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The Language of Freedom

In the process of historical research, you may have to read numerous documents before you find one that is relevant or interesting. That was the case for me during my Montpelier internship when it came to transcribing the Orange County Courthouse deed books, which were filled with land and property deeds from the 1800s. However, every now and then I would come across an emancipation deed between a slave owner and an enslaved laborer. I began to pay close attention to these documents when they would pop up; taking note of the language, the slave owners, the enslaved, anything that the document could tell me.

Even though they were grouped with property documents, solidifying the idea that enslaved laborers were seen as property, these emancipation deeds grabbed my attention because of the people, the language, and the questions that they left unanswered. This was bigger than a parcel of land being sold; the enslaved mentioned in these documents were real local people who had little documentation or recognition regarding their personhood. Knowing the legal difficulties and controversy surrounding emancipation in a slave-owning state like Virginia, made these emancipations even more intriguing. In Orange County, several manumission deeds detail why someone would legally free an enslaved laborer, and the language of freedom unveils one of the greatest ethical conflicts in American history.

Emancipation was illegal?

Just because something is legal, does not mean it is right. Slavery was legal, and depending on the year and the jurisdiction, emancipation might have been illegal. According to Virginia laws in 1691, it was “enacted that no negroes, or mulattoes be set free by any person whatsoever, unless such person pay for the transportation of such Negro out of the country within six months after such setting free” (Assembly 1691. Act XVI). All laws mentioned are derived from: Jane Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes From Earliest Times to the Present (Lovettsville, Virginia: Willow Bend Books, 1996).

In 1723, a similar law mandated that “no Negro or Indian slave shall be set free upon any pretense whatsoever, except for some meritorious services, to be adjusted by the governor and council, and a license thereupon obtained.” (Assembly 1723. Chapter IV).  Obtaining freedom in Virginia was not made easy in the early eighteenth century, but later on the stipulations became slightly less restrictive. By 1782, the emancipation process was a matter of an instrument of writing sealed in front of witnesses, leaving out the parameters set by preceding emancipation laws (Assembly 1782. Chapter XXI).

So how did all of this play out in the lives of real enslaved laborers and emancipating slavemasters? Unlike the laws that governed emancipation, the deeds that made it a reality display a degree of humanity from the perspective of both the slave owner and the enslaved.

“Natural Right of All Mankind”…

In 1783, one year after the latter law was enacted, Thomas Coppedge of Orange County is on record freeing two female slaves, Presiller (Priscilla) and Sarah. The manumission deed states “from a Deliberate Consideration and Conviction of my own mind [I] am Willing to fulfill that Injunction of our Lord Do unto all men as I would they should Do unto me. Deed of Emancipation for Priscilla and Sarah, March 27, 1783, Deed Book 18, pg. 164, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia.  Although his syntax is stilted, his reason is clear. For Coppedge, the emancipation of these two enslaved laborers was due to religious reasons.

The manumission deed of Ann Barksdale’s enslaved laborers in 1785 states she was “fully persuaded that Freedom is the Natural Right of all Mankind and that no Law moral or divine has given me a right to Property in the person of my Fellow Creatures.” Deed of Emancipation for Lucy, Ben, Sieros, and Frank, August 21, 1785, Deed Book 19, pp. 165-166, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. It appears Barksdale, like Coppedge, felt some sense of internal conviction when it came to owning enslaved laborers. Barksdale and Coppedge were probably Quakers. Their deeds follow the Quaker practice of referring to months by number rather than by name. Most Virginia Quakers freed their slaves between 1782, when emancipation became legal without a special appeal to the legislature, and 1785, when the Quaker governing body formally banned slaveowning by the members. [Thomas E. Drake, Quakers and Slavery In America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), quoted in Isaac May, Impenetrably Secret: A Report on the Religion of James and Dolley Madison, March 31, 2016, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, Montpelier Research Database, accesssed August 7, 2019, MRD-S 43678, pp. 102-03]

An interesting parallel here is how the syntax of these deeds relates to founding documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but their intentions are quite different. When the Declaration of Independence, which was written by Thomas Jefferson and inspired by enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, states “all men are created equal,” we know that the writer’s definition of the word “men” really only applied to landowning white males. When Coppedge says “all men” he is actually referring to Sarah and Priscilla, two black women; and when Barksdale states “Freedom is the Natural Right of all Mankind” she emancipates Lucy, Ben, Sieros, and Frank, all enslaved African Americans. As early as 1783 there is legal documentation of Orange County slave owners recognizing the moral dilemma created by owning other human beings in a country that fought for liberty and justice for all.

