Robert Carter III of Virginia stands as the personification of the inconvenient truth that emancipation, even on a large scale, was entirely feasible in the United States, at least at the turn of the nineteenth century.

“It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.” —Tacitus

After reading Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator, the story of Virginia aristocrat Robert Carter III (not to be confused with his grandfather, Robert “King” Carter), I can no longer blithely make excuses for slaveowning Founding Fathers who refused to free their slaves. Motivated by the egalitarianism of his religious beliefs—a combination of Baptist and Swedenborgian theology—Carter in 1791 quietly issued his “Deed of Gift,” which provided for the gradual emancipation of his 452 slaves. Though there were many smaller individual emancipations in the United States both before and after, the scale of Carter’s act was without precedent and was not imitated by his more renowned peers.

Unlike these Founders who sought secular immortality in everlasting fame among later generations, Carter wanted to be forgotten. He mandated that his grave be unmarked (it remains so), and his great act of emancipation was unaccompanied by the sort of flowery rhetoric meant to preserve his name to posterity.

Levy’s telling of Carter’s story is exemplary, but Levy’s provocative conclusions about why Carter has been forgotten by history are the high point of the book. Carter’s act of emancipation—the largest prior to the Civil War—“undermine[s] both Southern claims that emancipation was impossible and Northern claims that emancipation was something that only Northern morality and Northern will could make happen, through persuasion or by force” (p. 183).

Of course, it is the Northern/Nationalist interpretation that rules the history books these days, and Levy is keen on giving the lie to the old tale that the North had a monopoly on morality when it came to slavery. Along with Carter’s grand emancipation, countless other small ones by Southern slaveowners have been swept into the dustbin of history, and the circumstances of their acts of benevolence differ in two important ways from those of Northern slaveowners. “Between 1782 and 1861,” Levy points out, “white men and women in the state of Virginia freed more than one hundred thousand slaves without compensation, and without the support of a public consensus that showed much patience for their efforts. During that same time period, gradual emancipation legislation throughout the Northern states liberated approximately only sixty thousand slaves, providing in most cases financial compensation (as well as political cover) to the masters” (p. 183).

Robert Carter, then, stands as the personification of the inconvenient truth that emancipation, even on a large scale, was entirely feasible in the United States, at least at the turn of the nineteenth century. In this way, his life serves as an indictment of the civic gods of America—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee—who did not free their slaves during their lifetimes. The inevitable conclusion is these revered slaveowning Founders, all of whom spoke out against slavery, were at least one of the following: (1) disingenuous, voicing antislavery sentiments simply to conform to Enlightened public opinion; (2) avaricious, privately rejecting the idea of surrendering the wealth represented by their slaves; (3) cowardly, wanting to do the right thing but too fearful of white backlash; (4) conflicted, lying to themselves about the practicality of emancipation as a way to soothe their consciences.

Whatever the case, these Founders often made excuses to themselves and others about why emancipation of their own slaves was unworkable. As Levy shows, modern-day scholars like Joseph Ellis and Douglas Freeman have followed suit, shrugging their shoulders and lamely asserting that the Jeffersons and Washingtons simply could not find a way to liberate their slaves in their lifetimes.

In judging the slaveowning Founders, we can certainly make distinctions. Washington, for instance, at least freed his slaves in his will. But what do we make of those Founders—Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry among them—who denounced slavery as evil but who never took steps to liberate their own human chattel (Henry even admitted that he was unwilling to endure “the general inconvenience” to his way of life that emancipation would entail). Are these men hypocrites, or do they earn points for at least saying the right thing?

Consider, in particular, the two Founders who are usually championed as the leading defenders of American liberty under the Constitution, those celebrated authors of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Thomas Jefferson may have trembled for his country when thinking about slavery and God’s justice, but he thought blacks to be hopelessly inferior to whites and never gave a serious thought to freeing his slaves. James Madison may have railed against the slave trade at the Philadelphia Convention, but the dour hypochondriac cold-heartedly sold his longtime manservant Billey to a Quaker before leaving Philadelphia, fearful that the newly uppity slave had been infected in the North by the contagion of liberty, which he might spread to Madison’s other slaves back in Virginia.

Unlike many of the revered heroes of the American Founding, Robert Carter was willing to reconcile word and deed and to bear the social and economic costs of his actions. Suffering the derision of his white neighbors after the Deed of Gift became a reality, he moved from his Virginia plantation to Baltimore, lamenting that “my plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world.”

As Levy shows, Carter’s story has been no more pleasing to latter-day Americans, who revel in the sophistication of a mythos in which America is eternally and internally conflicted by race and who are loathe to admit that on the issue of slavery there was a simple, open path rejected by our Founders.

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Note: The First Emancipator was originally published by Random House in 2005 with the subtitle, The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. It was reissued in paperback in 2007 with the subtitle, Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter.

The featured image is “Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall, 1753,” an oil on canvas by Thomas Hudson (1701–1779). It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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