Synopses & Reviews
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? I
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. Reprint. 10,000 first printing.
“[Andrew Levy] brings a literary sensibility to the study of history, and has written a richly complex book, one that transcends Carters story to consider larger questions of individual morality and national memory.”
-The New York Times Book Review
In 1791, Robert Carter III, a pillar of Virginias Colonial aristocracy, broke with his peers by arranging the freedom of his nearly five hundred slaves. It would be the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite this courageous move-or perhaps because of it-Carters name has all but vanished from the annals of American history. In this haunting, brilliantly original work, Andrew Levy explores the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and emotion that led to Carters extraordinary act.
As Levy points out, Carter was not the only humane master, nor the sole partisan of emancipation, in that freedom-loving age. So why did he dare to do what other visionary slave owners only dreamed of? In answering this question, Levy reveals the unspoken passions that divided Carter 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 and written with grace and fire, The First Emancipator is an astonishing, challenging, and ultimately inspiring book.
“A vivid narrative of the future emancipators evolution.”
-The Washington Post Book World
“Highly recommended . . . a truly remarkable story about an eccentric American hero and visionary . . . should be standard reading for anyone with an interest in American history.”
-Library Journal (starred review)
“Absorbing. . . Well researched and thoroughly fascinating, this forgotten history will appeal to readers interested in the complexities of American slavery.”
-Booklist (starred review)
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 Harpers
, 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.
From the Hardcover edition.