First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter

Overview

“[Andrew Levy] brings a literary sensibility to the study of history, and has written a richly complex book, one that transcends Carter’s 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 Virginia’s 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 ...

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Overview

“[Andrew Levy] brings a literary sensibility to the study of history, and has written a richly complex book, one that transcends Carter’s 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 Virginia’s 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–Carter’s 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 Carter’s 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 emancipator’s 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)

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance praise for The First Emancipator

“This luminous book recovers from the fog of historical amnesia a wealthy slave-owning Virginia gentleman and neighbor of George Washington who tried to lead the slave-bound new nation toward a better future. A gripping, important must-read that will convince many that the founding fathers could have abolished slavery.”
GARY B. NASH, professor emeritus, UCLA, author of Red, White & Black: The Peoples of Early North America

“Robert Carter III and his emancipatory Deed of Gift ‘fell out’ of American history for the same reason that racial equality disappeared, until recent times, from the American social contract. Andrew Levy’s engrossing The First Emancipator rescues an amazing contemporary of the Founders from the void.”
DAVID LEVERING LEWIS, author of the two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and 2001

“Andrew Levy’s vivid biography–of a fabulously rich slaveholder who, imagining the impossible, broke all society’s rules–shatters one of our favorite historical mirrors. In the 1790s, freeing hundreds of slaves became a religious obsession for Robert Carter III. How he hammered out a working model for a radically different American future only to have it instantly and permanently forgotten redefines our past in ways that test the resiliency of the American mythos.”
FORREST CHURCH, author of The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer

From the Hardcover edition.

Melvin Patrick Ely
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.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
Levy (The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story) examines the unique life of Robert Carter III, one of the wealthiest men in 18th-century America, and his monumental "Deed of Gift." This legal document, recorded in 1791, allowed for the largest single emancipation of slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation. The deed was not only revolutionary; it was practical and worked remarkably well. Carter employed a system of gradual emancipation, relying on his wealth, lawyers, and agents to accomplish his goal despite strong opposition from family, neighbors, and local officials. Levy looks at Carter's controversial and colorful life (he was fond of naming his plantations after Zodiac signs) and why the deed has been largely forgotten. He also traces Carter's spiritual evolution-from traditional Episcopalian to radical Baptist reformer to Swedenborgian-and how it impacted his views on slavery. A truly remarkable story about an eccentric American hero and visionary who deserves widespread attention, this engaging and well-researched book should be standard reading for anyone with an interest in American history. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.-Robert Flatley, Kutztown Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375761041
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/9/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

King of America

[1728–1768]

“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 shared a pastor with George Washington, and teachers with Thomas Jefferson. He even played alongside Jefferson in a musical quartet, the future composer of the Declaration of Independence tuning his fiddle to Carter’s harpsichord amid the echoes of the Virginia royal governor’s long ballroom.

That Carter chose to transcend the conservative roots of his childhood and young adulthood, then, is no surprise. Many did. The surprise lies elsewhere: why did the same republican influences that moved the founders instead move Carter to become their mirror image, capable of doing what they could not, and unable to do what they did so well?

2

For John Carter, the first Carter to plant himself in Virginian soil, the logic of emigration was irrefutable. On the one hand, he was a stubborn royalist, a member of a family of London vintners who supported the monarchy, and Charles I would soon lose his head to Cromwell’s revolution. On the other hand, he was the youngest son in his family, which meant that, according to the ancient law of primogeniture, he would receive little of his father’s wealth. Instead, he would be expected to join the clergy, take the bar, or serve under his brothers in the family firm. Under the old system, he had little future; under the new, it seemed, he had even less.

The Virginia Colony, however, was another story. By 1635, the year that twenty-two-year-old John Carter sailed to the New World, almost three decades had elapsed since a few score of merchants, soldiers, and indentured servants had begun settling on the banks of a wide river they named after King James I. Over the course of those three decades, the free English of Virginia, who numbered in the low thousands, kept the Indians at bay, “seasoned” themselves to the mysterious, infectious American climate, and transformed their family names and modest merchant fortunes into large tracts of American soil. They filled the new colony with little wooden homes, one-and-a-half-story frames with steep cat-slide roofs like they remembered from the English West Country, or multichamber log cabins that undulated with the ground beneath them. They built orchards and laid out cornfields, but mostly they seeded tobacco, in thousands upon thousands of tiny hills each no bigger than a small child, each requiring the care of a small child. To tend those fields, they imported so many Irish, convicts, and recalcitrant indentured servants that reformers on both sides of the Atlantic began to regard Virginia as “a sinke to drayen England of her filth and scum.”

