Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799)


Pleasants v. Pleasants was the largest judicial manumission of enslaved persons in U.S. history. Decided May 6, 1799, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that more than 400 enslaved persons were entitled to freedom under a provision in the wills of their deceased former enslavers: John Pleasants III and his son, Jonathan Pleasants, both of Henrico County. John Marshall, future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, represented the enslaved at the behest of Robert Pleasants, son of John and brother to Jonathan, and executor of both estates. Robert Pleasants asked family members to free the enslaved people in the estate as required by the wills after passage of a manumission act in 1782 that made it possible to free an enslaved person. Family members refused, and so Pleasants filed suit. Chancellor George Wythe first heard the case in the High Court of Chancery. Wythe upheld the freedom provisions in the wills, ordered the manumission of the enslaved, and directed their former enslavers to pay them back wages. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals found the will’s freedom provisions valid, but struck down Wythe’s order assigning retributive pay to the formerly enslaved. As a result of the ruling, 185 enslaved persons were freed soon after the decision. Another 246 were deemed to have a vested right to liberty executable when they turned thirty years of age. The Pleasants decision helped establish the legal and ideological framework for manumission in post-Revolutionary Virginia. More broadly, it demonstrated to litigants, lawyers, judges, and lawmakers how to selectively employ and skillfully manipulate common law doctrines while incorporating the interests of slavery and slaveholders. The deference to liberty established in the Pleasants case would give way to a more rigid and less libertarian jurisprudence in the antebellum period.

Facts of the Case

In 1665, John Pleasants I, born in Norwich, England, immigrated to Virginia as a young man. He eventually settled on a plantation called Curles on a small peninsula known as Curles Neck along the James River about fifteen miles downriver from present-day Richmond. Over the next three generations, the family became numerous and very wealthy through the sale of tobacco and the ownership of enslaved laborers. On the eve of his death in 1771, John Pleasants III owned well over 200 people and thousands of acres of land. But the Pleasants family was unlike many of their wealthy gentry neighbors; they were devout Quakers and had been since John Pleasants I joined the Society of Friends in the early 1670s. Since that time, the family had largely stayed true to its Quaker heritage, building and maintaining a meeting house at Curles Neck and serving as leaders in the society. In general, most Quakers had tolerated slavery, if practiced without cruelty, in the first half of the 1700s. Beginning in the 1750s, however, reformers within the Society of Friends, mainly in Philadelphia, began arguing that slavery was contrary to religious equality of all persons—a foundational concept in Quaker theology. Increasing in intensity and in adherents, reformers pressed fellow members to renounce slavery. By the mid-1760s, antislavery reformers had led an increasingly vigorous, and ultimately successful, campaign to eliminate slaveholding and enslavers from the Society of Friends.

John Pleasants III was not unmoved by the spirit of antislavery sweeping his society from the north. His son, Robert Pleasants, was convinced beyond any doubt that slavery was a religious and moral crime and thus a sin. John Pleasants III, encouraged and aided by his abolitionist son, drafted a will designed to free the family’s enslaved individuals. Freeing an enslaved person, however, was illegal under colonial law. But the Pleasants believed they had found a clever workaround: they inserted a freedom clause delaying manumission until it was legal to do so. The freedom provision in the Pleasants’ will would be triggered only when the law was changed to allow manumission. Based on the success of antislavery measures in neighboring Pennsylvania, both men had reason to hope manumission would soon be legal in Virginia. On August 13, 1771, John Pleasants III died, leaving behind a sizeable estate of land and enslaved laborers. Over 200 enslaved people were distributed to his heirs with the provision that when the law allowed it, the heirs would free the enslaved individuals they received under the will. The freedom provision read

“[M]y further desire is, respecting my poor slaves, all of them as I shall die possessed with shall be free if they choose it when they arrive to the age of thirty years, and the laws of the land will admit them to be set free without their being transported out of the country. I say all my slaves now born or hereafter to be born, whilst their mothers are in the service of me or my heirs, to be free at the age of thirty years as above mentioned, to be adjudged of by my trustees their age.”

