1 N.J.L. 4

Supreme Court of Judicature of New Jersey.




April Term, 1790.

[Different report of this case: Manum.Cas.22]

Declarations by a master, that his slave shall be free after his death, in consequence of his good behavior, amount to an actual manumission; or at least to a promise by which his representatives are bound.

[page 4]

In this case a Habeas corpus cum causa had issued out of this court, directed to the defendant, commanding him to bring up the body of negro Tom. The administrator accordingly, at the return of the writ, brought up the negro, and claimed to detain him as a slave of the intestate, at the period of his death.

Bloomfield, Attorney-General, moved to discharge him from the custody of the administrator, on the ground of a manumission by Prall, the intestate.

From the testimony of several witnesses who were examined, it appeared that, about three years before his death, the intestate declared that Tom had been a faithful servant to him; they had sucked the same breasts, and that he should never serve another master, but be free at his (the intestate's) death. The testimony further proved, that these declarations had subsequently to this period been made repeatedly and to different persons, and that the intestate always manifested and expressed a peculiar affection for Tom. During his last illness, when he was asked what should be done with his negroes, he ordered them all to be sold, with the exception of Tom, who he said should be free. It appeared that Tom had ever been a faithful and affectionate servant.

Bloomfield and Frelinghuysen contended that Tom was entitled to his freedom at the death of his master; the declarations, proved to have been repeatedly made by Prall, amounted to an actual manumission, to take effect upon his death; that his intention was unequivocally proved, and, in such a case, ought to be fully complied with. They cited 2 Bl. Com. 94; 1 Inst. 137, b.

A. Ogden, for defendant, maintained that a slave was the property of his master, and in order to pass away a right to his services, something more than the expression of an intention was requisite: some present act, in pursuance of that intention, must appear. The proof in this case establishes nothing more than an intention to free Tom at his death, [page 5] which had never been formally executed, and might perhaps have changed. The intestate never intended and never thought that these general declarations to third persons would entitle his slave to his freedom. Perhaps he actually contemplated an act of manumission, but his death intervened and prevented its completion. Such declarations, however, cannot take effect as an actual manumission in presenti, unless it clearly appears that this was meant by the person who employed them. So far from this, his words express an intent to do a future act, and these declarations were merely designed to show the regard he felt for the negro. A manumission must be by some definite and formal act between the master and the slave, and is not to be inferred from casual expressions, however precise and frequent, addressed to uninterested persons, and looking forward to a future act of performance.


The proof in this case amounts to an actual manumission by the master, to take effect on the happening of a certain event, viz., his own death. It appears that Prall, the intestate, frequently declared that Tom should have his freedom--that the other negroes should be sold, but Tom should be free. These declarations mean something more than an intention hereafter to enfranchise. If, however, the evidence be considered in the light contended for by the counsel for the defendant, as proving nothing more than a promise to liberate at some future period, still we think the obligation of this promise is binding on his representatives, and that the negro cannot under such circumstances be detained in slavery.

NEGRO discharged.