The North Carolina Manumission Society

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Perhaps it will be a matter of considerable surprise to many, in fact a majority of the citizens of the State, to know that the anti-slavery sentiment was ever strong enough here to take the form of organized protest and endeavor against the practice of slavery. And they would be still more surprised to know that this was the case in some of our most prominent counties. Nor was this simply the agitation of abolitionists just on the eve of the great war, but it was organized and carried on in the early part of this century. And it would be the occasion for still greater surprise to know that this organization ever reached so prominent a position as to receive such recognition from a similar general American Society, as to be asked to present their views to the general society at Washington. Yet such was the case.

The first record we have of this organization is the minutes of the several branches of the “Manumission Society” in Guilford and Randolph counties, which met at “Center Meeting House” July 19, 1816. This name it retained for two or three years; but there seems to have been some discontent with the limited sphere of work which was implied in the name, and after several unimportant changes the name was finally agreed upon and the society became known as the “Manumission and Colonization Society of North Carolina.” And by this name it would have been known if the attempt, on the part of some of the members, to have the society incorporated had succeeded, but it was not seconded by a majority and so the project failed.

In the matter of organization, the aim of the society was to have, in the various townships, as many local branches as was possible. These were all entitled to send delegates to the General Society which met twice a year, alternating between Deep River and Center Meeting Houses. The local branches were usually called by the name of the “meeting house” at which their meetings were held, and they seem to have been carried on in nearly all the most populous communities of the two counties. These branches were allowed representation based on membership, and their delegates were elected for certain terms just as the other officers of the Society.

Among those who were present at the first meeting in 1816, we may notice the familiar names of Swain, Mendenhall, Sherwood and Worth, along with many others. The election of permanent officers resulted in choosing Moses Swain for President, Thomas Sherwood for Clerk, and Hugh Sherwood for Treasurer.

Upon a call of the local branches, it was found that the aggregate membership of the General Society of 147. At the September meeting in 1817 the whole number of members was reported at 256. In April, 1819, the total membership was estimated at 281. From this date until 1822 there were regular meetings, but in that year there were two attempts to hold sessions but were both failures. This marks the first flagging of the zeal of the Society.

In 1824 there began to be agitated the question of the advisability of longer continuing the organization, and also in that year a committee was appointed to meet a State Abolition Society and to try to effect a consolidation of the two societies; this design was never carried out.

In September, 1825, the whole number of members was placed at 497, and in addition to the regular branches, a female society, located in the vicinity of Jamestown, was reported, and the Society resolved to recognize it as an auxiliary. From this time on there were, at various meetings, addresses and papers presented by this auxiliary to the General Society, and scarcely a meeting passed without there being adopted some suitable resolution in commendation of the work being done by the female society, and it continually furnishes a subject for praise to the President in his semi-annual address.

In March, 1826, we see a name somewhat more noted than the others when Wm. Swain was elected Secretary. There are no other occurrences of importance until 1828, when a committee on that subject recommended the division of the Society into two societies, and that there thus be formed Eastern and Western sections. Whether this was ever done, does not appear on the records. Nothing more worthy of note in the internal history of the Society is shown until 1834, when the question of longer continuing the Society again arose and, after a rather prolonged debate, it was decided that, as the Society had not yet accomplished all it started out to do, it would be wise to discontinue. Here the record ceases and we are left to suppose that the resolution was immediately carried into effect.

Such is a brief history of the Society, but not of its work, and there remains to be treated yet the various undertakings and how it went about carrying them out. Its plans and methods will give us not only an insight into the workings of the Society, but their success will throw great light upon the state of public sentiment on the question that was afterwards to become vital in the United States.

In the preamble to their constitution they ask whether they are acting in accord with the time-honored principles of liberty in holding slaves; and then declare their adherence to the Declaration of 1776, and that all men are entitled to freedom without reference to race or color, and the more enlightened men are, the greater disgrace in keeping our fellow-men in bondage. With such a declaration of principles as this they were positively committed to an aggressive campaign in the interest of freedom.

The Society was primarily and pre-eminently a Maunmission Society. Of course it was out of its power to do anything effective along this line further than the dissemination of literature on the subject, and in every way possible to strive to stir up the consciences of men. It did not attempt or profess to be a political organization, and only once do we find it discussing the issue as a political one, and then it was on the question as to whether the voting for candidates for legislature who were not in Wm. of emancipation was an impeachable offence. We are not told how it was decided, the record only saying that the seventh article of by-laws was struck out, but as this article does not touch that part of the subject, it does not throw any light on the subject.

