Carter was the grandson of, one of the richest and most powerful Virginians of his day. His inheritance included 65,000 acres of land, several hundred enslaved people, and the Westmoreland County mansion Nomony Hall. A longtime member of the , Carter retired in 1776 and soon after converted from the to the antislavery Baptist church. In 1788 he converted again, this time to the theology of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
During these years Carter’s antislavery feelings grew in intensity, although it is difficult to locate either their precise beginnings or cause. His association with the Baptists was likely important, as was his irritation with compromises the new U.S. government had made in order to protect slavery. The historian John Randolph Barden has suggested that Carter’s regular, sympathetic interactions with the enslaved community at Nomony also may have influenced his thinking. In 1788 Carter wrote a Baptist colleague in England that “tolerating Slavery indicates great depravity of mind.”
Carter’s turn against slavery came at a time when such sentiments were becoming more widespread in Virginia. In 1782, in what was seen as a victory for antislavery activists, the General Assembly passedThe new legislation allowed slaveholders to manumit, or free, their enslaved people without the governmental approval that had previously been required. The Quaker John Pleasants III, of Henrico County, had already written a will calling for the manumission of his enslaved population at such time as it became legal, and in 1782 his son began executing his wishes. Resistance to the will’s stipulations by some of Pleasants’s heirs led to (1799), in which the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of emancipating the enslaved people. Hundreds of African Americans were freed as a result.
In 1789, Carter privately proposed a gradual emancipation plan that would have freed all enslaved Virginians from 1782, the date Parliament conceded American independence. (Those enslaved people under thirty-five in that year would have been required to serve until they reached that age.) In 1790, the prominent Virginia landownerpublished in the Philadelphia journal American Museum, and in 1796 the jurist submitted to the General Assembly A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia . The assembly never acted on this or any other plan.
The manumission act caused the population of free Blacks in Virginia to rise sharply, from 3,000 in 1782 to 12,866 in 1790. This, in turn, likely caused some social turbulence. Petitions to the General Assembly session of 1784–1785 protested the law and its consequences, arguing that free Blacks helped enslaved African Americans to self-emancipate or commit crimes, that Black freedom contradicted biblical teachings, and that the British were manipulating the situation to their advantage. Carter’s plan to free his own enslaved laborers was drafted in part out of frustration at the assembly’s unwillingness to consider general emancipation. But it also took into account these petitions’ proslavery views. It was crafted to follow the manumission law in every detail while avoiding any unnecessary offense against the sensibilities of Carter’s family and neighbors.
The Deed and Its Execution
Carter signed the Deed of Gift on August 1, 1791, and it was recorded on September 5 in Northumberland District Court, which covered Westmoreland and several adjacent counties. The document consists of several pages of names—452 in all—followed by a few paragraphs explaining Carter’s intentions. “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain [these people] in Slavery is contrary to the true principles of Religion & Justice,” Carter wrote, “and that therefore it was my duty to manumit them.”
The document divides the names into columns of men and women and includes each person’s age (in order from lowest to highest) and a Roman numeral indicating on which one of Carter’s eighteen landholdings he or she lived. Prior to drafting the deed, Carter had not kept written records of his ensalved peoples’ names or birth dates, forcing him to order that a census be conducted. It counted 455 enslaved men, women, and children aged forty-five years or younger as of January 1, 1791, but provided names for only 452. Of those, 148 were legal adults, or at least twenty-one years old for men and eighteen for women. Anyone over forty-five was considered elderly and not named in the deed.
Carter later told a friend that he intended the process to be gradual and “therefor less exceptionable than a sudden deliverance would have been.” The plan he devised and explained in the deed stayed true to that intention; it would take more than three decades to complete. According to the document, fifteen adults, “beginning at the oldest & descending according to their age,” were to be freed on January 2, 1792. Another fifteen were to be freed on January 1, 1793, “and so annually in every year” until 1801, when all 148 would have been freed. As for those enslaved people named in the deed who were not yet adults, they would be freed when they had reached the proper age. Carter also took into account the fact that during the intervening years babies would be born to still-enslaved mothers. They too were to be freed, but only upon reaching adulthood. Men and women over the age of forty-five would be allowed to claim land at Nomony on which to independently farm for the remainder of their lives. When they died, the land would revert to Carter.
