The Revolution had a major impact on attitudes about slavery, particularly in the Upper South. After the Revolution many slave owners throughout the new republic chose to free their slaves for moral or ethical reasons. In Maryland and Virginia, the Upper South states with the largest enslaved populations, sizable numbers of African Americans became free through the voluntary acts of their owners.
One example of the phenomenon can be seen in Somerset County, Maryland. Before the Revolution the freeing of slaves was almost unknown in the county. At the end of the colonial era Somerset’s entire free African-American population numbered no more than a few dozen. Virtually all of the growth in this population was due to natural increase, not emancipation.
During the period 1785-1800, however, 151 enslaved African Americans were granted freedom in Somerset County. The official legal documents that conferred this freedom were called “Deeds of Manumission,” and these documents often state the reason why the enslaved person was being freed. In 12 cases the reason given is self-purchase. These enslaved people simply bought themselves free from their previous owners. In a few other cases the reason for manumission is listed just as “good causes,” a deliberately ambiguous legal phrase that could mean almost anything.
For 101 of the 151 manumitted slaves the reason given by the slave owner is that slavery is wrong. Persons freeing slaves state that “all persons are naturally free,” cite the “injustice of slavery,” or argue that slavery is against “natural law.” Their language reflects the sentiments of the American independence movement and shows how attitudes about individual rights formed in the conflict against Britain were now shaping attitudes about slavery.
The most complete and compelling of these moral justifications for manumission recorded in the Somerset County records comes to us from Philip Graham, who freed all of his slaves in 1787.
“Slavery is repugnant to the golden Law of God and the unalienable rights of mankind, as well as to every principle of the Late glorious revolution which has taken place in America.”
Mr. Graham couldn’t have made it any clearer than that.