One of the most effective means of arousing public sentiment in favor of manumission, was of course, to be through printing, and so at the very first meeting there was appointed a committee to superintend all printing. At the second meeting this committee read a letter from Mr. Jo. Gales, the editor of the Raleigh Register, in which he declined to print an article they had sent him, on the grounds that the subject was one on which the people of the State were not then in a temper to bear discussion; also because it might produce consequences of a direful nature by falling into the hands of the slaves, many of whom, he says, can read. Notwithstanding his refusal, though he did not openly espouse their cause, yet he expressed the wish that an end could be put to the practice of slavery, but, according to his opinion, it must be brought about by gradual means.

This refusal led to a proposition to establish a printing press subject to their own control. This was never carried into effect, but later we find an order to print and distribute free “The Friend of Peace,” copies of which had been sent them by the Ohio Peace Society. They also stepped outside their proscribed bounds and discussed the printing of a pamphlet on war, which may be accounted for, however, by the strong Quaker sentiment that was predominant in the Society. They also seem to have reached the conclusion of the editor of the Register, and we find them ordering the printing of an essay in the East Tennessee Patriot, which should set forth the views of the Society, as it was not seasonable to publish it in this State. It may be well to mention just here that there was a similar society in Tennessee, and that a special committee had been appointed to carry on a correspondence with it, and some very encouraging reports were received from that State. Besides numerous other articles, which were ordered printed, a committee was appointed to draw up a paper setting forth the comparative value of free and slave labor. And at another time the branches are all advised to subscribe for Benj. Lundy’s “The Genius of Universal Emancipation.”

Another department of work, which naturally suggested itself, from the name under which they worked for a while, would be the encouragement of colonization and the rendering of pecuniary aid to such enterprises; but this part of the work does not seem to have met with a very hearty response on the part of the members. Perhaps the impracticability of such a scheme readily presented itself to their extremely practical minds. At any rate, we find few references to this part of it. At different times the scheme is mentioned in the addresses of the President. At one time he recommends Hayti, and at another time French Guina, for colonization purposes. Also at one meeting a motion was made and carried to send money to General Colonization Society. This seems to have been the extent of the aid and interest.

The Society also, at one of its earliest meetings, ordered the appointment of a commission to examine the laws of the different States and to make extracts of any parts relating to slavery.

At a later meeting the question of kidnapping was discussed, as was also the expediency of examining into certain cases of this kind which had been reported, and of trying to enforce the law against the practice. Later a standing committee was appointed to act in all cases of the kind that were reported to them, and they were instructed to inquire into certain cases of persons who were reported to be held in bondage illegally; the Society agreeing to bear all expenses of the investigation.

The President, in his address in April, 1821, states that New Garden was making the experiment in the tuition of colored children in schools by themselves, and expressed the wish that it might be successful, and a committee on that matter reported favorably, recommending that the Society take steps to the same end. Along this same line was a resolution asking the slave-owners to teach their slaves how to take care of themselves. But afterwards a protest against the use of slave labor in the construction of the proposed railroad was indefinitely postponed, which virtually amounted to killing the proposition.

As another method of stirring up the public, it was suggested that a correspondence be entered into with the various religious organizations, and accordingly persons were appointed to write to the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Moravians, and seem to have met with very hearty sympathy and assurances. At a later date the Society drew up a petition for the Baptists, asking the legislature to grant Negroes license to preach, with certain restrictions.

Correspondence had also been opened with various abolition societies, and with the Bible and peace societies. They also sent out an address to the various branches to which they were asked to secure signers, and to have it forwarded to Congress. At a subsequent meeting two hundred and sixty names were reported as secured and sent to Thomas Settle, who was the representative at Washington.

To show the temper of the Society and the ardor of some of its members, it will not be out of place to quote the following from the minutes.

“There were two essays introduced from Reedy Fork branch, one entitled ‘An apology for becoming a Manumission member,’ and the other comparing some among Christian professors with Mohometans as far as respects slavery, which were read, approved and directed to be signed by the President and Secretary on behalf of the Society, and that they be forwarded on to the editor of the Emancipator for publication.”

In August, 1830, it was reported and approved in open session, that there was nothing libellous in the article for which W. L. Garrison was indicted and convicted, and that he did not overstep the liberty of speech guaranteed to him by the Constitution, and the committee recommend that the Association enter its protest against the unconstitutional decision in Garrison’s case.

Toward the latter part of its existence, the meetings of the Society were conducted in somewhat the form of a debate on certain questions suggested by a committee for that purpose. These questions all relate in some way to the question of slavery; either the means of getting rid of it, or of arousing sentiment concerning it, or of a citizen’s duty concerning it. But as they were always with one accord on the same side, they must have partaken of the nature of harangues instead of debates.


MLA Source Citation:

Trinity College Historical Society. Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society. Durham, N. C.: The Society. 1897-1956. Web. 20 April 2014. - Last updated on Jul 29th, 2012

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