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U.S. History

Breaking the Chains

Reviewed by Melvin Patrick Ely
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW03


The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves

By Andrew Levy. Random House. 336 pp. $25.95

In 1791, Robert Carter III, the master of Nomony Hall plantation on Virginia's Northern Neck, began to emancipate his many slaves. In the years that followed, 500-600 African Americans received their freedom. The Old South would witness other group liberations, but never one so sweeping as this. Now Andrew Levy, who teaches English at Butler University, has taken up two related challenges in his intriguing but flawed new book: to resurrect and explain Carter's act of emancipation and to discover why this extraordinary liberator is virtually unknown to Americans today.

Far from being the "founding father" of the subtitle, Carter emerges as an outsider by nature who nevertheless remained a member of the planter elite. In one run for Virginia's House of Burgesses, Carter received only seven votes. Yet he was named to the royal governor's council, and he played chamber music and discussed the world within a rarefied circle in Williamsburg that included the governor and a young Thomas Jefferson.

Levy's careful reading of Carter family papers yields a vivid narrative of the future emancipator's evolution. Alienated both from the royal government and many of his selfish Virginia peers, Carter nevertheless went through the Revolutionary War without seriously questioning the morality of slavery. In late spring 1777, feverish after a smallpox inoculation, he saw a "most gracious Illumination" and abandoned deism. Carter then "tested every major faith" and wrote "small but passionate defenses of the poor and enslaved." He shared communion with humble folk both white and black and joined the Baptist church. By 1780, he forbade overseers to whip his enslaved laborers. Still, he was prepared to sell blacks, whether as punishment for escaping or to make good his prodigal son's debts. Within a few years, he had drifted away from the Baptists and toward the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg, whose faith encompassed numerology and purported conversations with denizens of other planets; Carter "joyously marginalized himself."

In 1791, Carter began the legal process that would emancipate, one small group at a time, the hundreds of black souls he owned, with whom he had come to empathize. Just as significant, he rejected Jefferson's belief that liberated slaves ought to be moved away from areas of white settlement. Instead, Carter offered to rent parcels of his land to his former slaves, even displacing white tenants to do so. In 1793, he left Virginia for Maryland; there he lived out his life near his wife's family, whom he preferred to his own Virginia kin. A sometime Baptist preacher to whom Carter delegated the work of liberation continued releasing group after group of Carter slaves well into the 1820s, long after their emancipator's death. As Carter had hoped, the gradualness of the procedure seems to have tempered, though not eliminated, white neighbors' misgivings.

Levy pays some attention to the role Carter's slaves played in their own liberation; once freed, they turned down his offers to sign on as employees, which "aggrieved" Carter. But the author also accepts and even amplifies the traditional view of free blacks as virtually helpless -- "easy targets for random violence" and harassment by whites. The evidence he himself marshals suggests a much more complicated reality. Local courts, for example, acquitted one free black man suspected of helping a slave escape. They also heard a black woman charge a white man with assault; lodging such a public accusation was hardly the act of one who felt cowed.

Levy attributes instances of free-black self-improvement and interracial cooperation on Virginia's Northern Neck to the example set by Carter's mass emancipation. (In fact, similar things occurred elsewhere in the Upper South as well.) The author suggests that gradual elimination of slavery was a viable option in old Virginia -- and that Americans have willfully ignored Robert Carter's story because it exposes our failure to follow in his footsteps. Rather than take Carter's example to heart, Levy writes, white Southerners circled the wagons in defense of slavery while Yankees embraced abolitionism and, ultimately, a "great sacred war" of liberation.

Levy's argument -- that the Civil War could have been averted if only leaders in both the North and South had behaved more sensibly and generously -- had its heyday three generations ago; it is seldom broached today. At times, Levy himself seems not to believe it. He is more persuasive when he suggests that history lost sight of Carter because he differed so markedly from those founding fathers who "conducted a conversation with posterity." Carter wrote little about his interactions with slaves and "wanted to be forgotten." His relegation to obscurity may not be as willful as Levy fears.

Carter's mysterious life, then, becomes an inspiring vignette of moral self-redemption. Yet even if Carter had behaved less eccentrically than he did and had applied himself to converting his fellow slaveholders, would many of them have followed his example? I doubt it. Levy also undermines his case for the road not taken when he depicts Carter, inaccurately, as the "only one" in the Virginia elite who "showed no fear of free blacks." Still, those persistent misgivings about slavery in the Upper South could not overcome the reluctance of many whites to live in a biracial society of free people; nor, for most white citizens, did moral qualms outweigh the tragic convenience of keeping 4 million people in bondage -- the count at the beginning of the Civil War. Among those who did seek a way out, Robert Carter remains both an emotional puzzle and the moral exemplar Andrew Levy proclaims him to be. •

Melvin Patrick Ely is a professor of history and black studies at William and Mary and the author of "Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790s Through the Civil War," which won the Bancroft Prize for 2004.

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