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The Pace of Manumission among Quakers in Revolutionary-Era North Carolina

From: Quaker History
Volume 102, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 1-16 | 10.1353/qkh.2013.0002

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The standard narrative of the Quaker manumission movement traces the growth of antislavery sentiment among Friends until it became the consensus of the yearly meeting. Historians' emphasis has been on explaining the growth of antislavery sentiment and not on explaining the persistence of the opposing mind-set. Eastern North Carolina offers an opportunity for a case study in the unevenness of the process of manumission among Quakers. The experience of eastern North Carolina demonstrates that the Yearly Meeting's establishing a requirement that members free their slaves did not represent the end of the struggle to abolish slaveholding among Friends, for much work remained before the entire membership would be persuaded to free their slaves. The statement that North Carolina Friends renounced slaveholding in 1775 should come near the beginning, not the end, of the story.

It was hard to give up one's slaves in eighteenth-century North Carolina, even for Quakers. The manumission movement that had begun radiating out from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in the 1750s reached North Carolina Friends in the latter 1760s in the form of unease with slaveowning. After several hesitant steps, the North Carolina Yearly Meeting first authorized Friends to free slaves in 1774—provided the Friends secured the permission of their monthly meeting, which was to certify that the slaves to be freed were capable of supporting themselves. In 1775 the Yearly Meeting firmly condemned slaveholding, and in 1776 North Carolina Quakers began freeing their slaves. In 1781, the Yearly Meeting authorized Friends' meetings to disown members who obstinately kept slaves in bondage. In 1789, Friends' committees were still treating with members who continued to own slaves. Only in 1814, forty years after the North Carolina Yearly Meeting had authorized manumissions, were there virtually no slaves in the personal ownership of North Carolina Quakers.

Although North Carolina Friends began liberating their slaves in 1776, the next decade witnessed only modest progress in that undertaking, a progress that can be gauged by a comparison between the 1772 poll tax and the 1787 property tax for Perquimans County, the focal point of the movement. There are seventy-eight Quaker households that can be identified on both tax lists. Of those households, in 1772 forty-seven held slaves, numbering 150. By 1787, thirty-nine of those households still owned slaves, totaling 110. Fourteen households that still had slaves at the latter date had decreased the number of their slaves, but seventeen had increased their holdings. Of the thirty-one households not taxed for slaves in 1772, twenty-five were still not so taxed fifteen years later, while six possessed slaves of taxable age by 1787. If these partial figures are indicative of the whole, in eleven years, in which time the ratio of black to white polls in the county had not decreased, the percentage of Quakers owning slaves in Perquimans County had decreased from 60 to 50 percent, and the number of blacks they held in bondage had fallen by slightly more than a quarter (26 2/3 percent).

One explanation for the moderate pace of manumissions during that first decade is the reluctance of the monthly meetings to apply discipline to recalcitrant members. The Yearly Meeting did not authorize disowning those who refused to manumit slaves until 1781, and the Perquimans Monthly Meeting delayed disowning obstinate slaveholders until 1789. Before that year, starting in 1778, the Monthly Meeting restricted disownment for mistreatment of blacks to those who bought and sold them, disowning nine members for selling slaves between 1778 and 1787. Between 1789 and 1799, there were ten cases of discipline for slaveholding, as well as three for slave dealing and one for hiring a slave. After 1800, cases of disownment for holding slaves were few and sporadic, two in 1811 (a husband and wife), three in 1813, and one each in 1815, 1836, and 1840.

The moderation with which the Society of Friends used the tools of discipline alone, however, does not explain why many eastern North Carolina Quakers were slow to free their slaves. One Quaker committee established to promote manumission reported in 1783 that "there are Many among us who still continue to hold [slaves,] several of whom contend for...

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