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The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves Hardcover – 26 Apr 2005


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st Edition edition (26 April 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375508651
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375508653
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 16.4 x 2.9 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,416,043 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon.com: 19 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
History for Some... Legacy for others 4 July 2006
By Latonya J. Lawson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
As a descendant of two families that were a part Carter's manumission, I found this work to be as enlightening and moving as the first time I saw a microfilm copy of the "Deed of Gift ". I pray that this work will become a standard in the library of every person that enjoys the study of American History. It is a testimate to the legacy of my family and the other descendants of the 500 manumitted by Robert Carter the III.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Slaveholder as abolitionist 25 Aug 2005
By John C. Landon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
American history has a series of standard excuses for the delay in emancipation, but this fascinating account of Robert Carter shows up that myth for what it is. Nothing prevented the founding fathers from extricating themselves from their entanglement in slavery. Stories of the heroes of the American Revolution are too often forced to package them in glory, but without the need for that strategy the story of Carter's time and experiences spotlights what it was really like for planters and their slave holdings, a story with some vivid and grim details. Strangest of all is the way one of the true heroes of abolition has been entirely forgotten. Hopefully this work will make Carter's life and legacy better known.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Books like this are why I love history 3 July 2006
By Dogmother - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I waited awhile to write this review. I needed some time to think over the impact this was having on me. It's a powerful and well written story. And I admit one of the things I enjoyed most was that Robert Carter was complex. He was not one dimensional. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed spending time with him, but I'm sure I would have found him interesting. Tomorrow I'll be watching '1776'. I first saw the play when I was a child and it became a family tradition that we always watched it together on the 4th of July. The scenes where including the topic of slavery in the Declaration are going to appear different for me this time. Tom Jefferson's "intent" to free his slaves will sound more shallow than usual. Robert Carter is a hero for me. He did what was right. And I'll be thinking of him on the 4th.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Eccentric? You bet. 25 Aug 2005
By Yours Truly - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The Complexity of Truth- A Look at a Forgotten Founder 21 Jun 2009
By George J. Heidemark - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In retrospect, history is neat and clean and progress marches on. In our own time we wrestle with thorny issues such as our dependence on oil and our economic woes.A convenient story that we tell ourselves is that our young nation was born out of a revolution, but the contradiction of slavery thrived in the American republic and our founders did not know how to deal with the contradiction. Our favorite exemplar of that contradiction is Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence who could never quite make the break from the "Peculiar Institution". Author Andrew Levy adds a loud "Wait a minute" to that old argument in his book, The First Emancipator. His subject is Robert Carter III, grandson of the owner of vast lands and slaves, Robert "King" Carter. Carter the third was a super wealthy member of the Virginia aristocracy who freed over 500 slaves during his lifetime in his 1791 "deed of gift". Why did he do it? Was it because of ideology from the American revolution? Was it because of his radical religious beliefs which called for racial equality? Was it because he felt a better alternative to slave labor was to rent land to free African- Americans? Was he just eccentric? The reader must decide and come to some sort of conclusion, but what Andrew Levy offers us is a challenge to our national narrative. Many founders struggled with slavery and were paralyzed. Robert Carter III acted and is forgotten. This is not a gripping read, but it will make you think. Would the history of our country be different if more people acted like Carter? This is an important addition to our national debate on slavery.
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