It was an age of great possibility, and great horror. On July 30, 1619, in a small brick church in Jamestown, the first democratically elected assembly in North America gathered, twenty-two men calling themselves “Burgesses.” Three weeks later, perhaps fifty yards down a short embankment to the Jamestown wharf, a Dutch man-of-war delivered the first “twenty and odd” Africans to the continent, men with Spanish names purchased to alleviate the labor shortage. John Carter, possessing a younger brother’s hunger for advancement and wealth, acclimated himself quickly. By 1641, he was elected to the House of Burgesses representing Upper Norfolk, frontier land well northwest of Jamestown. By 1652, he had moved to the Northern Neck, the verdant spit of land reaching out into the Chesapeake between the wide Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. There he had purchased 1,300 acres of land on a windblown, pine-covered little peninsula on the Rappahannock: an exposed place, more bay than land almost, defiantly cool in a Virginia summer, and covered with rich, loamy soil that held tobacco plants like nothing he could have possessed in England.

He built a one-room wooden house on the edge of his windblown peninsula, coated it with stucco made of oyster shells, and called the surrounding farm Corotoman, after the local Indian tribe. Three miles inland, he built a church he named after Christ, another one-room wooden affair. By the time he died, in 1669, he had married five times, produced an unrecorded number of children (four of whom survived him), and served in the House of Burgesses and as a member of the powerful, royally appointed Governor’s Council. As well, he convinced the crown to allow him to “patent” more than six thousand acres of land, and he led an exploratory force against the Rappahannock Indians. Perhaps most important, for himself and his children, he left behind a significant legacy of “tithables”—still mostly white indentured servants, but now also African-born servants for whom no indenture contract promised freedom.

Upon his death, however, he committed the same error of tradition that had inspired his own restlessness: he left control of most of his property to his oldest surviving son, John, and left his youngest surviving son, Robert, with only a thousand acres of land around Corotoman and six years of education in London in the keep of a merchant family named Bailey. One look at an early portrait of Robert Carter I, and a modern reader can easily grasp how little the obstacle of a small inheritance would have mattered to him: he poses in his older brother’s periwig, holding his older brother’s sword, both symbols of family leadership, and the sneer on his face implies that he would rather use the latter than surrender the former.

And when his older brother died, in 1690, and Robert Carter I earned the sword and periwig in earnest, he undertook what is arguably one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of American capital and politics. One year later, he was elected to the House of Burgesses, and he made his reputation there by delivering fearless speeches against the power of English land agents and by inspiring the construction of a “family” bloc of voters—Byrds, Churchills, and Fairfaxes, among others—who would govern Virginia for two generations. By 1696, he became Speaker. By 1700, he was appointed to the Governor’s Council. By 1703, he was taunting English power with even greater ferocity, denouncing Royal Governor Francis Nicholson with such vehemence that the startled Queen recalled her charge.

Shuttling back and forth between London (where he befriended, among others, the great philosopher John Locke) and Virginia, Carter acquired one lucrative administrative post after another: treasurer, naval officer, receiver of duties in the Rappahannock River, and, in 1702, agent for the proprietary of the Northern Neck, a position he had once denounced, and which gave him the right to survey, lease, and deed all lands between the headwater of the Potomac River and that of the Rappahannock. By 1711, the year he surrendered the agency, he had patented more than three hundred thousand acres of land—sometimes in his own name but usually in the names of close relatives.

By 1726, the year he became acting governor, he was one of the two richest men on the continent, a brilliant, eclectic businessman who frequently stayed awake until three in the morning, drinking red wine or brandy with a sea captain, and rising again at dawn to ride out across his fields. He owned forty-seven plantations (to which he gave names such as Changeling, Old Home, and Hills) and supervised the settlement of small farms across the colony. He collected rents, traded tobacco, maintained a fleet of commercial ships, and operated so many small businesses, ranging from brick kilns to copper mines, that Corotoman grew under his guidance to a complex of eighteen buildings, all surrounding a staggeringly large two-and-a-half-story brick mansion forty yards from the Rappahannock waterfront.

