This Day (Shh, Don't Tell Anyone Edition)

On this day in 1791, Robert Carter Jr. Jr.—two generations removed from the King, and perhaps a little flightier than most (I mean, c’mon, look at the guy)—executed a deed of emancipation for more than 500 of his enslaved African Americans. It was probably the largest emancipation by an individual person in the United States before 1860.
Which is why, of course, he’s so famous. Oh wait. From Andrew Levy’s excellent book The First Emancipator (2005):

The longest description of Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift ever published [before Levy’s] is eighteen pages long (and insists on its failure). The total number of published pages devoted to Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift—including school newspapers, children’s books local to the Northern Neck, and history journals also local to the Northern Neck, as well as notices in major American newspapers and glancing references in scholarship published in national venues—is fewer than one hundred.

It’s worse than that, though.

From late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century histories of Virginia and the South, Carter is wiped clean, like one of Stalin’s commissars fallen from grace: Philip Alexander Bruce’s Virginia Plutarch and Matthew Page Andrews’s Virginia: The Old Dominion combined mention every famous Virginian from Powhatan to George Rogers Clark, mention Robert Carter I and Robert Carter II, mention Robert Carter III’s uncles and cousins (the famous ones and reprobates both), but don’t mention Robert Carter III once. Religious historians of early America, when they mention Carter [who was notorious in his time for his religious dissent], do so with no small sneer …

Levy notes that a roadside marker is devoted to Jr. Jr. but, rather than mention the Deed of Gift, simply, and vaguely, describes him as “liberal.” Meanwhile, historians like Douglas Southall Freeman wrote about how George Washington would have freed his slaves in his lifetime had it only been practical, had there been some means to do so.
Except that Robert Carter III, grandson to one of the biggest slave owners in colonial Virginiaproved there was a way.
If only we could remember who he was. And what he did.
A version of this post was originally published on August 1, 2011.
IMAGE: Robert Carter III by Thomas Hudson (Virginia Historical Society)


6 thoughts

  1. Andrew Levy is right — all the emancipators were scrubbed from the record. You would think that nobody in Virginia ever freed a slave. The notion that emancipation was a practical impossibility had to be maintained. I see you’ve just posted one of Edward Coles’s letters to Jefferson. Coles was another emancipator whose story has been buried.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Henry. We’ve now posted Coles’s letter to Jefferson, encouraging him to support gradual emancipation of slaves; Jefferson’s reply, in which he suggests that such a thing would not work; and Coles’s subsequent follow-up. They are a fascinating insight into the thinking of an idealist and a pragmatist where slavery was concerned.
    They will be linked to when we publish our Coles entry, which is coming soon. In the meantime, you can find the letters here:
    Coles to Jefferson, July 31, 1814:
    Jefferson to Coles, August 25, 1814:
    And Coles to Jefferson, September 26, 1814:

  3. I believe it was Robert Carter III who was known as the Great Emancipator. He was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter.

  4. The highway marker dates from 1948 and is designated J-72 “Nomini Hall.” The entirety of the text reads: “The house was built about 1730 and burned in 1850. It was not rebuilt. Only some poplar trees remain. A fine colonial mansion, it was the home of the celebrated “Councillor” Robert Carter. Philip Fithian, tutor at Nomini Hall, 1773-74, wrote his well-known “Journal” there.”


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