Carter’s plan did violence to the families of many enslaved men and women. The terms of the deed may have freed a father and mother years apart and their children perhaps decades after that. Carter was restrained by his desire to move slowly but also by the dictates of the manumission act. It required that any freed slave either not accounted a legal adult or older than forty-five years old “shall respectively be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them, or by his or her estate.” Carter had no choice but to support the elderly—free or not free—but he could profit by the young ones’ labor if he waited to free them until they had reached adulthood. On only one occasion did he make an exception, in 1793 manumitting five women whose husbands had already been freed. Carter considered deeding to freedpeople their family members, which would have made the freedpeople enslavers themselves, but he decided that this was not legal. He did, however, permit freed men and women toof their family members if they wished.
The manumission act also required each slave to appear in court and to pay a fee of five shillings for his or her certificate of emancipation. Carter worried over details such as whether all of his enslaved people were required to appear in Westmoreland County Court or whether those living as far away as Frederick County could appear in that county’s court. After consulting his lawyer, he decided they must travel to Westmoreland. Enslaved people borrowed transportation and court costs from Carter, but there is some evidence to suggest he made no serious effort at collecting the debts.
As he worked to organize the logistics of emancipation, Carter immediately fell behind his proposed schedule. On February 28, 1792, or nearly two months late, the first group of enslaved African Americans appeared in Westmoreland County Court. But rather than fifteen, there were twenty-nine. Other groups appeared before the court on April 24 and May 29. On January 1, 1793, twenty-seven adults and thirty elderly men and women received their freedom from Carter. With just a few interruptions this process would continue—for the original 452, for their children, and for their parents and grandparents—for at least another thirty-three years.
Black Impatience and White Backlash
African American oral tradition tells how Robert Carter constructed a grand pulpit on the lawn of Nomony Hall and, after gathering his hundreds of enslaved people, dramatically announced their freedom. The scholar Andrew Levy has argued that this is likely untrue, “that most of the slaves scheduled to be liberated did not even know.” Word eventually spread, however, as Carter offered some skilled enslaved laborers wage contracts and land leases ahead of their court dates. He also arranged for all soon-to-be-freed enslaved people to choose their own first and last names. Many in the Nomony Hall enslaved community already used surnames, sometimes associated with places where their ancestors had first labored after surviving the. The historian John Barden has noted that of the fifty-six different family names to enter the records from the Deed of Gift, not one of them was Carter.
In the meantime, many African Americans were forced to wait years for their freedom and as a result became impatient. In 1792 two enslaved men, Samuel and John, fled from Carter’s Sagittarius Plantation in Frederick County to Nomony Hall, where they pleaded for their immediate freedom. Carter denied their request but asked the Sagittarius plantation manager, Littlebury Apperson, to show them leniency. Apperson replied that Carter’s enslaved laborers had become uneasy and “flushed with notions of freedom.”
About the same time, George Newman attempted to fool the enslaved people under his control at the Taurus Plantation, in Westmoreland County, by circulating word that the court would not hear emancipation requests in its May 1792 session. Carter heard of this attempt at deception and quashed it. Already planning the return of the self-emancipated Samuel and John to Sagittarius, he sent them off unaccompanied,, and with instructions to stop at Taurus and deliver a letter of rebuke to Newman. Should he not receive it, Carter sent a separate letter via the post.
Carter was in the habit of renting his land to his former enslaved laborers, and another of his property managers wrote to say that this practice “gave considerable dissatisfaction to the other [tenants] and Neighbors around.” One of those neighbors mailed Carter an anonymous letter, postmarked August 5, 1796, in Frederick County. In it, he accused the local free Blacks of plunder, carrying false emancipation certificates, avoiding taxes, and “disquieting” the minds of those still in bondage. No evidence independent of this letter corroborates these accusations, although there is evidence that former Carter enslaved people were the victims of assault, kidnappings, false imprisonment, and, in one case, even impressment by the British Navy. Carter, meanwhile, believed the anonymous letter’s author to have been the Reverend Charles Mynn Thruston, to whom Carter had refused to rent one of his Frederick County plantations in 1791. He later recalled explaining to Thruston that his “present wish is to accommodate the Poor.”
These relatively small and local disputes notwithstanding, the Commonwealth of Virginia took little notice of Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift. A short item appeared in the September 28, 1791, issue of the Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser, a newspaper published in Richmond. Otherwise, there was little or no statewide response.