With two wives, he sired fifteen children, ten of whom lived into adulthood—five daughters, and five sons: John, Landon, George, Charles, and Robert II, the second son. Carter invested dynastic dreams in these children, and in the boys in particular. He sent them to school in England and assigned them reading lists filled with classics. He cleared Virginian forests for them and financed the construction of great brick mansions in the clearings. And then he prayed in letters to British merchants that he might be getting “a pennyworth for my penny.”

There was nothing he would not do, it was believed, to advance his fortune and that of his family. He used a coat of arms that belonged to an English family of Carters, but not his Carters, to impress British royals with his pedigree. He pled with English merchants for their business, telling Micajah Perry of London, for instance, to “pray allow me to be one of your first favorites. . . . I know ’tis easy for you to do, if you please.” He fought for every pound to which he thought himself entitled, no matter how callous it made him appear: when a fellow Virginian committed suicide in July 1725, for instance, Carter sued for the man’s possessions, arguing that “the goods of felons they have allowed me to take for several years,” and that “self-murder” is the “highest species of murder.”

Similarly, when Virginians began importing slaves in earnest around the turn of the eighteenth century, Carter enthusiastically joined the commerce. He became an aggressive and fastidious slave trader, mediating the sale of thousands of Africans, famed for rowing out to slave ships anchored off Corotoman to inspect the cargo. And he became an even more aggressive slaveholder, weeding out seven hundred men and women for his own use. Whenever possible, he saved for himself the “Gambers” from Senegambia—because he believed they possessed the African equivalent of the Protestant work ethic. And he treated them with relentless, businesslike cruelty: in 1723, he convinced the Virginia Council to permit the removal of toes as a punishment for the captured runaway slave, adding that he had “cured many a negro . . . by this means.”

Despite the great ambition with which Carter built his empire, however, he also possessed a leveling instinct: Francis Nicholson, the governor he helped drive out of Virginia, observed that some people called Carter “King,” and then only “in contempt,” but others called him “Robin” to his face. Carter regarded Virginia, not England, as his “country,” and felt toward the young colony an emotion not unlike patriotism. Similarly, while he viewed the loss of the affection of English merchants with “terror,” he savored the opportunity to harangue the symbolic keepers of English power, and not just land agents and governors. For two decades, he fought the king himself in English courts, arguing for a configuration of the Northern Neck proprietary that would have shifted control of vast reaches of America from the Royal Court in London to the piazza at Corotoman. Across every western horizon, he saw a dynasty, but a more egalitarian one: not only did he make sure that every one of his sons owned a vast estate, in itself a rebellion against the laws of primogeniture that limited his own opportunities to rise, but he made sure that his daughters and even his daughters-in-law were deeded large grants of cash, slaves, and property that would remain theirs no matter whom they married or how long they lived.

In the slave cabins, as well, Carter saw something to which others were blind. While other slaveholders expected their slaves to sleep on the hard dirt floors of their cabins, Carter ordered slave cabins built with shelves eighteen inches off the ground to accommodate beds. In a like manner, he ordered slave cabins with interior lofts to provide private storage spaces for the slaves. In his ledgers, he listed slaves by families, a small mercy that increased the likelihood that parents and children would not be separated from one another.

By the late 1720s, however, it was clear that his ability to sustain the many contradictory impulses that had guided him for decades was faltering with his old age. A lifetime of prodigious eating and drinking had left him plump and gouty, limping on a perpetually swollen right ankle, often restricted to bed and chair, gruel, small beer, and patent pills. Too many hours spent on the decks of slave ships left him susceptible to every pleurisy and fever. He tried crutches, then cupping and blistering. He became a “great smoker”: that soothed him. He hated losing his second wife so much that he refused to marry again, treating the loss like a fresh wound in letters for decades afterward.

Then there were his children. Landon, George, and Charles showed him every indication that they would give him his pennyworth, but Rob- ert II, a portly, unfocused young man, was harder to gauge. He married well—a Carter had to marry well—to a young heiress named Priscilla Churchill, whose father was a councillor. But otherwise, he showed no real zeal for empire, preferring to survey the wilderness than run the plantation his father built for him on the Potomac—and named, like Corotoman, after the local Indian tribe, the Nomony—and unwilling to hold the lucrative government position his father secured for him collecting taxes on the Rappahannock. “Thus you see I am no stranger to the story of the Gospel,” Carter wrote in 1721, referring to the namesake who was turning out to be more prodigal son than monarch-in-waiting.

