Master of Arts (MA)
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This thesis explores the issues surrounding testamentary manumission, the ability of
masters to manumit slaves via their will in Virginia during the first half of the nineteenth
century. Using 37 cases in which the will was challenged and appealed up to the Supreme
Court of Virginia, I argue that in addition to the complexities of adjudicating a contested
will, the arguments and opinions offered by lawyers and judges in these cases show the
evolving discourse surrounding in slavery in Virginia during this period.
After developing a consistent and coherent body of law to regulate the manumission
of slaves in the early nineteenth century, the justices of the Virginia Supreme Court suddenly
made a sharp change in the way they decided manumission cases. Because of the increasing
fervor of the national discourse surrounding slavery and particularly the expansion of slavery
to new territories, the Court abandoned its relatively neutral position on the issue of
manumission and instead interpreted the legal right to manumit as a threat to the established
order of Virginia’s slave society.
American Slavery; Legal History; Manumission; Slave Law; Virginia; Wills
History | United States History
Wisnosky, Catherine, "The Will of the Master: Testamentary Manumission in Virginia, 1800-1858" (2015). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 2506.