant his freedom. He challenges anyone to prove that it should not be granted.
Council Journal, June 13, 1746

Ordered that the said Abram be manumitted and set free according to the Will of the said Elizabeth and the Prayer of the Petitioner.
On June 13, 1746, the Council of Colonial Virginia sets Abraham free according to Elizabeth’s last wishes.

Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, Vol V, Ed. Wilbur L. Hall (Richmond: The Virginia State Library, 1945), 215.

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Council Journal, March 21, 1772

The Petition of Margaret, late a slave of Dorothy Cartmill, of the County of Frederick, deceased, was presented and read; setting forth that her said Mistress in her late sickness made her last will and testament by which she gave the petitioner to her son Edward Cartmill for five years, and then she directed that the Petitioner should have her freedom, as a reward for the extraordinary diligence and tenderness with which she waited on her during a long and painful Illness; and praying that his Excellency and their Honors would be pleased to give their consent that the said Dorothy’s intentions in her favor may receive a full sanction.

On consideration whereof, it was the opinion of the Board and ordered accordingly that the said Edward Cartmill, or any other Person who would be entitled to the service of the said Slave, if the said will had never been made, be permitted to manumit and set free the aforesaid Margaret.
On March 21, 1772, Margaret, an enslaved woman, asks to be set free. Margaret cared for her owner, Dorothy Cartmill, for many years while she was very sick. When Dorothy died, she left a will that gave Margaret to her son for five years, after which time Margaret was to be set free. The council grants her current owner permission to free her.

Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, Vol VI, Ed. Benjamin J. Hillman (Richmond: The Virginia State Library, 1966), 450.

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Council Journal, May 7, 1773

The Petition of Elizabeth Jolliffe, Executrix of William Jolliffe decd. For Leave to manumit Jane, a Negro girl according to her Husband’s will, was rejected for want of proof of meritorious Service as the Law requires.
On May 7, 1773, Elizabeth Jolliffe tells the council that her dead husband left instructions to free an enslaved girl named Jane. The council denies the request because Elizabeth gave no evidence that Jane did anything special to deserve it.

Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, Vol VI, Ed. Benjamin J. Hillman (Richmond: The Virginia State Library, 1966), 526.


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.

About the Resources

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.


  • General Assembly: The governing body of the Virginia colony.
  • manumission: Release from slavery.
  • meritorious: Deserving reward or praise.
  • petition: A written request submitted to a powerful person.

Discussion Questions

  • What do these documents reveal about the way enslaved people were viewed and treated in colonial Virginia?
  • How did Elizabeth Young beat the system in the case of her husband?
  • What do these documents reveal about the development of the institution of slavery in the English colonies?
  • Why is the rejection of Jane’s petition significant?

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