More important, however, King Carter was sick about the state of his own soul, acting more and more like a man who didn’t savor wealth and empire as much as he thought he would. He built Corotoman, for instance, and filled it with white marble and delft tile imported from Europe, but kept his father’s old wooden house intact on the grounds. He wore a diamond ring and a gold watch, but refused to own any silver—a telling refusal, given that most Virginian gentry were infatuated with the metal. He found a coarse word to describe people he thought were “too great lovers of this world”: they were “muckworms.” He began to fill his business correspondence with “sublunary blessings” for peace, and miss sermons at Christ Church.

Finally, he became convinced that he was going insane: revising his will, he actually described himself as being in “a crazy, disordered condition.” Shortly later, he regarded the legal disadvantages of this claim, and rewrote the clause to read “sound mind.” But the mind was not satisfied, and it may not have been sound. He began to write of the “madness of the people,” a vision of a future conflict born from his own failure, and that of his neighbors, to attain what they came to America to acquire: “It is an old adage that oppressions make a wise man mad,” he wrote. “What our madness will produce, I can hardly promise myself to live to see the end of.”

When Robert Carter III was born, at Corotoman in February 1728 to Robert Carter II and Priscilla Churchill—their second child, after a daughter named Elizabeth—King Carter was briefly overjoyed. Grandchildren soothed him more than even tobacco: “I have the blessing of seeing my children’s children before me,” he told one correspondent the winter before. And he made sure that the child entered the world well: when Robert III was three months old, King gave him his first African slave, one of “three Girls for my three Grand Children” he ordered as gifts.

But King Carter’s “blessing” was short-lived. In early 1729, when his grandson was just turning one, a fire gutted the mansion at Corotoman, down to the wine cellar. Rather than rebuild, King Carter simply moved his family back into the wooden house his father built. Events only worsened, however. In February 1732, Robert II, his prodigal son, died suddenly. He was twenty-nine and had overdosed on opium, a condition his brother Landon described as “blood so divided and rarified as to finish life with an universal Mortification.” The funeral, which took place at Nomony, where Robert II had settled his family, was warm but brief: watch over the “dearly beloved pretty Babes,” the minister asked God, as he looked upon Robert III and his older sister, Betty.

King Carter grieved so deeply that he could barely write letters, and six months later, on August 4, he also died. The American Weekly Mercury reported that he “died of the Flux, which ’tis supposed he caught on board a Vessel from which he bought several Negroes.” Regally, he left the world, leaving few signs of the ambivalence that had marked his last few years. His will ran sixty-five pages. His tomb, rising from the lawn of the stately new version of Christ Church that he had commissioned and financed, was engraved with a lengthy ode to his statesmanship and energy, composed in Latin: cum regiam dignitatem et publicam libertatem aequali jure asseruit (“he defended with equal justice the royal authority and the common freedom”). Others felt differently: according to legend, the stone was large enough to bear a second epitaph, scrawled by an anonymous and scarcely reverent mourner:

Here lies Robin, but not Robin Hood,

Here lies Robin that never was good,

Here lies Robin that God has forsaken

Here lies Robin the Devil has taken.

By his fourth birthday, an age when the typical gentry boy was still wearing a petticoat, a frock, and a rope around the waist tied to something or someone sturdy, Robert Carter III had suddenly inherited one of the largest fortunes in America. As well, he had inherited sole possession of the most respected, and the most reviled, name in Virginia.

3

Robert “King” Carter was protean, a manipulator of systems who was so serpentine that it was easy to think of him as the devil’s partner, an acquirer of land who was so high-handed and yet so innocent it was easy to call him King, both because he acted like one and because he dreamed of being one. Eventually, King Carter would get his dynasty, if obliquely: his descendants would include presidents William Henry and Benjamin Harrison, five signers of the Declaration of Independence, and General Robert E. Lee, but all the legendary lines would pass through his daughters, not his sons. Eventually, too, historians would regard him, as did Bishop Meade in the late eighteenth century, as a mythic oddity, the originator (John Carter fading into obscurity) of one of Virginia’s most “eccentric” families.

But King Carter’s eccentricity was principled, even if it was confused. King could be both a kind and a cruel slaveholder because he saw the financial possibilities in both kind and cruel treatment. He was not driven by the desire to control his slaves, nor to seek their affection. By the same standard, he was not compelled to keep wealth (nor, for that matter, education) away from his daughters simply because they were women, when distributing wealth and breeding to them only made the dynasty stronger. To King Carter, the contradiction between regal fantasies and egalitarian ones was not a weakness but a source of strength: it was easier to have two American dreams than one. He placed no bounds on his wealth and power. And when the time came, he placed no bounds on his criticism of wealth and power, either.

