Americans today are firmly of the opinion that “all men are created equal…with certain inalienable rights.” The Declaration of Independence asserts three rights that are endowed by the Creator — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — but perhaps the most important to the Founding Fathers was the right to liberty. Our early leaders were united in their desire for Americans to live their lives free of domination by others. Some of them, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, also recognized the inconsistency of fighting against oppression while withholding the blessings of freedom from their African-American slaves. Not all American slave owners could live with this inconsistency however. Near the end of the eighteenth century, there was one member of the founding generation who stood apart in his desire to give freedom to his slaves immediately rather than wait for his death. His name was Robert Carter III. This is the extraordinary story of how his humanity towards his slaves climaxed with his decision to emancipate them.
Robert Carter III was a member of one of Virginia’s most prominent families. Born in 1728, he was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter I, founder of a family dynasty that lasted for generations, and the son of Robert Carter II, whose plantation of Nomony was not far from the birthplace of George Washington and the family home of the Lees of Virginia. The deaths of his father and grandfather when he was only four-years-old left him financially secure with sixty-five thousand acres of land and nearly one hundred slaves. Over time, he increased his land holdings and the number of slaves to nearly four hundred and fifty, making him the largest and wealthiest slave owner in Virginia. Like many of his contemporaries, he participated in Virginia politics. Unlike others, he failed to gain entry into Virginia’s House of Burgesses, but he did receive an appointment to the Governor’s Council. As a member of Virginia’s colonial government, he associated with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He differed from these future Revolutionary heroes not only in his legislative service but also in his attitudes towards the slaves he owned.
Known as “the most humane to his slaves of any in these parts,” Robert Carter attempted to deal more justly and compassionately with his slaves than many of his neighbors did. Like his grandfather Robert Carter I, Robert Carter III often refused to split up slave families, especially mothers and children. In addition, Carter refused to act arbitrarily in the sale of his slaves. He believed in following the example of his friend, Virginia’s royal governor Francis Fauquier, and soliciting slaves’ advice as to who their new master should be. Most of the time, the slaves requested sale to plantations in close proximity to dispersed family members. His consideration of slaves’ requests demonstrated his understanding that his slaves had needs and desires that were common to all men and women. More amazing than the way Carter handled the management of his slaves was the amount of freedom he gave them to conduct their own lives.
As master of the plantation, Robert Carter attempted to provide his laborers with greater opportunities than many slaves enjoyed on other plantations. Unlike most slave owners, Carter allowed his slaves to choose their own names and the names of their children rather than doing it himself. He also refused to personally dictate the amount of work and the speed with which it took the slaves to complete each task. More often than not, he was more likely to criticize his white laborers than he was his black ones. Instead, he gave important responsibilities, such as managing his mill, to his slaves. His confidence in them became so great that he allowed them to serve as his personal representatives in legal matters. This high regard for black laborers extended to his willingness to accept the word of his slaves over another’s. He once favored a black slave’s account of a horse’s death over the word of a white employee. It became clear that slaves at Nomony enjoyed more freedom than they did on other plantations, and the slaves returned Carter’s trust. As plantation master, he hardly ever had to punish his slaves or deal with a possible slave rebellion. Rather than simply chaining up a slave, as he had occasion to witness, Carter preferred to offer his slaves “due process” in the form of a trial for their crimes. Some of these beliefs were already radical prior to the American Revolution, but the Revolution transformed Carter both politically and spiritually.
As the American Revolution progressed, Robert Carter’s views on liberty and slavery came to coalesce as one. In the first months of the Revolution, Carter hoped for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain, but after reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, he came to believe in independence and a republican government. He made the observation that America, like the Jews of old, should have no king but “the Lord of Hosts.” His belief in the liberty held by all people stretched to include his slaves. Though some left to join the British army, the vast majority of slaves remained with Carter. His acceptance of the Revolution’s egalitarian principles seemed to be enhanced by his spiritual awakening.
Carter’s political revelation regarding human liberty was fulfilled by his acceptance that faith was possible for everyone as well. The impetus for this spiritual enlightenment was his inoculation against smallpox. During the procedure, he experienced a “most gracious Illumination,” in which he claimed to see God. The experience convinced him to leave the Anglican Church and join the dissenting sect known as the Baptists. His attendance in the new denomination brought him into contact with many of those outside of conventional society, especially slaves. By worshipping and taking communion with common laborers, Carter gained a greater appreciation for them. He openly referred to his slaves in letters by either their given names or by the title of “brother.” As a fellow believer, he took greater interest in slaves’ lack of economic security. To provide a better livelihood, Carter offered his slaves the use of farms previously owned by white tenants. By the end of the Revolution, Robert Carter had begun to see the incompatibility of slavery in a free country.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Robert Carter continued to grow apart from his fellow Virginia slave owners. Throughout the Revolution, he had not only diversified his crop production to include wheat, but he had also begun to invest in industrial ventures. His participation in these activities allowed him to lessen his own dependence on the institution. As he strived to accomplish his goal, he watched a new government form under the Constitution. He was deeply distressed that the new government protected slavery. While he could not do anything on the national scene, he could at least do something about his own situation. By 1791, Robert Carter had set to work writing an extraordinary document — the Deed of Gift.
On September 5, 1791, Robert Carter submitted his Deed of Gift to the district court in Northumberland County, Virginia. In it he affirmed his intention of freeing all four hundred and fifty-two slaves, an act that seemed to finish what Thomas Jefferson began in the Declaration of Independence when he declared it self-evident “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” In his personal “emancipation proclamation,” Carter wrote how he believed keeping African-Americans in slavery was “contrary to the true principles of religion and justice.” Despite protests from those around him, Carter remained steadfast and began the lengthy process throughout 1792 and 1793. He then permitted the ex-slaves to settle on his land as tenants and work as freed men and women. As the process continued, Carter left his plantation at Nomony behind and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. In his last years, he was left with almost nothing — not his land, not his wealth and not even the acclaim rightly due him for his noble deed. He died on March 10, 1804 and was buried in an unmarked grave, soon to be all but forgotten along with his act of emancipation.
Robert Carter III was one of the few men who truly understood that the American Revolution’s promise of liberty was meant for everyone. With a single signature, Robert Carter III privately freed more slaves than anyone else in the country. Unfortunately, many Americans only remember Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.” Robert Carter’s act of selfless generosity, however, does not deserve to be ignored as if it never happened. Despite being obscured by Washington and Jefferson, he should proudly stand beside them as an equal. It was he who most conspicuously acted on the belief that the “inalienable right” of liberty belonged as much to his African-American workers as it did to him. All who cherish the dream of liberty should remember Robert Carter III and the first emancipation.