A man well known to Washington and Jefferson, Robert Carter III, freed all his own slaves while those two “great men” dithered and did nothing of the kind.
Chattel slavery was wrong, the men said, but they supposedly worried it was not practical to abolish the institution without societal and economic consequences. “As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other,” Jefferson wrote a fellow politician almost 30 years after Carter’s deed of gift. Yet Carter had provided them a blueprint, not only for freeing their slaves but for ensuring the freedmen could sustain themselves, even prosper and integrate into society.
Again, this man was no stranger to the Americans expanding and preserving slavery; he showed them true leadership and removed their excuses for tyranny.
He counted Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as friends; he regularly dined with and loaned money to the latter. Washington himself was a neighbor, and Robert E. Lee’s mother was the great granddaughter of his grandfather, Robert “King” Carter.
And again, we’re talking about 1791, the year he decided to go all in on the abolition of slavery.
Carter also allowed the freedmen to choose their last names so they could keep families together and pass down wealth. He ensured they had salable skills, arranged for them to buy or lease land, and bought their wares. He also spent a great deal on transporting them from his plantations to the Northumberland courthouse, and on lawyers to guarantee his heirs — some none too happy he was paring their inheritance — didn’t undo his wishes.
“Carter’s plans look more like a pilot for mass emancipation,” Andrew Levy, a professor at Butler University, told CNN.
Technically it was 55 years after Britain had abolished slavery in their 1735 regulation for colonization of Georgia, and 15 years after the independent agrarian state of Vermont had declared its abolition.
Even more to the point it came after the Stono rebellion of 1739, where whites were ordered to carry guns while denying blacks the same right (to prevent blacks from achieving liberty). White colonials of South Carolina then wrote a law ordering blacks in America no longer “grow their own food, assemble in groups, earn their own money, or learn to read”.
Carter wasn’t early in abolition, he was late and among a large crowd growing to end slavery, but he stands out because his story proves the very high degree of hypocrisy of pro-slavery men like Washington and Jefferson.
Of all the reasons Americans do not teach about Carter in history classes, the following two are very compelling.
…the manumission was so deeply unpopular — neighbors complained, and one threatened to torch Carter’s home — it didn’t compel much documentation. A brief in a Richmond newspaper constitutes the bulk of the coverage.
Levy, whose books include a biography of Carter, “The First Emancipator,” has another suspicion: America doesn’t care — because it’s inconvenient.
“It blows an enormous hole in this legacy we’re trying to balance for these founders,” he said.
It does blow an enormous hole in the narratives told about Washington and Jefferson. As I often say, people like to say Washington died because of bad weather while he sat on his horse watching his slaves… yet nobody ever mentions what happened to those slaves he was keeping in that same weather.