In May of 1776, Jonathan Pleasants, son of John Pleasants III, also died. Jonathan’s will included a freedom provision substantially similar to his father’s and more explicit in its antislavery language. And like his father, he named Robert Pleasants as the administrator of the estate. Robert Pleasants had accepted possession of his father’s and brother’s enslaved individuals with the intention of freeing them at the earliest opportunity, as directed by the wills. After the conclusion of the War for Independence, Robert spearheaded Quaker lobbying efforts to legalize manumission. Those efforts were successful, and in 1782, the Virginia Assembly passed “An Act to Authorize the Manumission of Slaves.” While the law allowed enslavers to free enslaved persons, it made clear that manumission did not create a legal status equal to white Virginians. Freed persons were referred to as “emancipated slaves” in the statute and were burdened with severe travel restrictions punishable by fines and incarceration.

As a consequence of the new law, Robert Pleasants freed seventy-eight people in his possession and asked fellow family members to do likewise. Many, if not most, refused, claiming they were under no obligation to do so. Pleasants lobbied family members for the next fifteen years without much success, even petitioning the General Assembly twice, once in 1790 and again in 1791, to free the enslaved via a private bill, which was denied on both occasions. Finally, fearing he was near the end of his life, Pleasants decided to sue family members in 1798. He retained John Marshall, who had represented Pleasants & Co. (a joint business venture owned in part by Robert Pleasants) in a commercial case, to file suit on behalf of the enslaved, seeking to compel his relatives to free them.

Some of the family members who had taken enslaved individuals under the original wills had died and passed legal title to their respective heirs, who felt no obligation—moral, familial, or legal—to free them. Additionally, some of the enslaved laborers had been sold to unrelated, and perhaps unsuspecting, purchasers. As a result, the number of defendants eventually numbered in the teens. And, on the eve of the trial, the number of enslaved people at issue had increased to well over 400 persons.

The Chancery Case

On March 16, 1798, Chancellor George Wythe issued an injunction ordering the defendants not to take their enslaved individuals out of the state pending resolution of the case. On September 12, Wythe ruled in favor of Robert Pleasants and the enslaved people included in the will. Wythe held that Robert Pleasants had standing, meaning he was entitled by law to bring a lawsuit against the defendants. The slaveholding members of the Pleasants family had argued that Robert Pleasants did not have standing to sue because he was not a beneficiary of the freedom provision nor had he suffered any damage as a result of the family’s refusal to emancipate. Moreover, the administration of both wills had concluded when all relevant property had been distributed. Pleasants and Marshall contended that the will essentially had created a trust, with Robert Pleasants as the trustee and the enslaved as beneficiaries. Wythe agreed that Pleasants was the de facto trustee and as such was legally empowered to sue in order to deliver freedom, the gift promised to the beneficiaries, and thus he had standing, as well as perhaps a fiduciary duty, to sue on their behalf.

The defendants responded that when the wills were probated in 1771 and 1777 it was illegal to manumit an enslaved person and so the decedents could not pass down the power to manumit because it was an illegal action at the time. Wythe noted, in response, that there is a distinct difference between a will requiring an unlawful malicious act in the present and one requiring a benevolent act when it becomes legal in the future. Wythe’s antipathy to slavery was well-known. From his perspective, manumission was the removal of a legal disability, a servile status assigned by statute, which was unjustified in natural law. There could be no question in Wythe’s mind that manumission was an act of admirable benevolence. In addition, Wythe noted that the manumission act had passed within a reasonable amount of time and so discussions of whether an act would pass or not were moot.

Wythe also noted that the Manumission Act of 1782 expressly stated it was designed to empower enslavers who wished to free their enslaved persons, so it should be read liberally. He also dismissed the defendants’ claim that the freedom provisions violated the rule against perpetuities because there was no way to say for certain that the legislature would ever pass a manumission act at the time the wills went into effect, saying the rule was designed for landed estates, not gifts of human liberty.

