Author: William Fernandez Hardin

JD, PhD, a history teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy, in Nashville, Tennessee

Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, The

The Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes and Others, Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and Other Humane Purposes was a Richmond-based antislavery organization active from 1790 to 1804. Founded by Robert Pleasants, a wealthy Quaker slaveholder-turned-abolitionist from Henrico County, the society at its high-water mark claimed more than 100 members, many of whom were Quakers and more than a few of whom were Methodists. The Virginia Society petitioned the U.S. Congress and the General Assembly in support of gradual emancipation and provided legal support to wrongfully enslaved individuals. Although it enjoyed limited success in its early years, by the turn of the century it had lost members and support as white Virginians grew increasingly hostile to emancipation. By 1804, the society had ceased meeting completely. The Virginia Society, unlike most other antislavery organizations, was located in a slavery-based society and economy. The call for gradual emancipation, by definition, implied a radical transformation of the economy and society. Following the American Revolution (1775–1783), when all manner of change seemed possible, more than few white Virginians entertained and even endorsed abolition and emancipation in the abstract. Members of the Virginia Society attempted to capitalize on this feeling, but within the span of a decade, the once vigorous antislavery campaign had dissipated in Virginia.


Robert Pleasants (1723–1801)

Robert Pleasants was an antislavery activist who founded the Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and sued to enforce the manumission of his family’s slaves as called for in his father’s and half-brother’s wills. The resulting case, Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799), is the largest legal case in U.S. history involving the manumission of enslaved people. Born in Henrico County to a wealthy slaveholding Quaker family, Pleasants was educated in Philadelphia before returning home to help tend the family’s business interests. He encouraged his father and half-brother to write wills in the 1770s freeing their slaves contingent on the passage of a Virginia law in which such a manumission became legal. When such a law was passed, in 1782, surviving family members did not fulfill their responsibilities, causing Pleasants to sue and leading to the eventual freedom of at least 400 men, women, and children. Pleasants founded and served as president of the Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery from 1790 until his death in 1801, providing legal support to persons claiming to be wrongfully enslaved and submitting petitions against slavery and the transatlantic slave trade to the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress. Upon his death, Pleasants bequeathed Gravelly Hills, a 350-acre estate in Henrico County, to his former slaves as well as endowing a school for their descendants that operated until 1821.