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The First Emancipator

“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 (though some were apparently quite good in bed) 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 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.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Many thanks for this fascinating review. Reading how Madison sold his faithful manservant (to a Quaker no less!) invites either tears or gales of laughter – what a gallimaufry of scoundrels.

    A noble white South African once explained how apartheid worked. It was begun to stitch up the public sector to exclude blacks and protect what the post WW1 generation called 'the poor Boers,' meaning enormous, mouth-breathing morons (I have seen their descendants). I asked how anyone could live among multitudes of largely polite, decent black people and think that they were inferior. He explained that whites told one another that blacks were inferior, but "not like Danny the driver, Mary the maid, Carl the cook, Fanny the nanny, Thomas the tractor-mechanic" and so on listing 200 known black people while insisting that the multitudes were somehow different. I imagine that America's Founding Hypocrites did the same. Even that does not explain Madison's act of personal cruelty, or tens of thousands of similar events. On the bright side, perhaps the mortifying support for slavery makes a rare and cogent case for American exceptionalism.

    Stephen Masty

  2. Steve (K, I mean),
    Nice review of an important book. One of the early emancipators was of course John Dickinson. I have seen several citations that point out that JD had "only" 37 slaves (this put him in the top 15% of all slaveholders in the history of the institution) and that his farms weren't dependent on the "labor intensive" crop of tobacco (all agriculture in the 18th century was labor intensive), implying that it was somewhat easier for him to free his servants than it was for others. Actually, for JD it was a moral issue, as he explained in a 1794 letter to his daughter, partly due to the influence of his Quaker wife, but also due to the very arguments he had been making since 1765 or so. He put his plan into action shortly after writing the first draft of that marvelous constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and did it responsibly, by allowing his slaves the choice of immediate freedom or a gradual and staged movement into their ownership of a plot of land. Most apparently chose the latter, and JD's letters to Tench Coxe later show. Then, as now, the real conservatives understood moral problems better than the ideologues.

  3. Thanks much for this, John W. I have always admired John D., and his manumission certainly increases my respect for him. In my review, I did not intend to condemn the Founders in toto for their failure to free their slaves; in fact, I hold that generalizations about "the Founders" tend to detract from a nuanced understanding of these men. John D.'s story adds to the indictment of Jefferson, Madison, et al.

  4. Another thought in response to John Willson's comment: John, you mention how some historians have belittled the significance of Dickinson's act of emancipation. Andrew Levy points out that this has also been done in Carter's case, with some scholars making the same (weak) argument about the alleged low productivity of Carter's slaves. Yet Madison's sale of Billey upon the termination of the Constitutional Convention is often cast in the most positive light by scholars. After all, Madison devotees say, Pennsylvania's gradual emancipation law meant that Billey would become a free man seven years after Madison's sale of him to that Quaker. What magnaminity! What selflessness on the part of "The Father of the Constitution"! Madison, you see, was actually choosing a workable and humane way by which Billey could be freed. Or so these admirers of Little Jemmy would like us all to believe. Ignored is the possibility that Madison might have chosen to free Billey on the spot, thereby setting a glorious example for his fellow delegates as they returned home to push for the establishment of a new government and a new era of liberty in the history of the young nation. But, you see, freeing Billey would have hurt the cold, calculating Madison where it counted most: in his pocketbook.

    Why are the significance of Dickinson's and Carter's manumissions minimized while Madison's heartless and selfish act deemed worthy of praise? I suspect that it has to do with the fact that Madison, along with Jefferson and Washington and others, is enshrined in our civic pantheon, and we cannot allow the stories of "lesser" lights like Dickinson and Carter to detract from their greatness.

  5. This fine post gets ever better! Steve K reveals that the emancipator's detractors explain that he freed 'low-productivity' slaves. What a hoot! It's a pity that the World Bank was not around to do a bar-chart of slave productivity arriving at a median 'Emancipation Index' showing how diligent a slave must be in order to be kept in involuntary servitude. Oh, and to project its economic effect on human leasing-versus-purchase and the CPI (Cotton-Pickin' Index). How I hope that old connoisseur of poltroonery, Henry Mencken, is following this from his Heavenly bierstube! He'll have cold schooners and a homemade crack at Der Rosenkavalier awaiting you two fine fellows!

    Stephen Masty

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