Robert Carter III played in a band with Thomas Jefferson (and sent bill collectors after him a few times too), was active as a patriot during the American Revolution and may very well have been the richest man in Virginia, which would have made him one of the wealthiest men in the newly-fledged United States. He corresponded with a bunch of folks you’ve heard of from history class and would have been widely known by his contemporaries. He also decided to free his nearly five hundred slaves during his lifetime, an event which was the single largest act of manumission in the United States until the Civil War ended slavery in the United States altogether.
So why hasn’t anyone ever heard of him?
Andrew Levy’s analysis of Carter and his times is a fairly masterful work that tries to figure out why he’s a forgotten figure. Levy’s conclusion is that he simply doesn’t fit anyone’s narrative and therefore everyone just sort of nervously shies away from talking about him.
At the risk of painting with a broad brush, let me . . . actually, let’s just get out the broad brush here. You’ve basically got two different pictures of antebellum slavery. One side (the apologetic) portrays it as bad but not too bad; slaves were valuable property after all and the owners had incentive to look after them, slaveholders would have really liked to let their slaves go but just economically couldn’t manage to, and the social mores of the day were different. On the other side (the abolitional) you’ve got a wicked institution that separated families, embraced authoritarianism and cruelty, and was overseen by moral monsters who were perfectly capable of telling right from wrong. Personally, I’d lean more towards the second viewpoint, but the fact is very little that humans do is perfectly crystal clear. (I would also state that given the lack of volunteers to become slaves, this particular area is clearer than most.)
Carter actually wasn’t too likeable, being insulated by his immense wealth from practical concerns and thereby not especially being able to relate to other people, even his peers. This paradoxically helped him out in his later endeavors when he basically didn’t care what his neighbors thought of him, although he did try to space out the manumissions to not cause undue concern. He really loved his wife and they had seventeen children, although many of them didn’t survive. He had a series of religious epiphanies throughout his life, including at least one near-death experience, which caused him to join up with non-established churches like the Baptists at a time where there was an established church in Virginia and such things were Not Done.
In fact, some of the best things in this book simply deal with the sort of everyday life in colonial and immediately post-colonial Virginia that tend to get elided from the history books. Baptist preachers got thrown in jail and beat up but kept on drawing crowds anyway; men and women spent their nights drinking hard and partying harder every single day until the scandals couldn’t be contained. Everyone was suing each other and taking offense at everything all the time.
Anyway, Carter himself was a pretty paradoxical figure. His religious leanings may have made him believe that he was theoretically equal to his slaves, but he never really acted like anyone at all was his equal. Carter may have allowed his slaves to have more autonomy than most other slaveholders did, but he also didn’t really discipline his sons too much for sleeping with the house slaves (although he apparently never did so himself). At some point he did send some of his sons out of Virginia so they wouldn’t be exposed to all the immorality around, and toward the end of his life he ended up leaving himself, eventually being buried in an unmarked grave.
At the same time you really want to commend Carter for what he was doing in deciding to free all his slaves, he never really gave a good explanation for it, treating it more like some task he had to complete rather than a moral crusade. And he was still really, truly rich. It’s not like he gave away everything he owned to end up in penury and he seemed to be personally offended when slaves he freed decided that they would really rather not work for him as freemen any more. This strikes at the heart of why no one really likes to talk about him. To the apologists, he’s a living counterexample to the notion that slaveholders didn’t know better and/or simply couldn’t make it without slavery. To the abolitionists, he never gave any good justifications for his behavior and it didn’t exact a huge personal toll on him, plus he still seemed to have pretty reactionary attitudes.
Shortly after his death, the rules were changed so that manumissions of this sort wouldn’t have been possible any longer. It doesn’t seem that it was a response to him as such, although his contemporaries would have certainly known about it and didn’t exactly approve. There was just a general retrenchment in the slaveholding societies that eventually culminated in the Civil War. It may seem strange to describe a system of slavery as a more gentle time, but Carter hit a particular window where he was able to do some good in an unusual way.
For students of colonial history, this is an engaging story that really humanizes some figures that could use some of that treatment. It raises some bigger questions about modern society that I don’t think it necessarily addresses that well, and some parts do drag a little, but this is one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.