In part, King Carter could be so energetic and so successful in acquiring land, slaves, and a certain wildness of intellect because the Virginia in which he thrived remained such a wild place. Early-eighteenth-century tourists called the colony a “desert,” and were depressed by its miles and miles of sandy country road, its monotonous, unmarked forests, and its many ruins, those wooden houses built during the lumber infatuation of the seventeenth century burned by fire in tinderbox Virginian summers, or leveled by “gust.”

By the time Robert Carter III was born, however, Virginia had begun to mature. There was a capital now, and even if Williamsburg was a “wretch’d contrived affair,” as one London literatus wrote, its streets so soft that a gentleman exiting a tavern could find his foot submerged up to the ankle in leaves, sand, and oyster shells, it nevertheless hosted a maturing political assembly in an imposing brick building on one end of Duke of Gloucester Street, and a new college named William and Mary in an impressive Christopher Wren–influenced “pile” on the other end.

Across the countryside, meanwhile, planters had begun to complete the first generation of great brick mansions, imposing their wealth upon the land in a way that suggested that, after a century, they were here to stay. Within the brick mansions, planters created a rigid, powerful aristocracy, an inbred, watchful group of roughly three dozen families: “They are all Brothers, Sisters, or Cousins,” Mary Willing, William Byrd’s Philadelphia-born second wife, wrote home in 1760, “so that if you use one person in the Colony ill, you affront all.” Within the imposing brick building in Williamsburg, those same aristocrats enacted the legislation that would be known as “slave codes,” passed when slave revolts were rumored, or recently suppressed: if a slave practiced medicine, he would “suffer death without benefit of clergy”; if he provided “false testimony,” his ears would be “nailed to the pillory, and cut off.” Public humiliation, the burgesses believed, would deter disobedience as much as would torture: for small crimes, a slave might be “burnt in the hand, by the goaler in open court,” or might receive “thirty nine lashes on your bare back, well laid on, at the common whipping post.”

Next door to the mansions, meanwhile, a new breed of colonial freeman was emerging, neither rich nor poor but hungry for status and liberty. For instance, on the same day in February 1732 that Robert Carter II’s death was eulogized in the Maryland Gazette, George Washington was born in the solid wooden home on his father’s ten-thousand-acre farm at Pope’s Creek, roughly fifteen miles west of Nomony Hall. One hundred twenty miles farther west, meanwhile, in the forests of Albemarle County, a country gentleman named Peter Jefferson, still more than a decade away from the birth of his first son, Thomas, was sifting through his own younger-brother share of his father’s inheritance, which consisted of some lands along the Fine and the Manikin creeks, two slaves, and some livestock and horses.

Robert Carter III joined this stage as Robert Carter I and Robert Carter II left it, as the mansion that represented their family burned and fell to ruin, as if his destiny, to dismantle the empire his grandfather and father built, were foreordained. Even without the mansion, his infancy must have been idyllic, the sensation that a world revolved around him immanent in everything he did and saw: a christening in the marble baptismal font at Christ Church; Sunday morning coach rides down the three-mile road lined with cedars that led straight and unerring from the house at Corotoman to the church; views of the wide, flat, shining Rappahannock, its banks blanketed by pine needles, the river itself “filled” with merchant ships, and pirates—“Spaniards from St. Augustin.” Then there were views within Corotoman itself: the sturdy, dependent buildings that housed King Carter’s spinners, coachmen, millers, brick-makers, shipbuilders, and army of bookkeepers; the orchards and gardens that were growing apples, peaches, apricots, quinces, strawberries, and gooseberries; the pens housing King Carter’s hogs and cattle; thousands of acres of Indian corn and thousands upon thousands of acres of tobacco; and the fields themselves swarmed by “gangs” of slaves all bent over fledgling tobacco plants, fifteen or twenty to a gang, each with a slave foreman to maintain order and rhythm from dawn until dusk.

