Saturday, August 15, 2009

"I confirm all the directions in my will respecting my slaves"

I was generally aware that John Randolph of Roanoke had manumitted his slaves (this list suggests almost 400) in his will and also provided that land be purchased for them; that after Randolph’s death in 1833 the will was contested for years (I believe a brother maintained that Randolph had been insane); and that in 1846, after the contest was resolved, the former slaves were transported to Ohio.

In Famous Americans of Recent Times (1867), however, James Parton provides further details of Randolph’s determination on his deathbed to insure that his wishes were carried out. I cannot vouch for the story Parton tells; but even if it is a fable, it is well worth retelling, for it captures perfectly the stubborn determination of that strangely admirable man. I have added additional paragraph breaks for readability:
The last act of John Randolph's life, done when he lay dying at a hotel in Philadelphia, in June, 1833, was to express once more his sense of this blighting system. Some years before, he had made a will by which all his slaves were to be freed at his death. He would probably have given them their freedom before his death, but for the fact, too evident, that freedom to a black man in a Slave State was not a boon. The slaves freed by his brother, forty years before, had not done well, because (as he supposed) no land had been bequeathed for their support. Accordingly, he left directions in his will that a tract of land, which might be of four thousand acres, should be set apart for the maintenance of his slaves, and that they should be transported to it and established upon it at the expense of his estate. "I give my slaves their freedom," said he in his will, "to which my conscience tells me they are justly entitled."

On the last day of his life, surrounded by strangers, and attended by two of his old servants, his chief concern was to make distinctly known to as many persons as possible that it was really his will that his slaves should be free. Knowing, as he did, the aversion which his fellow-citizens had to the emancipation of slaves, and even to the presence in the State of free blacks, he seemed desirous of taking away every pretext for breaking his will. A few hours before his death, he said to the physician in attendance: "I confirm every disposition in my will, especially that concerning my slaves whom I have manumitted, and for whom I have made provision."

The doctor, soon after, took leave of him, and was about to depart. "You must not go," said he, "you cannot, you shall not leave me." He told his servant not to let the doctor go, and the man immediately locked the door and put the key in his pocket. The doctor remonstrating, Mr. Randolph explained, that, by the laws of Virginia, in order to manumit slaves by will, it was requisite that the master should declare his will in that particular in the presence of a white witness, who, after hearing the declaration, must never lose sight of the party until he is dead.

The doctor consented, at length, to remain, but urged that more witnesses should be sent for. This was done. At ten in the morning, four gentlemen were ranged in a semicircle round his bed. He was propped up almost in a sitting posture, and a blanket was wrapped round his head and shoulders. His face was yellow, and extremely emaciated; he was very weak, and it required all the remaining energy of his mind to endure the exertion he was about to make. It was evident to all present that his whole soul was in the act, and his eye gathered fire as he performed it. Pointing toward the witnesses with that gesture which for so many years had been familiar to the House of Representatives, he said, slowly and distinctly: "I confirm all the directions in my will respecting my slaves, and direct them to be enforced, particularly in regard to a provision for their support." Then, raising his hand and placing it upon the shoulder of his servant, he added, "Especially for this man."

Having performed this act, his mind appeared relieved, but his strength immediately left him, and in two hours he breathed his last.

The illustration of Randolph at the top is taken from the site of the Virginia Historical Society, which asserts that "This 1829 watercolor of Randolph, by Arthur J. Stansbury, was said by a contemporary to be 'an accurate and by no means caricatured or exaggerated representation of his singular personal appearance.'"

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