Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

. In the United States before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, passed by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. On...

, which abolished most slavery, this often happened upon the death of the owner, under conditions in his will
Will (law)
A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his/her estate and provides for the transfer of his/her property at death...



The motivations of slave owners in manumitting slaves were complex and varied.

Firstly, manumission may present itself as a sentimental and benevolent gesture. One typical scenario was the freeing in the master's will
Will (law)
A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his/her estate and provides for the transfer of his/her property at death...

 of a devoted servant after long years of service. This kind of manumission generally was restricted to slaves who had some degree of intimacy with their masters, such as those serving as personal attendants, household servants, secretaries and the like. In some cases, master and slave had had a long-term sexual relationship, perhaps with tenderness felt on one or both sides. Some manumitted slaves were the offspring of such sexual encounters. While a trusted bailiff might be manumitted as a gesture of gratitude, for those working as agricultural labourers or in workshops there was little likelihood of being so noticed.

Such feelings of benevolence may have been of value to slave owners themselves as it allowed them to focus on a 'humane component' in the human traffic of slavery. A cynical view of testamentary manumission might also add that slaves were only freed once the master could no longer make use of them. In general, it was also much more common for old slaves to be given freedom, that is to say once they had reached the age where they were beginning to be less useful. Legislation under the early Roman empire put limits on the number of slaves that could be freed in wills (Fufio-Caninian law 2 BC), suggesting a pronounced enthusiasm for the practice.

At the same time freeing slaves could also serve the pragmatic interests of the owner. The prospect of manumission worked as an incentive for slaves to be industrious and compliant, the light at the end of the tunnel. Roman slaves were paid a wage (pecunium) with which they could save up to, in effect, buy themselves. Or to put it from the master's point of view, they are providing the money to buy a fresh and probably younger version of themselves. (In this light, the pecunium becomes an early example of a "sinking fund
Sinking fund
A sinking fund is a fund established by a government agency or business for the purpose of reducing debt by repaying or purchasing outstanding loans and securities held against the entity. It helps keep the borrower liquid so it can repay the bondholder....

".) Manumission contracts found in some abundance at Delphi
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god...

 specify in detail the prerequisites for liberation.

In the United States, manumission had two main motivations. The first was linked to a self-purchasing agreement between the slave and his or her owner. This agreement awarded the slaves his/her freedom while still allowing the owner to make a profit. The slave would agree to market farm produce or do additional employment somewhere else. Secondly, slaveholders would free slaves if they were changing their cash crop. When switching from tobacco to wheat, a slave holder would need fewer slave hands because the crop would not need year-round service.

Ancient Greece

Greek slaves generally became metics upon being manumitted. That is, they became resident aliens, non-citizens in the city where they lived. The freedom they attained, however, was not absolute. At Athens, freeborn metics were required to nominate a sponsor or patron (prostates): in the case of freed slaves this was automatically their former master. In their case, this relationship entailed some degree of continuing duty to the master. Failure to perform this could lead to prosecution at law and re-enslavement. Continuing duties specified for freed slaves in manumission agreements became more common into the Hellenistic era, but it might be that these were customary earlier. Sometimes extra payments were specified by which a freed slave could liberate themselves from these residual duties. One standard requirement was that the freed person continue to live nearby their old master (paramone). As ex-slaves risked beatings for failing to meet these duties, their freedom was limited. But certainly ex-slaves were able to own property outright, and their children were free of all constraint, whereas those of slaves were simply the further property of the master. Furthermore, even free individuals could be subject to paramone.

Ancient Rome

In Rome former slaves became freedman (liberti), usually taking the family name of their former master as their own, and though they were no longer seen as an object in the eyes of the law, they still did not gain all the rights of a Roman citizen (though their children did, if born free). Freedmen could not follow the Roman political career or cursus honorum
Cursus honorum
The cursus honorum was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early Empire. It was designed for men of senatorial rank. The cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum...

; however, they could become a wealthy tradesman or a member of the priesthood of the emperor - a highly respected position. A highly successful freedman could become an advisor to the emperor himself, a tradition started by Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

 and fostered by his successors.

In both Greek and Roman societies ex-slaves required the permission of their former master to marry.

Jewish Manumission Laws

Since the biblical narrative was shaped by the idea of resisting slavery (see the book of Exodus), Judaism was one of the oldest religions to legislate laws of Manumission. Manumission of a Canaanite slave was seen as a religious conversion, and involved a second baptism. The Talmud made many rulings which had the effect of making manumission easier and more likely. The costly giving of gifts, on the occasion of manumission, is only Biblically mandated in connection with automatic 7th-year manumission; the Talmud therefore restricted its compulsory performance to this circumstance only in the biblical regulation, the price for buying one's freedom was set as the total fee for a hired servant, over the outstanding period of service, but the classical rabbis changed the price to be the original price for which the servant was purchased, pro-rated for the amount of service already worked; if the servant has become weak or sickly, and therefore worth less as a product, the price of freedom was to be reduced further, and it could never be increased for an increase in the servant's strength or skills.

United States

Manumission by American slaveholders was restricted by laws in many states.
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