As well, his material needs, from the moment of his father’s death, had been addressed. His uncles—George, Charles, and the tempestuous Landon—expressed love for their nephew in the way that Carters expressed love for one another: in 1734, they authored special legislation ensuring that the six-year-old received his father’s entire share of King Carter’s fortune, a share equal to theirs. Likewise, his mother shortly provided both surrogate father and surrogate family. In 1735, she remarried, matching her fortune to that of John Lewis of Warner Hall, a stratagem of romance and finance made possible by the Carter dedication to shrewd marriages and strong widows: King Carter, before dying, ensured that his daughter-in-law would retain her right of dower in the event of her widowing, enabling her to marry well the second time.

In practical terms, however, the significance of the loss of Robert Carter’s father and grandfather was immense: Virginian men at mid- century rose and fell on their fathers’ fortunes and their fathers’ influence, and Robert Carter had the former without the latter. Jefferson lost his father at the age of fourteen: he wrote later of the sorrow with which he was “thrown on a wide world . . . without a friend or guardian.” But Carter was only four, not fourteen. He quickly slipped through the cracks of family regard, a Cinderella with money: when his stepfather, John Lewis, wrote a letter describing his family during the period, he doted on his own sons, and spoke freely of “Miss Betty Carter,” but not Betty Carter’s brother. Possessed of a great fortune and a great name but with no true father to sting him with shame when he did wrong, he became unmanageable, and was shuttled around as if his mother and stepfather could find no place for him. They sent him to the grammar school at William and Mary in Williamsburg at the age of nine, which was two years earlier than the college mandated, accompanied by one black servant and a new set of clothes. Then they brought him back two years later, even though the grammar school course of study ran for four years. Upon returning home, he should certainly have been placed under the care of a tutor, the conventional method by which wealthy colonials educated their children. Robert Carter, however, “studied without the assistance of a tutor”—which means, in all likelihood, that he did not study at all.

When Robert Carter III turned twenty-one in February 1749, however, and attained his majority, his education was not relevant. He inherited his one hundred slaves and his sixty-five thousand acres, parceled out across the Northern Neck, areas near Winchester and Alexandria, and several rugged tracts along the Shenandoah River to the west. It did not excite him: four months later, he booked passage on a packet for Liverpool, the Everton, and located for himself an amiable traveling companion, Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s half brother.

At this time, the provincials of Virginia regarded London with ambivalence. They recognized that London was a better finishing school than Williamsburg and a vastly better arena within which to pursue advantageous business connections. But they also worried, as did Maria Byrd, that their sons might acquire smallpox in the Old World; and, like Landon Carter, who called his own son a “monster” upon the boy’s return from London, they lamented the success with which British gamblers, prostitutes, and tailors encouraged the licentious appetites of their children.

Carter pursued some perfunctory version of the former. On December 1, alongside Philip Ludwell Lee, Carter joined the Honorable Society of the Inner Temple, the distinguished law school of the Four Courts of London. Similarly, he made himself the protégé of Edward Athawes, a respected merchant who traded with many of the great Virginia families. But he took no classes, never stood for the bar, and appears to have read little: John Page called him “illiterate.” And rather than learning a trade, he learned its opposite: “My gratifications exceeded my yearly income,” he would blandly observe a decade later.

By 1751, when Carter returned from London, it was clear that something was wrong. In his wake, he left bad blood: in 1754, Edward Kimber, the editor of London’s Gentleman’s Magazine, published a novel entitled History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson: Containing his Strange Varieties of Fortune in Europe and America, Compiled from his Own Papers. The novel featured as its antagonist a wealthy, corrupt young American slaveholder, “the richest heir” in the colony, but “a lad of bad principles, unlettered, and of coarse manners,” who is murdered, in the novel’s crowd-pleasing ending, by his own slaves: Kimber named this villain Carter.

In Williamsburg, meanwhile, public opinion was scarcely kinder. John Page’s father regarded Carter as yet another example of a young man ruined by London. Page himself described Carter’s mind as “confused,” in addition to being “vicious.” John Blair, who would later become acting governor, wrote in his diary on July 4, 1751, “I hear Mr. R. Carter intends to build and live at Williamsburgh and to persuade all the gentlemen he can to do so too.” Two weeks later, Blair became derisive: “Sad news of poor wretched Bob Carter,” he wrote. “I hope he won’t come to live in Williamsburgh.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

The First Emancipator


By Andrew Levy

Random House

Andrew Levy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375508651


Chapter One

Chapter I

King of America

[1728–1768]

“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 shared a pastor with George Washington, and teachers with Thomas Jefferson. He even played alongside Jefferson in a musical quartet, the future composer of the Declaration of Independence tuning his fiddle to Carter's harpsichord amid the echoes of the Virginia royal governor's long ballroom.

