In 1777, gentleman freeholder John Moss (c. 1723-1809) established Green Spring Farm in Alexandria. Today, the family home that was built in 1784 is open to the public as the Historic House at Green Spring Gardens. As a landowner and a justice of the county court who had served George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Moss was no doubt influenced by the enlightened ideals that triggered the revolution and led to growing unease over the legitimacy of slavery. Yet many “enlightened” enslavers continued to uphold the practice, including John Moss.
In 1795, Moss wrote a deed of manumission for 14 slaves on Green Spring Farm:
“Know ye that I John Moss of the County of Fairfax and Commonwealth of Virginia being fully satisfied that it is contrary to our bill of rights as well as to our principles and sentiments as a free people and also contrary to common justice to hold and keep in a state of slavery any part of our fellow men….emancipate and discharge from bondage…..Old Sarah..Old Nan..Harry..Maria..Hannah..Nero..Abram..Fox..Nat..David.. John..Sam..Milla..and Sal….In witness whereof I hereunto set my hand and seal this seventh day of September 1795.”~Fairfax County Courthouse Deed Book Y-1, p.69
By the late 18th century, acts of manumission in the upper South had become more common, and were often cast as benevolent gestures driven by conscience. However, very few enslavers were prompted by principle alone. Landowners like Moss had transitioned from labor-intensive tobacco cultivation to grains, which required fewer workers. As reliance on an enslaved workforce diminished, manumission became a pragmatic move.
The Virginia Slave Law of 1782 simplified the process by permitting enslavers to provide for it in their will or to submit a deed, as John Moss did, to the county courthouse. The law also stipulated that any enslaved person over the age of 45 “be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them.” Between 1782 and 1800, the proportion of free Blacks in Virginia increased from one to seven percent. However, expediting the manumission process didn’t always accelerate the journey to freedom.
What Moss granted in his deed was delayed manumission, promising freedom at a specified time in the future. So, while “Old Sarah and Old Nan” are to “go immediately…[with] a maintenance as long as they live,” the others must wait. “Harry to go out free at the end of seven years from the day and date of this instrument of writing. Maria and Hannah to go out free at the end of eleven years from the date hereof.” And so on.
The list continues with Nero, Abram, and Fox to be freed in 18 years, and Nat and Daniel in 27. John must wait 42 years to be free, while Sam must serve another 44. Milla’s freedom was delayed 29 years and Sal’s 35.
There were many reasons for Moss to impose these varying delays to freedom, and all would have benefitted him. For instance, a gradual process of emancipation guaranteed that immediate heirs would inherit enslaved workers. A promise of legal freedom in the relatively near future could encourage good behavior and deter freedom seekers from acting for themselves. A long delay could provide an incentive for an enslaved person to negotiate ways to buy their way out of servitude early.
In most deeds of delayed manumission, the longest terms were given to the youngest individuals. The average delay was nine years, but most of Moss’s were far longer. The terms for John and Sam (42 and 44 years respectively) indicate a toddler and an infant at the time of the deed, who would be released just before they turned 45 and were eligible for lifetime support. We can assume that “Old Sarah” and “Old Nan” are over 45 so Moss was already legally obligated to support them.
Was Green Spring’s John Moss a man of conscience or an exploiter? When Moss wrote his deed of manumission, 70 years before abolition, many enslavers in Virginia were embracing the progressive thought of a new nation that declared liberty for all. Yet they were still constrained by the long-entrenched system of slavery, by cultural conditions, and by concerns for their families’ future needs. It’s very likely that Moss found himself in a moral quandary that forced him to pit his self-interest against his higher ideals. Self-interest won out.
Debbie Waugh is the historian at Green Spring Gardens.