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Manumission Society of North Carolina
An Address to the People of North Carolina, on the Evils of Slavery. By The Friends of Liberty and Equality
Greensborough, N.C.: W. Swaim, 1830.


In 1816, North Carolina Quakers founded the Manumission Society, the organized expression of white anti-slavery feeling in the state. Since the mid 1760s, the Society of Friends (primarily based in Guilford County, but active throughout the state) had been trying to find ways to circumvent colonial and state slave laws and manumit, or free, individual slaves. In the early 1800s, the Manumission Society invented a "Trustee Plan of Slaveholding" under which local manumission societies purchased slaves with the intention of treating them as trustees, or charges, to be cared for and educated until they could eventually be freed. This was a burdensome approach, however, as state slave laws regarding manumission became more stringent and as slavery became more imbedded in the surrounding non-Quaker community.

In 1816, Levi Coffin, an abolitionist leader, and other Quakers organized their local branches into a single body with an eye toward educating the public about the evils of slavery. The organization grew slowly and membership peaked at nearly 1700 in 1825 (this number includes a few non-Quakers and even a few slaveholders). In addition to managing some 800 black "trustees" and maintaining a Sunday school for free and enslaved African Americans, the Manumission Society sent letters and memorials to non-Quaker churches and ministers, individual slave-owners, the North Carolina General Assembly, and the United States Congress.

In 1834, the Manumission Society held its last meeting in North Carolina. Coffin and several of his compatriots had already emigrated north, where they joined other abolitionist groups. It is difficult to measure the effect the North Carolina Manumission Society had on slavery in Guilford County or the state, as there is no definitive record of how many slaves won their freedom through the Society's efforts—either because they had been freed directly by Society members or because their owners had been swayed by anti-slavery sentiments. The "Address to the People of North Carolina," commissioned by the Society's General Association and drafted by a committee, reflects the Society's belief in the unchristian nature of slavery "even in its mildest form." Predictably, the rhetoric of the address is milder than similar tracts by Northern abolitionists. At the outset, the society promises a "calm" analysis and that they will use "the utmost prudence" when working against slavery in the South, where slaveholders often "seemed to feel their dearest rights invaded" when anyone questioned the legality or morality of keeping African Americans enslaved (p. 3). Yet the society is quick to suggest the republican and Christian hypocrisy inherent in slavery, and the address establishes five propositions for investigation: that the "slave system is radically evil," that "it is founded in injustice and cruelty," that "it is a fruitful source of pride, idleness and tyranny," that "it increases depravity in the human heart, while it inflames and nourishes a numerous train of dark and brutal passions and lusts, disgraceful to human nature, and destructive of the general welfare," and that "it is contrary to the plain and simple maxims of the Christian Revelation, or religion of Christ" (p.6). The address then goes on to explore each of these propositions in detail, paying the most attention to the injustice and cruelty of slavery (p. 20-21).

Despite the Society's caution, the antipathy of the slave-owning majority and internal disagreements hampered the society. In the aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion in August 1831, the Society found it even more difficult to operate and espouse its beliefs. In fact, at the Society's general meeting following the rebellion, the few delegates who attended decided to postpone the meeting until more delegates attended.

Within the group, there had also been enduring disputes over whether the ultimate goal should be the more radical approach, favored by Coffin, of emancipating black North Carolinians and letting them remain in America, or, whether the Quakers should pursue the more moderate and popular solution of encouraging free blacks to emigrate to Africa or some other distant locale.

Works Consulted: Patrick Sowle, "The North Carolina Manumission Society," North Carolina Historical Review, 42 (January 1965), pp. 47-69.

Michael Sistrom

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