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- Published on Amazon.com
Had Robert Carter been given his rightful place in American history in the more than 200 years since he freed his slaves, we might well have imagined our nation differently. Instead, Carter moldered in an unmarked grave while contemporaries like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and numerous other contemporary Virginians who kept their slaves were enthroned in an American Valhalla. Andrew Levy not only sets the record straight, he helps us understand why we preferred our history without Carter.
Although Carter was wealthier than his famous contemporaries, he was miserably tongue-tied, could not get elected to the colonial House of Burgesses, and was forever searching for a transcendent religious experience, none of which made him a social magnet to his peers. He became a Baptist, which in those days meant he rejected slavery as morally wrong and worshipped side-by-side with slaves and working class whites.
The Revolution disappointed him, since the revolutionaries did not free their slaves. When the Baptists segregated their services, Carter moved on to the mystical theology of Swedenborg, which he expected to sweep America. That, too, proved a disappointment. Carter married outside the Virginia aristocracy, a woman from Baltimore, and when marriages to the Washington and Lee families presented themselves to his children, he turned them away. He began preparing his children to live without the services of slave labor.
As a slaveholder, he took the side of slaves over whites, refused to allow them to be beaten, and refrained from renting them out or selling them to other landowners. Yet he knew that emancipation would anger Jefferson and other large slaveholders. When he finally freed his slaves, he did so deliberately in a document called the Deed of Gift, which released many of them outside of Virginia and not all at once. He divided his many plantations between his children and moved to Baltimore, where he lived quietly with a daughter.
Reflecting on Carter's magnificent gift (it freed nearly 500 slaves and was by far the largest, but not the only, Virginia emancipation) I think that he took more seriously than most people Jesus's warning that it was easier a man to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. [The "needle" was a break in ancient city walls that required people to unload their donkeys to pass through.] Giving up his wealth probably freed Carter. He was taken by the Swedenborg teaching that people made their own heaven or hell, and he seems to have been more effective at that than in changing the course of American history.
Aside from the Deed, none of Carter's writings were particularly inspiring. Levy says that it was easier for Americans to forget his act than to admit that Southerners, especially rhetorically gifted Founding Fathers, failed to do what Carter did. Not long thereafter, the invention of the cotton gin made that slave-dependent crop even more valuable.
In the North, where slavery became outlawed, people liked to believe they were morally superior to their Southern neighbors. And so the compromise that permitted slavery to endure extended year after year, state after state, until it broke down, and the nation paid a hideous price in civil war. As we put aside these myths, maybe we can give Carter the celebration that he deserves. We might also look for other myths that again divide us Red, rather than Gray, from Blue.