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Robert Carter III, you may ask? Who in the world was he and why should we care?

Well, I’ll tell you why we should: February is black history month, the month in which we should all reflect on the contributions that black Americans have made to this nation of ours and on the suffering our black brothers and sisters have endured. Robert Carter III is part of that history, for by his Deed of Gift in 1791, Carter--the richest man in the Colony of Virginia--made clear his intention to free more than 450 slaves, more than the total number of slaves owned by his neighbors George Washington and Thomas Jefferson combined.

In my own case, I’d never heard of him until I encountered a copy of The First Emancipator in the gift shop of the Carriage House at Oatlands Plantation in the summer of 2007. Oatlands Plantation, built by Robert Carter III's uncle, George Carter, is a National Historic Trust Landmark, nestled in the rolling hills of Leesburg, Virginia, near Goose Creek.


 photo Oatlands_Mansion_zpsb6ff12c1.jpg

 Every time I visit it, which I do several times a year, I feel soothed by the peace of the beautiful Greek Revival mansion surrounded by acres of well-tended gardens and green meadows. Entering the long graveled driveway that leads from the entrance gates to the mansion, one can see horses grazing in the paddock to the left of the carriage drive and views of distant hills on the right.

When I realized The First Emancipator, by Andrew Levy, was about a member of the Carter family, I was intrigued enough to buy the book.


 photo BetterRobert_zpse0b3eb3a.jpg


It will not violate the Fair Use law if I quote just one paragraph of the book jacket blurb:
Robert Carter III, the grandson of Tidewater legend Robert “King” Carter, was born into the highest circles of Virginia’s Colonial aristocracy.  He was neighbor and kin to the Washingtons and Lees and a friend and peer to Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. But on September 5, 1791, Carter severed his ties with this glamorous elite at the stroke of a pen.  In a document he called his Deed of Gift, Carter declared his intent to set free nearly five hundred slaves in the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Levy, as a young man Carter went to England to complete his education and while there became a Baptist. After returning to Virginia he became more and more convinced that slavery was wrong. Although an extremely rich man, he did not make his mark on society: unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, he was not a good writer, and unlike them, he could not win election to the House of Burgesses, which at the time offered the most certain path to political power and prominence.

Carter’s tortured Christian soul led to his decision to set his slaves free in graduated “waves.” Groups were freed as soon as he estimated they could earn a living in the non-plantation economy of the times. By the time he’d freed all of them, he was so wildly unpopular with his fellow plantation owners that his life was in danger. To avoid being shot, he sailed to Baltimore in 1793, there to live with one of his daughters until he died in 1804.

Earlier in this diary I spoke of the beauty of Oatlands, of the soothing quality it always exerts on my soul when I visit the place. After reading Kossack Denise Oliver Velez’s groundbreaking diary, “George Washington is Not My ‘Great White Father,’” I am ashamed to say that my view of Oatlands has been that of a privileged white person. Although I sometimes thought of the people who worked on the plantation in its heyday, I didn’t think of the slaves who labored in the blistering Virginia summers and bitter winds of winter to build the place, brick by brick, and tend the grounds. And although I sometimes did pause to think of the house slaves gliding through the shadows to tend to the needs of their white masters, I didn’t stop to think long and hard of the many humiliations, privations, and beatings they endured. For that, I profoundly apologize.

In 2004 the descendant of a slave who had worked at Oatlands Plantation before the Civil War was married at Oatlands. (The property is now used as a venue for weddings, art shows, point-to-point races, and other social events.) As described in the Washington Post story here, his feelings about the place were very different from my own:

Initially, John Buchanan was extremely reluctant to get married at a place associated with slavery. He had been to Oatlands for two family reunions but remained on the grounds, under a tent, far from the mansion.

"It was really emotional. It really affected me. The first time I went out there, I didn't want to leave the parking lot," Buchanan said. "Hearing stories of the rich owners and the people who had slaves there -- it's difficult. I wasn't really comfortable until Lauren and I took the tour there."

To Mr. Buchanan, Oatlands was not a place of beauty but a symbol of oppression—just as, in the eyes of Native Americans, the holiday we call “Columbus Day” is nothing to celebrate.

Modern apologists for our Founding Fathers have explained the discrepancy between what they wrote and what they did by saying they were “the product of their times,” and that although they may personally have abhorred slavery, they could do nothing about it. Freeing the slaves would have been too difficult; it simply couldn’t be done. But Robert Carter III, the First Emancipator, proved that it could be done and it was.

And for that we should accord him his rightful place in American history.

Originally posted to Diana in NoVa on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 09:00 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Street Prophets , Black Kos community, and Barriers and Bridges.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Republished with pleasure (8+ / 0-)

    This is going to be added to my US to 1865 courses this semester and henceforth. Thank you SO much, Diana.

  •  Thanks for filling in (5+ / 0-)

    some of history's blank spaces.

