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Who Was “The First Emancipator”?


We know that Abraham Lincoln — as well as several of the Founding Fathers — wanted to abolish slavery in the United States. But long before the Civil War, one man broke with his peers by arranging the freedom of his nearly 500 slaves.

His name was Robert Carter III, and on Sept. 5, 1791, this pillar of Virginia’s Colonial aristocracy wrote the “deed of gift.” This signed document voluntarily and without recompense transferred ownership from his possession to the men and women who had been his slaves.

Yet, despite Carter’s courageous move — or perhaps because of it — his name has all but vanished from the annals of American history, according to Andrew Levy, author of The First Emancipator, which explores the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and emotion that led to Carter’s extraordinary act.

As Levy points out, “Carter was not the only humane master, nor the sole partisan of emancipation, in that freedom-loving age. So why did he dare to do what other visionary slave owners only dreamed of?”

Our Q&A with the author, who is also the Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN.

andrew-levy-46408661David Bruce Smith: “My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world,” said Robert Carter III to his daughter Harriot in 1803. It seems he wasn’t someone who thought it was important to fit in, but rather to do what was right. How did you come to know about Carter, and what inspired you to write this book?

Andrew Levy (pictured right): It was an accident. I was reading a book by Fox Butterfield called “All God’s Children,” and he had a short passage, a couple of sentences, about someone named Robert Carter III, who had conducted the largest emancipation in American history prior to the Civil War. And the way he made the reference, so casually, and the nature of the achievement — I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t ever heard of it and assumed it was a piece of common knowledge. So I looked it up and could find practically nothing. The more I looked, the more I didn’t find anything, and it hooked me. I went to his grave site — unmarked — and that hooked me even more.

Hope Katz Gibbs: In the introduction you explain that Carter’s “deed of gift” was a dry document — lists for the most part — that didn’t possess Thomas Jefferson’s polished rage or James Madison’s keen ideologies. But, you explain, “it was among the most incendiary songs of liberty to emerge from that freedom-loving period, so explosive in its implications that it has remained obscured into our present day.” Can you elaborate about how it was received?

Andrew Levy: It was largely ignored. There was one sentence in The Virginia Gazette, and it was placed next to the theatre reviews. His neighbors and family, of course — there was resistance, efforts to undermine it, angry anonymous letters, two decades in the courts. But it persisted, and was still working to free the descendants of the initial slaves 60 years later.

David Bruce Smith: In your book, you point out that there are two mysteries in Carter’s revolutionary document: why he freed his slaves, and why most Americans don’t know about it. What is your assessment? And was he well-known to the public in his time?

Andrew Levy: He actually owned more slaves than Jefferson, Washington, and Madison combined. You’d be amazed how much energy has been expended on the idea that the Founding Fathers would have freed their slaves if only there had been a practical method for doing so. It’s a hard argument to make when someone in their social circle, someone they all knew personally, was doing just that. In fact, the idea that slavery was impossible to eradicate — not whether or not it was right to do so, but whether it was practical to do so — was far more deeply entrenched in American culture than most care to admit. Even now. It’s a blueprint for political expediency on race that persists, even if the issue set changes.

Carter was not that well known at the time, but he was part of what was arguably the most famous family in Virginia. He had plantations scattered across the state. But he stopped being a political factor in Virginia politics around 1772, just before the events that would launch men he had dinner with, played music with, done business with, to the status of founders of a powerful nation. Instead, he retired to his plantation, avoided the public eye, and asked for an unmarked grave. And got it.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Now let’s dive deeper into the details of “The First Emancipator,” which is divided into two parts — Part I: Revelation, and Part II: Revolution.

Specifically, “Revelation” begins by describing the only known portrait of Robert Carter. What can we learn from this aristocratic painting, by London artist Thomas Hudson, about the man who would go on to subvert the principles he was raised to uphold?

RobertcarteriiiAndrew Levy: That he was born rich — super-rich, actually, by the standards of his time. He was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter, who at the time was one of the three or four most powerful men in America at the turn of the 18th century. This portrait was painted in London when Carter was about 21. He already had some reputation as a “rogue,” illiterate and unusually licentious. To me, the portrait, with its wash of silver and gold, suggests someone known for money. But he’s got a Mona Lisa smile, too, and that suggests that the portraitist saw something deeper.

David Bruce Smith: How did the political climate of the early 1790s influence Carter about his beliefs regarding slavery?

Andrew Levy: In two different ways. There were fervent debates about freedom and slavery at the time — petitions to the early Congress for emancipation were being offered, and Americans were watching, some with a certain measure of infatuation, the events in France and even in Haiti. And some other Southerners were creating emancipation plans. Simultaneously, those petitions to Congress for emancipation were repressed, and much political compromise over slavery took place in order to suture together the new nation. The timing suggests that Carter waited until it was clear no national or state government was going to effect emancipation and then turned to private means.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What were Carter’s religious beliefs, and what impact did they have on his decision to draft the “deed of gift”?

Andrew Levy: In 1777, he underwent a smallpox inoculation, and during the fever that ensued he claimed to have some sort of spiritual illumination. It led him away from the conventional religions of the elites, and even the more cerebral Deist belief systems of friends like Thomas Jefferson, and toward the religions practiced by Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. He then adopted the Baptist faith, which at that time was a dissenting and marginalized sect with interracial social practices. For the rest of his life, he drifted from one religion to another, developing some reputation for erratic behavior as a result. But what linked his religious practices was his decided preference for congregations that leveled race and class. It was definitely madness with a method.

David Bruce Smith: In Part II of the book, “Revolution,” you describe the influence Carter wanted to have on his children. Tell us about the type of father he was, and what did he wish the world would be like for them as they grew up?

Andrew Levy: Well, first, he had a lot of children: 17 of them, and 10 lived to adulthood. And they were scared of him — the boys clearly were. But one of the more amazing things he did during the 1780s, in the decade before the “deed of gift,” was to try to get them away from the influence of slavery. He sent his daughters to Baltimore and instructed their caretakers to raise them without slaves in the house, and he sent two of his sons to Providence, RI. When his wife died, the sons wanted to come home to Virginia for the funeral, and he wouldn’t let them, telling their headmaster he didn’t want them around slavery even for a short while.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Why do you think that Robert Carter has barely been a footnote in the history books? And is that changing?

Andrew Levy: It is changing a bit. Just this year, the state of Virginia decided to put up a historical landmark on the site of his plantation. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page, and some genealogical websites providing resources to descendants of the freed slaves. But basically, he’s still buried under the reputation of the founders, still an odd character who doesn’t really fit any of our narratives about liberation. Too religious, but not committed to any one church, so no church celebrates him. A bad writer, a man who actually calculated that the emancipation most likely to succeed would be one that worked as quietly as possible. To the end, a little too autocratic — too businesslike on the one hand, too mystical on the other — to fit our categories.

David Bruce Smith: What has your experience been since making Carter’s story public?

Andrew Levy: Extremely rewarding. It’s been more than 10 years, and I’m still talking to folks like you. As much in the last year as in the five or so preceding, in fact. Maybe more. I still believe that the American story is better if he’s in it.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What are you working on now?

Andrew Levy: In December 2014, Simon & Schuster published my book about Mark Twain and Huck Finn entitled, “Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece.” And, I’m mostly teaching right now at Butler University, where I hold the Edna Cooper Chair in English.

Click here to read more about Andrew Levy’s newest book in The New York Times.

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