Benjamin Dawson and the Carter Family
In February 1786, Carter dispatched his youngest sons—John Tasker Carter, aged thirteen, and George Carter, aged nine—to the College of Rhode Island (later Brown University) in part so they could escape the influence of slavery in Virginia. He barred them from returning until they were adults, even on the occasion, in 1787, of their mother’s death. By the spring of 1793, it was Robert Carter himself who wanted to flee Virginia. On April 26 he leased Nomony Hall to John Tasker Carter but, in a sign that he did not trust his son’s views on slavery, placed control of the enslaved populations and their continued manumission into the hands of the Baptist minister Benjamin Dawson. Then, on May 8, Robert Carter sailed for Baltimore.
Carter’s absence from Virginia complicated the manumission process. His signature on various documents now required two witnesses who then had to appear in court. As a result, the manumissions scheduled for January 1794 were delayed until June 24. In the meantime, Carter’s sons and sons-in-law generally resisted the process and, in particular, Dawson’s role in it. Early on, John Tasker Carter hadany of his inherited enslaved people to a place “where they will never hear talk of Freedom.” Carter’s sons-in-law resented the fact that they had been given little control over their inherited estates—Carter had stipulated that the manumissions of inherited enslaved people must continue—and one of them, Spencer Ball, even physically attacked Dawson.
Dawson had a reputation for being unreliable with other people’s money, but Carter understood that he also hated slavery. In 1796, he appointed Dawson “my true & lawful Attorney” and two years later deeded the remainder of his enslaved people, still numbering in the hundreds, to the minister, thus making their eventual emancipation much simpler. Dawson later disappeared for periods of time, forcing Carter to revoke his power of attorney in 1801, but Dawson also continued to free the former Carter enslaved people. Court records show him still at it as late as 1826.
Carter’s death, in 1804, provoked a lawsuit from his heirs in an attempt to halt the manumissions. They filed an injunction in Frederick County Court citing Dawson’s debts to Robert Carter as leverage against the remaining enslaved people. The court accepted the argument—one of the justices happened to be Carter’s old nemesis, Charles Mynn Thruston—but on March 24, 1808, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dawson. The freeing of Carter’s enslaved populations was allowed to continue, even after his death, even after they were no longer a part of his estate. According to the historian John Barden, about 280 manumissions can be confirmed through extant court records. The total number, however, is likely much higher—perhaps between 500 and 600 men, women, and children.
In The First Emancipator (2005), Andrew Levy contrasts Robert Carter III and the more famous and more revered. Carter was sullen, antisocial, and not given to florid self-expression, but he accomplished something Jefferson never did: the freedom of his enslaved populations. “Carter is the anti-Jefferson,” Levy writes. While Jefferson possessed “the vision and clarity to make his love of freedom eloquent,” only Carter had the will to put his principles into actions. Carter’s Deed of Gift, meanwhile, “is the anti–Declaration of Independence, a document that makes liberty look dull but which is so absent of loopholes and contradictions that no result but liberty could prevail.”
Carter tended to recoil from posterity. He was not a writer or a builder or a self-promoter. He asked to be buried in an unmarked grave. Perhaps as a result, his Deed of Gift, little noted in his own lifetime, has been largely forgotten. In his survey of histories published from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, Levy found just a handful of pages devoted to the manumissions. “Carter is wiped clean,” he writes, “like one of Stalin’s commissars fallen from grace.” Prior to Levy’s own book, only John Randolph Barden’s unpublished dissertation, submitted to Duke University in 1993, treated the subject in depth.
Carter’s contemporaries may have wanted to avoid giving attention to behavior that shamed them. Men such as Jefferson often argued that freeing their enslaved people was a practical impossibility. Their debts prevented it, they said, as did the social challenges faced by whites and free Blacks living side-by-side. They suggested that generations of enslavement, not to mention a natural inferiority, had made African Americans unsuitable for American life. Many of these same arguments were made by proslavery thinkers, too, and the relative non-event of Carter’s Deed of Gift may have suggested that their concerns were overblown or even unfounded.
It is more difficult to explain why Carter has been ignored by more recent scholarship and public history. This may be changing, however. At time of the publication of Levy’s book, ain Virginia described Carter as “celebrated” but did not explain why or mention the Deed of Gift. In 2016, perhaps in response to Levy’s scholarship, the Department of Historic Resources placed a new marker in Northumberland County dedicated entirely to the manumissions.