Wythe then went a step further and decided that the formerly enslaved were due recompense, reparations as it were, for the long period of illegal enslavement they had suffered. In Wythe’s mind, they were due back wages for the labor that was taken from them. The order for restitution was nothing short of revolutionary: If a person were enslaved illegally, the putative enslaver would be responsible for compensating the wrongfully enslaved.

The Appeal

On September 26, 1798, Charles Logan and members of the Pleasants family filed an appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The defendants retained Edmund Randolph and John Wickham, two of the best litigators in Virginia. Representing Pleasants and the enslaved were Marshall and John “Old Jock” Warden, who had been assigned as counsel to Ned, one of the enslaved people who claimed a right to freedom. Ned had filed a freedom suit under a 1795 law that allowed enslaved persons to plead a claim to freedom before a judge. Because the two cases involved the same set of facts and law, Ned’s case had been joined with the Pleasants case.

Wickham and Randolph tried to shift the frame of analysis by claiming that the case should not have been heard in the Court of Chancery. They argued that as the case concerned a transfer of property, not a matter of equity, it should have been heard in a common law court. This was important because equity jurisprudence was guided more by considerations of justice than strict adherence to formal rules. Marshall asserted that as the case dealt with human freedom, a court of equity was the proper venue.

Wickham and Randolph also argued that property was co-equal in consideration to liberty and that the appellants would have their property rights violated if Wythe’s judgment was allowed to stand and the rule against perpetuities was not applied, warning that land titles and property would be unsettled throughout the state.

On May 6, 1799, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Pleasants and the formerly enslaved of the Pleasants family. Wythe was upheld on the point that the will had created a benevolent quasi-trust and Pleasants was the effective executor and the enslaved were the beneficiaries. And since freedom was the gift bestowed and freedom can only exist during the life of the beneficiary, the court found there was no perpetuities problem. As a result of the ruling, 185 of the formerly enslaved were freed immediately. Another 246 would be freed when they turned thirty years of age; the court likened them to indentured servants under a contract for labor. But the court unanimously struck down Wythe’s order for restitution.

In terms of jurisprudence, the Pleasants decision was only utilized as direct precedent in a limited number of subsequent cases due to its unique set of facts. But the Pleasants decision is important because it provides insight into how the law of estates, and more broadly the common law itself, was creatively adjusted to meet the demands of slavery while maintaining some degree of deference to the ideology of the American Revolution. The case reflected how the enslaved were positioned on a continuum between property and personhood, inflected by race, depending on the circumstances. The enslaved were treated as beneficiaries (i.e., people) in terms of standing, the creation of the trust for their benefit, and the measuring lives when considering the rule against perpetuities, but they were denied compensation for their lost profits. Pleasants demonstrates that hostility to reparations for enslavement is deeply embedded in American history.

The Legacy of Pleasants

The real legacy of the case was the people who were freed by the decision, such as Mourning Logan of Chesterfield County. Starting her free life as a tenant farmer, Logan eventually became a landholder of forty-two acres. When she died in 1832, she left the land to her grandchildren. Even those individuals not immediately freed took solace in knowing that there was a definite date when their servitude would end. Enslavers complained that people holding a future right to freedom became ungovernable and that the people freed by the Pleasants decision provided aid and refuge to their relations not covered by the will. Fanny, a young woman born in 1792 but not scheduled for manumission until 1822, ran away from her enslaver, Sammy Pleasants, in 1809; Pleasants believed she was hiding with relatives freed by the decision.

