The covered-up history of emancipationist* Robert Carter III

I bet you never heard of him.

At great risk to his personal safety, this Robert-Carter-the-third freed HUNDREDS of the slaves he had inherited from his grandfather, the famous Robert “King” Carter.

In Virginia. Starting in 1791.

Up until then it was ILLEGAL to give any slave their freedom, except upon death of their owner (if so specified in their will).

RCIII was one of George Washington’s neighbors, and a friend of Thomas Jefferson, but unlike his wealthy neighbors, RCIII not only freed his slaves while he was alive, but hired them as workers and gave them land.

He even helped found early local Baptist churches that had black and white members as equals.

So, not every single White American plantation owner took the same path of continuing to buy and sell people and exploiting them.

There were other choices that the Founding Fathers could have taken, had they actually meant the words of the Declaration… you know, the ones proclaiming that “all men are created equal.” If they hadn’t been so concerned about their own luxurious lifestyles enabled by unremitting exploitation of the hard labor of so many hundreds of thousands of enslaved people, they could have chosen justice.

This fellow did.

But I never had heard of Robert Carter III, before today.

Had you?

He’s in Wikipedia. Thank goodness.

And apparently CNN actually just did a feature on him, today. Kudos!

Go look him up. I’ll wait.

For his day, he was a very honorable person.

Even though I was a History major at Dartmouth College, and had helped my father on a multi-volume translation of the travel diaries of a French nobleman in the United States from 1792-1795, I don’t recall him being mentioned. I’ll go look him up in the still-unpublished MS down in my basement after I’m done posting this.

Even though I had read about the Liberation of the people of Haiti, and about Nat Turner and John Brown and the 54th Massachusetts, I never heard of the ‘good’ Robert Carter.

I lived through a good bit of the Civil Rights Movement. Even though I had worked against racism and South Afrrican apartheid. And even though I prided myself on learning about the history of anti-racist, anti-slavery, and pro-working class struggles, I had never heard of the guy. I knew about Tulsa (1921) and Wilmington (1898). I had read Foner on Reconstruction and gave reports on Benjamin Banneker’s mathematics and geometry using Bedini as a source.

Amazing. There were people willing to kill or beat RCIII for his opposition to slavery.

Here is part of his deed of manumission. Can you read it? It’s slower going that ordinary text, but interesting nonetheless.

The CNN article reads, in part,

“To grasp the oddness of his erasure, it’s necessary to understand his lofty station among the Virginia gentry of his day. 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.

The book The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter is unfortunately not in print any more. I will need to get it on Nook or something like that, I guess.

EDIT: I changed the title to “Emancipationist” rather than ‘Abolitionist’.

I found Levey’s book on him at an online used-book store and have ordered a copy.

I have just looked through my parents’ notes for their book on Larochefoucauld-Liancourt‘s (LRL) travels in America but have not yet found any mention of Robert Carter III, but certainly quite a few mentions of slavery and such. (LRL pulled quite a few punches regarding Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves, because he wanted Jefferson to write him some letters of recommendation so that he (LRL) could return to France, from which he had to flee during the most radical period of the French Revolution.

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