Ann Barksdale’s Emancipation Deed for Lucy, Ben, Sieros, and Frank. (Deed Book 19, pp. 165-166, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. Courtesy of the Orange County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.)For others, the motivation for emancipation does not appear to be religious or moral. In 1801, Reynolds Chapman gave Richard Barrett his freedom after Barrett paid him 125 pounds. Deed of Emancipation for Richard Barrett, June 15, 1801, Deed Book 22, pp. 234-235, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. There is no mention of religious or moral obligations. Instead, based on what is revealed to us through the deed, the right to liberty becomes a monetary transaction, although it is possible payment was not the only motivation. Conway Taliaferro freed a man named Harvey “because of his general good Conduct and the sum of two hundred dollars.” Deed of Emancipation for Harvey, October 22, 1838, Deed Book 37, pp. 169, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. In this case, although Harvey had to buy his freedom, Harvey’s “good Conduct” seems to be what influenced Taliaferro to make the transaction.

Charles P. Howard emancipated 23 enslaved people between 1834 and 1856 and freed the rest of his slaves at his death, but he only recorded his reason for emancipation in two of the manumission deeds. In 1834, Howard freed Willis Dangerfield “in consideration of the feallity Fealty – fidelity, loyalty to a master and good conduct of my slave.” Deed of Emancipation for Willis Dangerfield, July 28, 1834, Deed Book 35, pp. 125, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. In the following deed, 11-year-old Ann Gordon was freed “with a hope of bettering the condition in life of my slave.” Deed of Emancipation for Ann Gordon, July 28, 1834, Deed Book 35, pp. 125-126, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia. In the case of Dangerfield, freedom was earned for loyalty and good behavior. For Ann Gordon, it’s possible Howard felt some type of moral obligation, although “bettering the condition in life” is a difficult phrase to interpret. The other deeds regarding those emancipated by Howard stated that they were granted freedom, but lack details as to why. Amongst those freed by Charles Howard was Franklin Jennings, the son of Paul Jennings, James Madison’s longtime manservant. Franklin Jennings was freed in 1856 when he was 20 years old. Deed of Emancipation for Franklin Jennings, January 16, 1856, Deed Book 44, pp. 6, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia.

Based on the number of people Howard emancipated, it’s clear he had an apparent commitment to freedom, even if it was through the gradual process of freeing a few people at a time over the span of several years.

Although we know little about the whereabouts of those who were emancipated, it is important to be reminded that they were real people with families, lives, and ambitions of their own. (Source: James Madison’s Montpelier, The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition)Each of these cases demonstrate a range of reasons as to why someone living in a slave-owning state with an economy highly dependent on slave labor would still feel compelled to free people. It also goes to show the confusion that slavery caused amongst the American people and begs the question often posed to our founding fathers: how could one write about ideals of liberty and freedom, while still denying those rights to others?

Blessings of Liberty and Little Else

Despite the lofty language of emancipation laws and deeds, records of the enslaved after they gained their freedom are scarce or difficult to find. Manumission deeds give us a tiny glimpse into small details of the lives of the enslaved; whether those details be about their skill sets, their looks, or their age, they remind us of their humanity.

Through researching people on ancestry.com and pulling together clues about their lives from the emancipation deeds, I was able to find pieces of information regarding their possible whereabouts after emancipation. Ann Gordon, the young girl freed by Charles Howard in 1834, was described by Howard as being 10 or 11 at the time of the emancipation. Using this as a way to guess her birth year, I found an Ann Gordon in the 1870 census keeping house in Madison County, Virginia. However, Gordon is probably this woman’s married name, since she is in a family with a William Gordon who is six years older, and a 10-year-old William Gordon who is likely their son. If so, she is less likely to be the young girl named Ann Gordon freed by Charles Howard. I used a similar process for Willis Dangerfield, also freed by Howard in 1834, who may have ended up in Allegheny, Pennsylvania based on 1880 census data. What happened between the years of being emancipated and being recorded in the census is a mystery. Finding similar information for other people aforementioned proved difficult, especially since so few of them had recorded last names.

Willis Dangerfield, age 88, was listed in the 1880 Census as being born in Virginia and living in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Was he the same person as shoemaker Willis Dangerfield, whose age was about 41 when freed by Charles Howard in 1834? (Source: 1880 United States Federal Census, National Archives and Records Administration)These emancipation deeds recall the lost complexity of the lives of people who are so often viewed as a historical monolith. But they also keep us wondering about their path in life or their descendants. Looking back at these deeds reminds us that the “blessings of liberty” established in our Constitution weren’t blessings given to all.