Some of the people freed by the decision remained in the area around Curles Neck. Robert Pleasants had ceded a 350-acre property called Gravelly Hills for use by those formerly enslaved by the family. When he died in 1801, he left the property along with a schoolhouse he had built there for their use and education. The school continued to operate until the 1820s, but eventually the emigration of antislavery Quakers out of Virginia left it without white patronage, and no mention of the school is found after 1824. The surname Pleasants, however, reappears in county tax lists, manumission deeds, and registries for free Blacks. Manumissions stemming from the Pleasants decision were still being recorded just prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865). Peter Campbell, for example, turned thirty years old in 1858 and was subsequently emancipated and registered as a free person nearly sixty-one years after the ruling.

August 11, 1771
John Pleasants III, of Curles Neck plantation in Henrico County, signs his last will and testament.
August 13, 1771
John Pleasants III, of Curles Neck plantation in Henrico County, dies. His will provides for the manumission of his slaves at such time as the law allows it.
May 11, 1776
Jonathan Pleasants, the son of John Pleasants III, signs his will. As his father did, he provides for the manumission of his slaves at such time as the law allows it.
July 1779
Mary Pleasants marries Charles Logan, in Philadelphia. On the day of the marriage, Logan creates a document that calls for the manumission of Mary Pleasants's slaves, who still live in Virginia under the supervision of her brother Robert Pleasants.
November 29, 1780
Robert Pleasants and other Virginia Quakers petition the House of Delegates to repeal a 1748 law that bans the general manumission of slaves.
May 1782
The General Assembly passes "An act to authorize the manumission of slaves," which is seen as a victory for antislavery activists.
November 4, 1782
Robert Pleasants records a deed of emancipation in Henrico County Court for seventy-eight slaves.
May 23, 1783
Brothers Robert Pleasants and Samuel Pleasants Sr. sign a deed of emancipation for twelve slaves.
May 3, 1784
A deed of emancipation for twelve slaves, signed by the brothers Robert Pleasants and Samuel Pleasants Sr., is recorded in Henrico County Court.
September 8, 1790
Robert Pleasants announces in the Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser that he intends to petition General Assembly to confirm his father's and brother's wills, which call for the emancipation of their slaves.
November 20, 1790
Charles Logan and Samuel Pleasants Jr. submit a memorial to the General Assembly urging members not to act on Robert Pleasants's petition to confirm the wills of family members freeing their slaves.
March 16, 1798
The High Court of Chancery issues an injunction that orders Charles Logan and Samuel Pleasants Jr. not to take their slaves out of Virginia pending a suit for their freedom.
September 12, 1798
Chancellor George Wythe rules in Pleasants v. Logan that all Pleasants family slaves thirty or older in 1782 were entitled to their freedom.
September 26, 1798
Charles Logan and members of the Pleasants family appeal the decision in Pleasants v. Logan.
Early November 1798
The case of Pleasants et al. v. Pleasants is heard by Virginia's Court of Appeals.
May 6, 1799
In Pleasants v. Pleasants, the Virginia Court of Appeals rules in favor of Robert Pleasants, who is attempting to manumit the family slaves according to his late father's wishes.
April 4, 1801
Robert Pleasants dies at his estate at his Henrico County plantation.
January 25, 1806
The General Assembly passes "An ACT to amend the several laws concerning slaves," legislation that prohibits the importation of slaves to Virginia and forces all emancipated slaves to leave the state within twelve months.
  • Finkleman, Paul. ed., The Law of Freedom and Bondage: A Casebook. New York: Oceana Publications, 1986.
  • Hardin, William Fernandez. “‘This Unpleasant Business’: Slavery, Law, and the Pleasants Family in Post-Revolutionary Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 125, no. 3 (2017): 210–245.
  • Kettner, James H. “Persons or Property? The Pleasants Slaves in the Virginia Courts, 1792–1799.” In Launching the “Extended Republic”: The Federalist Era, edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, 136–155. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
  • Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Sheppard-Wolf, Eva Marie. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia fromthe Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2006.
APA Citation:
Hardin, William. Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799). (2023, June 06). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/pleasants-v-pleasants-1799.
MLA Citation:
Hardin, William. "Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (06 Jun. 2023). Web. 18 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 26
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