That Carter chose to transcend the conservative roots of his childhood and young adulthood, then, is no surprise. Many did. The surprise lies elsewhere: why did the same republican influences that moved the founders instead move Carter to become their mirror image, capable of doing what they could not, and unable to do what they did so well?

2

For John Carter, the first Carter to plant himself in Virginian soil, the logic of emigration was irrefutable. On the one hand, he was a stubborn royalist, a member of a family of London vintners who supported the monarchy, and Charles I would soon lose his head to Cromwell's revolution. On the other hand, he was the youngest son in his family, which meant that, according to the ancient law of primogeniture, he would receive little of his father's wealth. Instead, he would be expected to join the clergy, take the bar, or serve under his brothers in the family firm. Under the old system, he had little future; under the new, it seemed, he had even less.

The Virginia Colony, however, was another story. By 1635, the year that twenty-two-year-old John Carter sailed to the New World, almost three decades had elapsed since a few score of merchants, soldiers, and indentured servants had begun settling on the banks of a wide river they named after King James I. Over the course of those three decades, the free English of Virginia, who numbered in the low thousands, kept the Indians at bay, “seasoned” themselves to the mysterious, infectious American climate, and transformed their family names and modest merchant fortunes into large tracts of American soil. They filled the new colony with little wooden homes, one-and-a-half-story frames with steep cat-slide roofs like they remembered from the English West Country, or multichamber log cabins that undulated with the ground beneath them. They built orchards and laid out cornfields, but mostly they seeded tobacco, in thousands upon thousands of tiny hills each no bigger than a small child, each requiring the care of a small child. To tend those fields, they imported so many Irish, convicts, and recalcitrant indentured servants that reformers on both sides of the Atlantic began to regard Virginia as “a sinke to drayen England of her filth and scum.”

It was an age of great possibility, and great horror. On July 30, 1619, in a small brick church in Jamestown, the first democratically elected assembly in North America gathered, twenty-two men calling themselves “Burgesses.” Three weeks later, perhaps fifty yards down a short embankment to the Jamestown wharf, a Dutch man-of-war delivered the first “twenty and odd” Africans to the continent, men with Spanish names purchased to alleviate the labor shortage. John Carter, possessing a younger brother's hunger for advancement and wealth, acclimated himself quickly. By 1641, he was elected to the House of Burgesses representing Upper Norfolk, frontier land well northwest of Jamestown. By 1652, he had moved to the Northern Neck, the verdant spit of land reaching out into the Chesapeake between the wide Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. There he had purchased 1,300 acres of land on a windblown, pine-covered little peninsula on the Rappahannock: an exposed place, more bay than land almost, defiantly cool in a Virginia summer, and covered with rich, loamy soil that held tobacco plants like nothing he could have possessed in England.

He built a one-room wooden house on the edge of his windblown peninsula, coated it with stucco made of oyster shells, and called the surrounding farm Corotoman, after the local Indian tribe. Three miles inland, he built a church he named after Christ, another one-room wooden affair. By the time he died, in 1669, he had married five times, produced an unrecorded number of children (four of whom survived him), and served in the House of Burgesses and as a member of the powerful, royally appointed Governor's Council. As well, he convinced the crown to allow him to “patent” more than six thousand acres of land, and he led an exploratory force against the Rappahannock Indians. Perhaps most important, for himself and his children, he left behind a significant legacy of “tithables”—still mostly white indentured servants, but now also African-born servants for whom no indenture contract promised freedom.

Upon his death, however, he committed the same error of tradition that had inspired his own restlessness: he left control of most of his property to his oldest surviving son, John, and left his youngest surviving son, Robert, with only a thousand acres of land around Corotoman and six years of education in London in the keep of a merchant family named Bailey. One look at an early portrait of Robert Carter I, and a modern reader can easily grasp how little the obstacle of a small inheritance would have mattered to him: he poses in his older brother's periwig, holding his older brother's sword, both symbols of family leadership, and the sneer on his face implies that he would rather use the latter than surrender the former.

