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The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slavesby Andrew Levy
Synopses & Reviews
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 The suit is a century out of date, as if Carter were a courtier to Charles I, or masquerading as one.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 and poised for a brilliant, even notorious, career. He had wealth: more than sixty-five thousand acres of New World soil and more than one hundred slaves. He had family: his grandfather was Robert King Carter, who, in his own brilliant and notorious career, acquired large swaths of the Virginian frontier and distributed huge parcels of land and slaves to his progeny. He had connections: his uncles and aunts had intermarried with some of Virginia's richest families, the Fitzhughs, Pages, Churchills, and Harrisons; his father’s estate resided within twenty miles of both Stratford Hall-the Lee manse—and Pope's Creek, where George Washington was born and reared. And lastly, he had arrogance, or some quality worse than arrogance: his cousin John Page, who would later become one of the first governors of the state of Virginia, called him an inconceivable illiterate and also corrupted and vicious.
But he also had another quality, something that drew upon the arrogance that wealth and connections provided, but that fought against the destiny that wealth and connections presented. As much as any Virginian of his era, Robert Carter exemplified what it meant to be powerful and wealthy in prewar America: he looked and acted like the kind of aristocrat who needed to fall so that the United States and its new heroes could rise. At the same time, Carter was about to undertake the same education in manners and society that trained other Virginians to become our great, hallowed Revolutionaries. He read the same books and the same newspapers, sold his tobacco on the same markets, negotiated the same land deals. He attended the same political debates, and voted-when he possessed a vote—for the Revolutionary path almost every time. He share
A definitive account of a landmark event in American history describes how, in 1791, Robert Carter III, one of Virginia's wealthiest planters, freed more than 450 slaves, revealing how and why Carter made his extraordinary gesture. 50,000 first printing.
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.
About the Author
ANDREW LEVY was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, in 1962. He received an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars in 1986 and a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. Levy has published essays in Harper’s, Dissent, and The American Scholar, book reviews in the Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has written or co-edited several books on American literature and writing. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Siobhan, and their son, Aedan, and is currently Cooper Chair at Butler University.
Table of Contents
Celebrated — I: Revelation — King of America (1728-1768) — Dance or die (1768-1774) — Heavenly confusion (1774-1778) — II: Revolution — Inglorious connexions (1778-1789) — Deed of gift (1789-1804) — Plans and advice.
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