Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves, May 12, 1777-March 27, 1779

Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves
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May 12, 1777-March 27, 1779
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Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves
Dickinson, John, 1732-1808
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
R. R. Logan Collection of John Dickinson Papers (Collection 383)
Box 5, folder 19
Transcribed by the John Dickinson Writings Project
Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves
Author(s): 
May 12, 1777-March 27, 1779
Open In New Window
Download TEI Source
Source Information: 
Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves
Dickinson, John, 1732-1808
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
R. R. Logan Collection of John Dickinson Papers (Collection 383)
Box 5, folder 19
Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves
Author(s): 
May 12, 1777-March 27, 1779
Open In New Window
Download TEI Source
Source Information: 
Manumission of John Dickinson's Slaves
Dickinson, John, 1732-1808
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
R. R. Logan Collection of John Dickinson Papers (Collection 383)
Box 5, folder 19
About This Document: 

Of the major founding figures, John Dickinson was one of the few active abolitionists. At one time, he was one of the largest slave owners in the Delaware Valley, holding at least 59 men, women, and children. Yet, as he grew older and adhered more closely to the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the religion in which he was raised but not a member, he increasingly adopted their abolitionism. In An Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania (1776), he proposed a law be passed stating that "No person hereafter coming into, or born in this country, to be held in Slavery under any pretense whatever" and a law be repealed that discouraged manumission by requiring owners to provide “security” for even young and healthy former slaves. As president of Delaware in 1782, he urged the same to the Assembly, and also that families not be "cruelly separated from one another, and the remainder of their lives extremely embittered." He hoped Delawareans would emulate Pennsylvania by "pass[ing] laws for alleviating the afflictions of this helpless, and too often abused part of their fellow creature" (Pennsylvania Packet, November 7, 1782).  In 1786, he wrote abolition legislation for Delaware, but it did not pass. In the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Dickinson was one of the few delegates to object to the slave trade on moral grounds and moved to have it prohibited in the Constitution. This motion resulted in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution.

This 1777 deed of manumission was the first of three Dickinson issued. It conditionally freed 37 individuals. According to the terms laid out, they would remain in bondage for another 21 years. Children born during that period would be considered free unless Dickinson maintained and educated them, in which case, they would be held for as long as the mother remained in service. Not many years later, Dickinson reconsidered his decision. In 1781 he freed a few slaves unconditionally, and 1786, he freed the rest unconditionally. Many remained on his property as tenant farmers. He continued to provide for those who could no longer work. Research on the individual slaves is located at the John Dickinson Plantation in Dover, Delaware.

Transcription, notes, and document description provided by the John Dickinson Writings Project, Director and Chief Editor, Jane E. Calvert (University of Kentucky). Presentation of this transcription (for example, expansion of abbreviations in the original) adheres as closely as possible to JDWP editorial practices.