Robert Carter

An interesting historical byway. The book is The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves and an excellent review is at The Chicago Tribune. Use Bug Me Not for a user email and password.
Adding a page to the history of Revolutionary-era America
A thought-provoking look at a wealthy outsider from Virginia

It has become standard in American history to accept that the Founding Fathers championed liberty and endorsed slavery. Historians explain this monstrous contradiction by noting that it reflected the realities of American racism or the necessities of the Colonial economy. Some even contend it was the institution of slavery that permitted aristocratic leaders to dare to expand the idea of liberty to include all whites. With the most dangerous poor enslaved, elite men could permit widespread voting without fear that they were endangering their own economic and political control of society.

Into this common understanding of the Revolutionary era Andrew Levy has thrown a twist. One of the wealthiest Founding Fathers made no compromise with slavery, he argues. Instead, in 1791 and 1792, Robert Carter III, the wealthiest man in Virginia, arranged for the gradual emancipation of the 450 slaves who worked on his many plantations. Levy's "The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves" asks two questions: Why did Carter break ranks with other Virginia leaders and promote black freedom, and why has history forgotten him?

Levy is an English professor at Butler University, and his literary training shows in his wonderfully engaging portrait of Carter's world. The Revolutionary luminaries as they are usually presented often seem to have grown up inside a textbook, dressed in drab clothes, reading from treatises and doing nothing much of interest until they suddenly decide to change the world (and even then they aren't very engaging about it). Carter, in contrast, was the grandson of a man who was nicknamed "King" and who was "so serpentine that it was easy to think of him as the devil's partner." Carter's 29-year-old father died of an opium overdose.

The young heir to the nation's greatest fortune was evidently a problem child, so disinterested in school that an observer of the young adult Carter dismissed him as illiterate. Residence in London to finish his education and make business contacts resulted only in licentiousness; the young man probably spent his time gambling, whoring and patronizing his tailor. A novel written shortly after he left England reflected his reputation there, featuring as its antagonist the richest slaveholder in America, " 'a lad of bad principles, unlettered, and of coarse manners,' " a man the novelist carefully named Carter. Back in Virginia, the young rogue was seen as "vicious" and "confused."
This is only part of the review and the book looks really good. Going to put in a request to my Library and see if they can get it from another system. A fascinating time in our history and to have one character so overlooked in the "official history" is intriguing.

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on May 22, 2005 11:45 AM.

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