  •  That his life was threatened perhaps shows how (4+ / 0-)

    others were discouraged from practicing emancipation as had been somewhat expected of that generation. The militia culture of suppression of revolts apparently won out over the founders' anticipation of a gradual transition to free labor. Southern abolitionist societies, at one time far more plentiful than in the North, were persecuted after the cotton gin took over. Poor Southern whites weren't necessarily defenders of slavery or the Confederacy, like in West Virginia or East Tennessee. 300,000 Southern Whites fought for the Union in addition to attacking the Confederacy through guerilla war inside the South. 200,000 freedmen fought for the North. Without the Southern troops and the internal civil war within the Confederacy, the Union likely would have lost the war. It did eventually lose in a series of military defeats suffered by Grant in 1874-5 and a Congress unwilling to fight the terrorist militias. Recent moral marches in North Carolina suggest the potential of popular resistance to the police states of the South.

    •  Thanks, Musial, yes, I'm sure that abolitionist (5+ / 0-)

      sentiments were discouraged in the South. In fact, Levy even states at one point in the book that by 1815 resistance to emancipating the slaves was much more entrenched than in 1790.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 11:01:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I recall that (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Diana in NoVa, RiveroftheWest

        Virginia passed a law in that interim period requiring free blacks to leave the state within a year if they couldn't prove they'd been free before the end of 1806. Virginia seemed to wish to avoid, at all costs, having a large free black population. I can imagine there was pressure not to emancipate.

        “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

        by fenway49 on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 01:07:20 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Good comment, fenway (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest

          Thanks for reading.

          "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

          by Diana in NoVa on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 02:24:59 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  In the Special Collections of the Library of VA (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Diana in NoVa, Musial, RiveroftheWest

          there are folders of "freed papers" that free blacks had to carry on their persons at all time.  The papers listed name, age, birth place of the bearer, as well as a description and distinguishing birthmarks or scars on hands, arms and face, and was signed by an officer of the court from the county the free person was born in, or the man who freed the person from slavery.  

          There are also letters of inquiry and petitions filed on behalf of free men and women whose papers had been confiscated by individuals.  Without the physical possession of those papers, the individuals were subject to arrest and, after a short interval and cursory inquiry, resale by County government.  The county govts. in Virginia would profit from the capture and sale of free black men and women, so it's not a big surprise that the inquiries were routinely cursory at best.

          "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

          by DrLori on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 02:55:50 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Maya Angelou once said that courage is the most (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Diana in NoVa, RiveroftheWest

    important virtue because without it you cannot practice any other virtures consistently. Carter had courage.

    Tipped and rec'ed--and well deserved. Thanks for shining the light on another small but important piece of our history.

  •  I think there may be some confusion. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest

    According to my memory, George Carter built Oatlands.  The house was built at the end of the 18th century and by then Robert Carter III was an old man living in Baltimore, MD.  Before that, he'd lived in Westmoreland County on the Chesapeake, but fled to Baltimore when violence and death threats from other slave owners made his position untenable.  He'd managed shunning from Virginia society, but when they started burning houses, things got too dangerous.

    I would never had known enough to question your source but that a friend of mine is descended from a man whom Robert Carter freed.  He called himself "Newman" because freedom had made him "a new man."  

    "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

    by DrLori on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 02:48:08 PM PST

    •  Lorikeet, George Carter did build Oatlands (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DrLori

      George spent a good bit of his life looking after his numerous brothers and sisters, of whom Robert Carter II was one. So Robert Carter III was his nephew. George married for the first and only time at age 59 to a very nice widow from Lenah, Virginia. They had four children, of whom two survived to adulthood.

      Robert Carter III died in 1804, the year his  uncle George built Oatlands. George was, I believe, the youngest of the 12 children of Robert "King" Carter. That's probably why the dates seem so confusing.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 03:26:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Sorry, DrLori, in my haste I called you "Lorikeet" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      instead of DrLori!  Sometimes my flying fingers race ahead of my brain! Please accept my apologies.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 03:30:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  No harm, no foul (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest

        If you'll forgive me for forgetting the part of your diary that doesn't directly connect Robert Carter with Oatlands.  My mistake, and my apologies.

        "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

        by DrLori on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 03:37:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  This helps illustrate the difficulty of slave (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DrLori

      owners who believed in freeing their slaves. Even a very rich, well-connected man had to proceed with caution, fearing not just ostracization by his neighbors, but having his family home burnt and being threatened with death. Carter left his home forever to escape being killed.

      It took a great courage for Robert Carter III to follow through with the emancipation of his slaves. Those who ignore the context of the times in which these men lived, and the risks to themselves and their families, ignore the fact that their actions risked not just sacrificing luxuries and high social position but possibly their very lives.

  •  Minor quibble (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest

    Carter, Washington, and Jefferson weren't neighbors. They lived in different counties. Oatlands is in Loudon County, almost 50 miles from Mount Vernon, which is in Fairfax County. And Monticello is in Albemarle County, about a hundred miles from either.

    All three counties voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

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