Published by Random House on 2005
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800), United States
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.How did Carter succeed in the very action that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson claimed they fervently desired but were powerless to effect? And why has his name all but vanished from the annals of American history? In this haunting, brilliantly original work, Andrew Levy traces the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and passion that led to Carter's extraordinary act.At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, Carter was one of the wealthiest men in America, the owner of tens of thousands of acres of land, factories, ironworks–and hundreds of slaves. But incrementally, almost unconsciously, Carter grew to feel that what he possessed was not truly his. In an era of empty Anglican piety, Carter experienced a feverish religious visionthat impelled him to help build a church where blacks and whites were equals. In an age of publicly sanctioned sadism against blacks, he defied convention and extended new protections and privileges to his slaves. As the war ended and his fortunes declined, Carter dedicated himself even more fiercely to liberty, clashing repeatedly with his neighbors, his friends, government officials, and, most poignantly, his own family.But Carter was not the only humane master, nor the sole partisan of freedom, in that freedom-loving age. Why did this troubled, spiritually torn man dare to do what far more visionary slave owners only dreamed of? In answering this question, Andrew Levy teases out the very texture of Carter's life and soul–the unspoken passions that divided him from others of his class, and the religious conversion that enabled him to see his black slaves in a new light.Drawing on years of painstaking research, written with grace and fire, The First Emancipator is a portrait of an unsung hero who has finally won his place in American history. It is an astonishing, challenging, and ultimately inspiring book.
I am embarrassed for how long it has been since my last book review and for how long it took me to get through this last book. I have clearly not been on my A-game! However, I am back at it…
I just finished a book I was recommended: The First Emancipator: the Forgotten Story of Robert Carter the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves by Andrew Levy. I loved the history in the book and the relevance to my work in the Northern Neck at a founding father’s home. In addition, my graduate research focused on freedom suits brought forth by slaves against their masters around the late 18th and early 19th centuries in select Virginia counties. I was looking forward to potential connections I could make from this book and the motivating factors from the period that caused slave owners to emancipate their slaves and the reactions of those surrounding them. I was hoping this book would give me more insight on why Robert Carter made the decisions he did. In the synopsis of the book, Levy noted Carter’s act was “the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.” Carter was a leader… what made him different over other slave owners of the time?
Levy’s book read more as a biography than a thesis-centered piece. Levy began with a background on Carter’s family, from his father, Robert “King” Carter, to his wife and children. He also added interesting insights on the family as recorded by Philip Vickers Fithian, the family’s tutor. (Whose journal is also a well-known and recommended read I hope to get to soon) Overall, the book was good, however, I felt there was not a strong argument or connection that really answered why Carter was a leader in offering the Deed of Gift to nearly 500 slaves.
There was a lot on Fithian, perhaps because his journal contains such well-documented information from the period. There was a lot on Carter’s immediate family, but some of the information I did not find totally relevant. Levy wrote about Carter’s rowdy sons, one of whom was believed to have slid into bed with one of the house slaves, and he wrote about Carter’s troubled wife and her fear of thunderstorms. There was also a daughter who one day shaved off her eyebrow… while the stories of the family members were interesting on their own, they were lost to me and irrelevant to the story as a whole.
The chapter titled “Deed of Gift [1789-1804]” was the chapter I had been waiting for that addressed my questions more directly. So when did this change from slave holder to emancipator begin? From the book, there was not one set event or answer to this question. Some of the factors that may have played a role:
- Revolutionary sentiments – how can one fight for freedom of tyranny from the British while still holding slaves and denying their freedom?
- The Enlightenment – Carter did undergo some religious and spiritual transformations like others during this period, and he turned to the Baptist Church.
- The “Redemption Song” (137) – Taking the ideas above and combining with “a strong marriage, an active church, and an egalitarian government,” according to Levy, Carter became a good man.
In this chapter, Levy noted the news of Carter’s Deed of Gifts freeing 442 slaves, and how this news did not spread far and wide like one may think. (146) Levy also noted Carter’s fascination with death and the end of the world. He noted Carter was convinced he was dying by the 1800s, in addition to the effects of the French Revolution on his emotions. (163) There were so many interesting facts throughout this chapter and the book, but I still did not receive information that made me fully understand Carter’s decision to emancipate his slaves over other founding fathers (with the exception of Jefferson who was unable to due to his debt).
One thing I would have liked to have seen more information on and statistics related to was the 1782 law in Virginia that legalized manumission. The act of manumitting one’s slaves through their last Will, or through a Deed of Gift (as Carter chose) was not even legal until 1782. Carter would not have been able to legally free his slaves prior to this date… it is a significant date in Virginia and in Carter’s history. The story of Robert Carter would have benefitted with more information on this law and perhaps information on the statistics behind owners who freed their slaves following the passage of this law. Carter’s actions were revolutionary, he was a visionary, and more information on the 1782 manumission law and actions taken as a result of this law would have further demonstrated why.
Another fact that would have been interesting to investigate further was Carter’s move from Virginia’s Northern Neck and his home, Nomony Hall, to Baltimore. During his time in Baltimore, his religious loyalties picked up more. Levy noted he had business motivations to move to Baltimore as well as two daughters in the area. However, Levy did not note that Baltimore was in the north and different from other cities. Baltimore was progressive in the free black labor movement. Without exhausting this review, I recommend checking out Seth Rockman’s book: Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. In his book, Rockman looked at the labor population in Baltimore which consisted of not only enslaved individuals, but also free black and white workers, as well as immigrants. Baltimore had a mixed-race labor population who worked together side-by-side for the same wages, something not seen in many other areas of the country. (Rockman, 47, 56) In my opinion, there may have been more in Carter’s decision to move to Baltimore to live out the remainder of his days.
Overall, The First Emancipator was a very interesting look at a historical leader from Virginia. Robert Carter III has been forgotten by many, so it was refreshing to have a look at his character and influence from Andrew Levy. However, I felt the book needed more… there could have been a stronger focus on the act of manumission itself with more supporting research added to Robert Carter as to his motivations and title as the “First Emancipator.”