Re-Thinking American History

by W.D. Ehrhart

I have spent my entire life reading. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” Even in Vietnam, as an 18-year-old, I read whatever I could get my hands on from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run to Voltaire’s Candide to John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

I don’t read many books more than once because there are so many good books to read, but I’ve read multiple times David Howarth’s 1066: The Year of the Conquest, and Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade. I re-read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick every five years or so because it is the greatest epic poem in the English language.

A few books have caused me or forced me to alter my thinking immediately and significantly, most notably Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, and Paul Lyons’s Class of ’66: Living in Suburban Middle America, which changed my perceptions of the World War II and Vietnam generations respectively.

But never has a book offered such startling new information that it has required me to revise and re-think my entire understanding of the whole of American history. Until now, that is. Having recently finished Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter, that is exactly what I have had to do.

Who even ever heard of Robert Carter III? Not me, and I’m a pretty solid student of history, especially American history. Yet he was one of the very wealthiest planters in 18th century Virginia, a contemporary and friend of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Patrick Henry, a supporter of the American Revolution.

But what should have made him unavoidably famous was that in 1791, he filed a Deed of Gift with Virginia’s Westmoreland District Court providing for the emancipation of his nearly 500 slaves. Go back and read that sentence again. Yet I’ve never heard of him until a few weeks ago, nor have most of you who are reading this.

Moreover, this was not a precipitous and immediate emancipation, but rather a carefully thought-out and gradual freeing of his slaves over time with adequate provision for elderly and infirm slaves as well as for children.

Thus, while our larger-than-life heroic Founding Fathers were writing eloquently of liberty, freedom, and equality, privately and sometimes publicly deploring slavery, they nevertheless insisted that it was economically impossible to escape the tangled web of slavery, and culturally infeasible to free the slaves without also removing them from white society by sending them all west of the Mississippi or back to Africa.

No wonder no one has ever heard of Carter. His story was buried almost before he died in 1804 because he laid bare the hypocrisy of those great Virginians who have become—and were becoming even then—the heroes of our American mythological story. The knights in shining armor. Men who struggled with their consciences and agonized over their unsolvable dilemma. Men who did the best they could with the contradictory circumstances in which they found themselves.

Carter demonstrated that emancipation was possible, and economically feasible, even providing through his Deed of Gift a detailed blueprint for how it could be done gradually, without removal of Blacks from the southern states, and with minimal economic disruption. Moreover, had more large planters followed his lead, it might well have been possible to build an integrated society that did not give rise to Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow.

We’ll never know, of course, because not one other large Virginia planter had the courage to follow Carter’s lead. Not only that, but most of his peers—and even some of his heirs—made it clear that they thoroughly disapproved of his decision, and turned him into a social outcast instead of a person to be admired and emulated.

And because Carter was neither a writer nor a politician nor a man who sought attention and acclaim, he left no stirring explanations of what he had done or why he had done it. There was not then and is not now anything so inspiring as Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty” or Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” or James Madison’s “We the People.”

We have only Carter’s no-frills, functional, nuts-and-bolts Deed of Gift, which begins, “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain (these human beings) in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice, and that therefor [sic] it was my duty to manumit them.”

So much for Jefferson’s “wolf by the ears” analogy. Or even Washington’s freeing of his 125 slaves in his own will—but not until after Martha had gotten her lifetime’s use of their slave labor; they would be freed only upon her death. (She ended up freeing them before she died for fear that they might kill her in order to gain their freedom, but she did not free the scores of slaves she owned in her own right.)

We know very little about what became of the 452 men, women and children who were once Carter’s property. Scattered widely over multiple properties owned and leased out by Carter, some of them were never told they’d been freed. Others were re-enslaved by hook or by crook. But many remained free, as did their children and children’s children down to the present day.

Only in recent decades have descendants of both Carter and the slaves he freed organized the Carter Society, about which you can learn more at the Nomini Hall Slave Legacy Project.

Meanwhile, especially in these times of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and “dog whistle politics,” remember that those Founding Fathers we revere, who enshrined slavery in the Constitution of the United States without ever using the word, could have chosen a different path. Instead, they chose to all-but-obliterate from history the man who took that path.


W.D. Ehrhart holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and spent many years as a Master Teacher of History & English at the Haverford School for Boys.


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