Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves. In the United States before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery, this often happened on the death of the owner, as a condition of their will.
The motivations of slave owners in manumitting slaves were complex. Three motives may be detected.
Firstly, manumission may present itself as a sentimental and benevolent gesture. One typical scenario was the freeing in the master's will 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 the slave was 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".) Manumission contracts found in some abundance at Delphi 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.
Status after manumission
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.
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