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Manumission: Definition & Laws

Instructor: Douglas Rich

Douglas has taught high school History and has a master's degree in Education and Business Administration.

In this lesson, learn what manumission is and how it relates to slavery throughout the world. Explore examples of historical and modern manumissions and how it affects those involved.

What is Manumission

Manumission, or the formal emancipation from slavery, is a way for slaves to earn their freedom in various methods with an agreement and normally a contract, which could be either verbal or written. Although you may think manumission is a relatively modern practice, it has existed for over 3,000 years and even contracts from Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece have been discovered.

Examples of Manumission Throughout History

Slavery is an institution that you may only relate to recent American History and the Civil War, but slavery existed in many of the largest civilizations throughout history. Some of the most studied and recognized empires, the Greek and Roman, practiced slavery and both participated in manumission. Manuscripts related to the emancipation of slaves have been discovered from as early as 200 BCE at the Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Slaves in Ancient Greece were able to purchase their freedom if they had access to the needed funds. However, technically the possessions of the slave were considered property of their masters, so slaves had to find ways to circumvent the master/slave possession arrangement in order to have the necessary funds to purchase their freedom.

In Ancient Rome, manumission was a popular method imposed by the wealthy aristocracy. Roman society was based on wealthy landowners/merchants who would have vast quantities of slaves. The slave-owners would often allow slaves to purchase their own freedom or grant their freedom outright after a length of time served. The difference between Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek manumission is that the Roman slaves were able to become citizens in most cases and were able to rise up in society and have their own power, whereas freed Greek slaves were not able to gain citizenship.

During the American Revolution, African slaves would voluntarily enlist in respective armies in order to serve a minimum amount of months and, in return, gain their freedom at the end of that service contract. Both the British and Continental Armies offered manumission as an incentive to help increase their soldier totals.

Manumission Contract
Manumission Contract

Manumission Laws

Manumission laws were often created to benefit the slave-holder and were sometimes in place to offer an incentive for the freedom of the slave. Slaves were able, in some societies, to gain freedom based on the good will of the slave-owner, but most cases were attributed to the purchase of freedom by the slaves, or freedom granted due to a minimum amount of time served in bondage. Laws were set regarding manumission in various societies in order to protect the contract between the slave-owner and the freed slave and to also protect the interests of the society into which the slaves were freed.

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