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 Virginia, proved 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)