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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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|Title of eBook: The First Emancipator|
|Release Date: 04-26-2005|
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|Publisher: Random House Publishing Group|
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The First Emancipator
King of America
“But where says some is the King of America?”
—Tom Paine, Common Sense
T here is only one known portrait of Robert Carter III. He posed for it in 1749 or 1750 in Thomas Hudson’s London studio, and two hundred fifty years later, it is easy enough to imagine what the painter was thinking. Probably, Carter was just another colonial gentleman, raw but wealthy, and the portraitist knew his type, and knew their vanities. And so Carter was draped in a billowing gold suit and silver cape, brown hair neatly tied back and powdered gray, smirking, a mask dangling from the tapered fingers of his left hand. The suit is a century out of date, as if Carter were a courtier to Charles I, or masquerading as one. He looks like he is on his way to a ball, to a lifetime of balls, and has stopped just for a moment before donning the mask.
It is an extraordinary portrait. It takes two glances before one even notices Carter’s head, because brilliant shades of silver and gold cover more than half the canvas: Carter is dressed like money. And Carter’s mask is a wonder: red-rouged cheeks, dark drawn eyebrows, full red lips, and starkly pale otherwise, a minstrel mask in reverse, as if the masquerade Carter was about to attend required him to perform the role of a white man. Finally, however, Carter’s face draws the observer. The smirk is no ordinary smirk: it has Mona Lisa mystery. And the eyes are huge and dark, and imply something open and unfinished, something that resisted being posed as the young patriarch on the rise.
When Carter stood for this portrait, he was twenty-one