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Robert Carter III
The Abolitionist That Time Forgot

Listen to Lisa Simeone's report Listen to Lisa Simeone's interview with Andrew Levy

Sept. 1, 2001 -- As the new school year gets underway, students will soon be filling their notebooks with information about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers. But those students may never learn of another Virginian, Robert Carter III, who freed more slaves than both Washington and Jefferson combined. History seems to have completely forgotten Carter. The omission baffled Andrew Levy, an English professor at Butler University in Indiana.

Robert Carter III
Robert Carter III

Carter was a wealthy Virginia plantation owner, with more money, land and slaves than either of his more famous peers. In 1791, while Washington and Jefferson wringed their hands over a socially acceptable plan to end slavery, Carter quietly penned a decidedly unpoetic document called "The Deed of Gift," in which he laid out intricate plans to free more than 500 slaves, at a pace of 15 each year. Writes Levy, "no other Virginian of the Revolutionary era -- including those, like Jefferson and Washington, who spoke out so passionately against slavery -- managed to reconcile freedom in theory and freedom in practice with such transparent simplicity."

Carter was neither a romantic or idealist; in fact, his decision to emancipate his slaves was as much an economic decision as it was an ethical one. As early as the 1770s, he and his wife had deduced that there were easier ways to turn a buck. The Carters could reap more profit by freeing the slaves and renting out the land to them. However, their decision did not sit well with their sons-in-law (who resented losing a large part of their inheritance) and neighbors who feared a possible rebellion on their own plantations. And while the majority of his slaves were patient and waited for their turn to come, they too caused headaches for Carter. In addition to never-ending negotiations with his own freed slaves, he learned that slaves from nearby estates were trying to pass as his own via forged documentation.

Andrew Levy profiled Robert Carter for 'The American Scholar'
Andrew Levy profiled Robert Carter for The American Scholar

By 1792, Carter had tired of the squabbling that resulted from the Deed of Gift. After appointing Benjamin Dawson, a Baptist minister to complete the project, he retired to a small house in Baltimore. In 1796, he bequeathed his Virginia property to his children, taking careful steps to ensure that his freed blacks were given fair leases and that his sons-in-law could not undo his work. In accordance with his wishes, his descendants continued freeing slaves for nearly 50 years after his death on Mar. 11, 1804.

But why wasn't Carter given a more promienent place in history? Levy has a few theories. For one, he was a bit dull. His love of number crunching and chart making is not exactly the stuff of Hollywood screenplays, à la The Patriot. Plus, his accomplishment makes Washington and Jefferson appear less like heroes and more like hypocritical politicians.

But Carter's biggest sin is this: he robs modern-day Americans of their excuse for political immobility. Explains Levy, "Robert Carter does not even interest us, because that forces us to consider whether there now exist similar men and women, whose plain solutions to our national problems we find similarly boring, and whom we gladly ignore for the livelier fantasy of our heroic ambivalance."

Other Resources:

Marietta (Ohio) Times story commemorating the anniversary of the Deed of Gift

Carter profile from A Classification of American Wealth