The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves, by Andrew Levy
One of the most often-repeated myths about the Founding Fathers (especially those in Virginia and points south) is that they were greatly vexed and troubled by the problem of slavery but they saw no practical way of dealing with slavery on account of their dependence on that wicked institution. Others, often of a more Yankee persuasion, believe that there was something incurably wicked within the Southern character that required Southern slavery to be eliminated through extralegal and coercive means, through blatant and harsh military force. This book, and the enigmatic founding father portrayed in it, demonstrate that the South had options and that some chose to take them, the option being to provide freedom, as well as the opportunity in land and training for a free life of dignity, and that black and white could live together freely in peace and safety.
Robert Carter III is an unusual choice for a hero of the founding generation. He never held elected office, was a stiff and awkward aristocrat, self-taught, of sincere but eccentric religious beliefs that included becoming a Baptist and then a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg’s New Church. And yet despite his isolation in our view of history, he was a close neighbor and/or relative of the Washingtons, Lees, Harrisons, Byrds, and a host of other notable families. The author points out just how ignored this particular founding father is, being conflated with his grandfather and ignored even by those authors who focus on colonial Virginia and its founding families. This ignorance does not seem accidental, but rather intentional, as if Robert Carter’s principled stand against slavery and his freeing of more than 400 slaves in the post-revolutionary period in legally ironclad way was an act that deserved to be forgotten.
By providing a sympathetic and reasonable book-length account of Robert Carter III and his life and his stand against slavery, a task made more difficult by the fact that its hero had no gifts for rhetorical flourish in speaking or writing, was not a particularly poetic soul or an organized and disciplined mind, and was a person of elliptical silences rather than bold pronouncements. As is so often the case, the lack of rhetoric and the uncomfortable truth of the feasibility of freedom for slaves in the south that did not involve their immediate relocation was not something his contemporaries or following generations wished to admit. And those truths that people do not wish to admit tend to be under rug swept unless someone comes along with the ability to uncover those truths and an audience willing to hear them. Fortunately, this author has done a good job in uncovering the principled opposition to slavery that Robert Carter III had, giving some reasons for it in his family background and personal experience, and relating his position on slavery to his overall political and religious worldview, which has not often been attempted.
What this book manages to do, in bringing to light the worthiness of this founder’s example, is a point of view that is doubly tragic. For one, even though this deeply private founder wished quiet and oblivion for himself (even wishing for himself an unmarked grave, which he got), his behavior showed that it was possible for slavery to end without massive removal of the free black population, without the need for coercive and extralegal acts against slavery, or without a sacrifice of the principles of freedom and equality that our nation was founded on to expediency. The truth it suggests is that other founding fathers, who could have done as Carter did, simply preferred the praise of their neighbors rather than the praise of God for behaving in a just and proper manner. And given the tragedies that followed in Civil War and in the hundred years after that, that is a tremendously poignant tragedy indeed.