Did Virginia Law Prevent Thomas Jefferson From Freeing His Slaves?

Dr. Warren Throckmorton


In the month of May, 230 years ago, the state of Virginia passed a law on emancipation of slaves. After the law passed, slave owners could legally emancipate their slaves. The subject of David Barton's New York Times best selling book, The Jefferson Lies, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves at that time in Virginia. Could he have freed them? It is a question taken up by Barton in the book.

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton asks:

If Jefferson was indeed so antislavery, then why didn’t he release his own slaves? After all, George Washington allowed for the freeing of his slaves on his death in 1799, so why didn’t Jefferson at least do the same at his death in 1826? The answer is Virginia law. In 1799, Virginia allowed owners to emancipate their slaves on their death; in 1826, state laws had been changed to prohibit that practice.

Barton seriously misrepresents or misunderstands (or both) the legal environment related to slavery during Jefferson’s life.  InThe Jefferson Lies, Barton cites Virginia’s 1782 law on manumission which allowed slaves to be emancipated. He does not, however, quote it completely to make it clear that slaves could be freed at any time, not just at the death of a master. He deliberately omits the section that indicates slaves could be freed by an owner with appropriate deed. In fact, many such slaves were freed by other owners.

Here is the section quoted by Barton:

[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and emancipate and set free, his or her slaves.

However, here is the entire first section of the 1782 law on manumission:

[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and the same hath been judged expedient under certain restrictions: Be it therefore enacted, That it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the county court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the court of the county where he or she resides to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely and fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act.

Note the section above in bold print. This is the portion of the first section of the 1782 law Barton omits. This section allowed slave owners to release their slaves by a deed. Emancipated slaves needed a document to prove that their former owners had freed them. This law allowed slave owners when they were alive to free their slaves, provided slaves were of sound body and older than eighteen if a female and older than 21 if a male, but not above the age of 45. Thus, Jefferson could have freed many of his slaves within the law while he was alive.  In addition to The Jefferson Lies, Barton in a recent radio program emphatically stated that after 1782 slaves could only be freed at the time of a slaveholder’s death.  Not only was Jefferson legally permitted to free his slaves, he actually freed two slaves in the 1790s, Robert (1794) and James (1796) Hemings.

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton then cites an 1806 Virginia law, and says

...the law required that a freed slave promptly depart the state or else reenter slavery, thus making it almost impossible for an emancipated slave to remain near his or her spouse, children, or family members who had not been freed. Many, therefore preferred to remain in slavery with their families rather than become free and be separated from them.

Barton in The Jefferson Lies is correct that the 1806 law presented a hardship to slaves who might want to be emancipated and had a willing master as they would have to make a choice of remaining near their families and risk being sold into slavery again if they remained in the state longer than a year.  While Barton is accurate in The Jefferson Lies about the language of the 1806 statute on slavery, in a recent radio interview he characterized the 1806 law as absolutely prohibiting the freeing of slaves. While the 1806 law stated that one could be re-captured by state authorities and sold back into slavery, John Henderson Russell in The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865 (published in 1913) asserts that the law was rarely enforced as he could find very few legal documents indicating that a freed slave had been captured and re-sold into slavery. There is an additional change in the legal environment of slavery in Virginia that Barton does not cite in his discussion of Jefferson.  In 1816 Virginia legislators “had bowed to economic, social and political realities and had allowed one ‘escape hatch’ from the trap of emancipation,” writes Philip Schwarz. That ‘escape hatch’ was that ‘freed people could petition local courts to exempt them from exile on the grounds of ‘their extraordinary merit’ and ‘good character.’” It would entirely likely that a freed slave coming with a letter of recommendation from a former president and a favorite son of Virginia would have obtained an exemption from the re-capture provision.  Jefferson did free five slaves on his death in 1826, but he transferred the ownership of about 260 to his heirs at that time.  According to Schwarz, Jefferson “included in his will a request that the legislature of Virginia grant permission for his former slaves to remain in Virginia.”  If Jefferson could make that request for five slaves, it seems reasonable that he could have made that request for others.

Regarding Jefferson and the legal environment of slaves and their possible emancipation, Barton misrepresents both the 1782 and the 1806 laws regarding slavery.  More significantly, what a tremendous act in support of human equality it would have been had Jefferson freed those of his slaves of the right age while he was President of the United States.  He could have done so, but chose not to.  One could argue that Jefferson was constrained by cultural conditions or by his own economic needs to have slaves, but he cannot be called a champion for the emancipation of slaves.


(The above article is an excerpt from Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, by Warren Throckmorton & Michael Coulter. Click the link for more information about the book, or go to