Stuart Gold's article "The "Gift” of Liberty: Testamenary Manumission in New Jersey, 1791-1805" has just appeared in the Rutgers Journal of Race and Law. Cribbing from the first couple of paragraphs of the article:
On October 30, 1789 Abraham Montanye, a moderately prosperous farmer in Bergen County, New Jersey, executed a will that left all of his estate, both real and personal, to his wife for use during her life. Upon her death, the estate was to be liquidated and the proceeds distributed to the children of his brother Joseph. (Becausethere are no children mentioned in the will we can assume that Abraham and his wife had no direct lineal descendants.) Like some 15% of his neighbors in Bergen County, and approximately 6% of New Jersey householders during this period, he was a slave owner. According to Abraham's will, his wife was to have the use of the slaves during her life. Upon her death, the male slave Cuff would be at liberty to live with the heir of his choice. The remaining slaves, all female, would have a reasonable period of time to choose new masters. In the following years, something caused Mr. Montanye to amend his will. On January 30, 1799 he executed a codicil that addressed only one estate issue--the manumission of all his slaves. The codicil is more of a manifesto than a testamentary instrument. The sole, operative provision of the codicil states:
I give to each and every [one] of my slaves both male and female which I may die possessed of in any manner of way entitled unto, their full perfect and absolute freedom. And I do hereby Order and Direct that from and after my Decease they and every one of them shall be, remain and continue thenceforth forever, entirely liberated emancipated and made free from all kinds of Slavery or servitude whatsoever.
Gold deals with a very exciting topic -- the transition to freedom in a state where slavery was on the wane. I think this sets up some great comparisons with southern states at this point -- shortly after Stuart's time period ends the Virginia legislature made manumission substantially more difficult. Even during the period he was writing about -- the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth century -- there was substantial debate in the Virginia courts over how to deal with emancipation via will. Some of this occured around the Pleasants v. Pleasants case. And several decades later during the period that I'm most interested in, manumission was really frowned upon in the south. You can really see in Stuart's data set of nearly 120 wills that the process of emancipation was proceeding rapidly -- often more than half of the wills involving enslaved people freed them. This was a story of the triumph of ideals of the Revolution -- even as more southern states were moving in another direction.