And when his older brother died, in 1690, and Robert Carter I earned the sword and periwig in earnest, he undertook what is arguably one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of American capital and politics. One year later, he was elected to the House of Burgesses, and he made his reputation there by delivering fearless speeches against the power of English land agents and by inspiring the construction of a “family” bloc of voters—Byrds, Churchills, and Fairfaxes, among others—who would govern Virginia for two generations. By 1696, he became Speaker. By 1700, he was appointed to the Governor's Council. By 1703, he was taunting English power with even greater ferocity, denouncing Royal Governor Francis Nicholson with such vehemence that the startled Queen recalled her charge.

Shuttling back and forth between London (where he befriended, among others, the great philosopher John Locke) and Virginia, Carter acquired one lucrative administrative post after another: treasurer, naval officer, receiver of duties in the Rappahannock River, and, in 1702, agent for the proprietary of the Northern Neck, a position he had once denounced, and which gave him the right to survey, lease, and deed all lands between the headwater of the Potomac River and that of the Rappahannock. By 1711, the year he surrendered the agency, he had patented more than three hundred thousand acres of land—sometimes in his own name but usually in the names of close relatives.

By 1726, the year he became acting governor, he was one of the two richest men on the continent, a brilliant, eclectic businessman who frequently stayed awake until three in the morning, drinking red wine or brandy with a sea captain, and rising again at dawn to ride out across his fields. He owned forty-seven plantations (to which he gave names such as Changeling, Old Home, and Hills) and supervised the settlement of small farms across the colony. He collected rents, traded tobacco, maintained a fleet of commercial ships, and operated so many small businesses, ranging from brick kilns to copper mines, that Corotoman grew under his guidance to a complex of eighteen buildings, all surrounding a staggeringly large two-and-a-half-story brick mansion forty yards from the Rappahannock waterfront.

With two wives, he sired fifteen children, ten of whom lived into adulthood—five daughters, and five sons: John, Landon, George, Charles, and Robert II, the second son. Carter invested dynastic dreams in these children, and in the boys in particular. He sent them to school in England and assigned them reading lists filled with classics. He cleared Virginian forests for them and financed the construction of great brick mansions in the clearings. And then he prayed in letters to British merchants that he might be getting “a pennyworth for my penny.”

There was nothing he would not do, it was believed, to advance his fortune and that of his family. He used a coat of arms that belonged to an English family of Carters, but not his Carters, to impress British royals with his pedigree. He pled with English merchants for their business, telling Micajah Perry of London, for instance, to “pray allow me to be one of your first favorites. . . . I know 'tis easy for you to do, if you please.” He fought for every pound to which he thought himself entitled, no matter how callous it made him appear: when a fellow Virginian committed suicide in July 1725, for instance, Carter sued for the man's possessions, arguing that “the goods of felons they have allowed me to take for several years,” and that “self-murder” is the “highest species of murder.”

Similarly, when Virginians began importing slaves in earnest around the turn of the eighteenth century, Carter enthusiastically joined the commerce. He became an aggressive and fastidious slave trader, mediating the sale of thousands of Africans, famed for rowing out to slave ships anchored off Corotoman to inspect the cargo. And he became an even more aggressive slaveholder, weeding out seven hundred men and women for his own use. Whenever possible, he saved for himself the “Gambers” from Senegambia—because he believed they possessed the African equivalent of the Protestant work ethic. And he treated them with relentless, businesslike cruelty: in 1723, he convinced the Virginia Council to permit the removal of toes as a punishment for the captured runaway slave, adding that he had “cured many a negro . . . by this means.”

Despite the great ambition with which Carter built his empire, however, he also possessed a leveling instinct: Francis Nicholson, the governor he helped drive out of Virginia, observed that some people called Carter “King,” and then only “in contempt,” but others called him “Robin” to his face. Carter regarded Virginia, not England, as his “country,” and felt toward the young colony an emotion not unlike patriotism. Similarly, while he viewed the loss of the affection of English merchants with “terror,” he savored the opportunity to harangue the symbolic keepers of English power, and not just land agents and governors. For two decades, he fought the king himself in English courts, arguing for a configuration of the Northern Neck proprietary that would have shifted control of vast reaches of America from the Royal Court in London to the piazza at Corotoman. Across every western horizon, he saw a dynasty, but a more egalitarian one: not only did he make sure that every one of his sons owned a vast estate, in itself a rebellion against the laws of primogeniture that limited his own opportunities to rise, but he made sure that his daughters and even his daughters-in-law were deeded large grants of cash, slaves, and property that would remain theirs no matter whom they married or how long they lived.

In the slave cabins, as well, Carter saw something to which others were blind.

Continues...


Excerpted from The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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