Robert Carter III
Robert Carter III
|Born||February 28, 1727|
|Died||March 10, 1804|
|Alma mater||College of William and Mary|
|Spouse(s)||Frances Ann Tasker|
Robert "Councillor" Carter III (February 1727/28 – March 10, 1804) was a plantation owner from Virginia, United States, who for two decades sat on the Virginia Governor's Council. With the assistance of Baptist, Quaker and Swedenborgian faith, Carter began what became the largest release of slaves in North America prior to the American Civil War. By a deed of gift filed with Northumberland County on September 5, 1791, and related documents filed in Westmoreland County in subsequent years, Carter began the process of manumitting 500 slaves in his lifetime.
Early life and career
Carter was the grandson of Virginia land baron Robert "King" Carter of Corotoman. In 1732, both his father and grandfather died, leaving the young boy in the care of his uncles George, Charles and Landon Carter, as well as his mother, who remarried in 1735 to John Lewis of Warner Hall in Gloucester County. At age 9, young Robert was sent to the College of William and Mary, and in 1749 he came of age and received his inheritance. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool with Lawrence Washington, Carter travelled to London, where he and Philip Ludwell Lee started legal studies at the Inner Temple. Carter returned to Virginia in 1751 before being admitted to the bar. He took up residence at the Nomony Hall, and unsuccessfully campaigned at least twice for a seat in the House of Burgesses, although he did secure an appointment to the Westmoreland County Court in 1752.
Carter left Virginia again in 1754, and married Frances Ann Tasker, daughter of former Maryland governor Benjamin Tasker. They ultimately had seventeen children, of which eight daughters and four sons reached adulthood. The successful marriage seemed to settle Carter, who began to pay attention to his vast landholdings, as well as politics. In 1758, using his in-laws' connections with the Board of Trade, Carter secured an appointment by King George II to the Virginia Governor's Council. When George III succeeded his grandfather in 1760, Carter was reappointed to the post, which served as the colony's appellate court as well as advised on executive matters. He purchased a house in Williamsburg from his cousin Robert Carter Nicholas and moved his growing family there in 1761. Carter, whom John Page once called "illiterate", began reading voraciously, as well as socializing with the city's intellectuals, including Governor Fauquier, George Wythe, William Small, John Blair and young Thomas Jefferson.
At first loyal to his King, Carter expressed support for the Crown during the period of popular rejoicing that accompanied news of George III's repeal of the Stamp Act. However, Parliament passed additional laws obnoxious to colonial interests, and by 1772 the new Governor Dunmore exacerbated tensions. That year, Carter moved his ailing family (having lost three young daughters to unknown illnesses within 11 months) back to Nomony Hall, announcing his retirement from public life. Carter never appeared in the Governor's Council minutes (other than as present) after it voted to allow slaveholders or local authorities to punish slaves without due process. Moreover, rather than educate his sons at the College of William and Mary, Carter hired Philip Fithian as tutor.
Carter concentrated his efforts on trade, including ironworks, a textile factory and a flour mill, in addition to draining swamps around Nomony and diversifying crops at all his plantations. Although publicly neutral, Carter honored the continental boycott declared in 1774, and in 1775 joined Richard Corbin in expressing the council's concern about rumors of British marines being stationed at Williamsburg. Carter declined to give the loyalty assurances Dunmore required, and Dunmore dissolved the council in 1776. Carter gave a loyalty oath to the new Commonwealth of Virginia the following summer. Although Carter also declined political offices mentioned by Patriot friends, he began supplying provisions and bayonets to the American cause in the Revolution, so British ships raided his plantations near the Potomac river.
Slaveholding and spiritual seeking
Although his great-grandfather John Carter had freed slaves in his will (as well as provided homesteads and livestock for them), manumission became illegal in the year Carter's father and grandfather died, and did not again become legal until 1783. King Carter had greatly expanded slavery in Virginia, purchasing many from ships and owning more than a thousand slaves upon his death. King Carter gave his grandson his first slave (a girl) when he was just three months old. By the time he came of legal age in 1749, Robert Carter III owned 6,500 acres (2,600 ha) of land and 100 slaves. Although Carter sold land and some slaves to pay his debts in 1758, he did not purchase slaves (unlike George Washington and other neighbors), and became known for his humane treatment for the region. Carter's plantations had roughly double the rate of slave population increase as others in the state. Carter was particularly moved by the example of Governor Fauquier, who in his will allowed his slaves to choose their masters. When Carter became a co-administrator of his father-in-law's estate, he (with the support of Daniel Dulany) delayed scheduling a sale of the slaves of Bel-Air plantation, since that would break up families, although his procrastination led to more than 18 years of litigation with his Tasker in-laws. Furthermore, Carter rarely whipped slaves, or allowed them to be whipped, let alone scarred them, although he whipped his children, particularly his eldest son Robert Bladen.
Carter became known for his religious freethinking and support of dissenters even before the Revolution. He resigned from the Cople Parish Church vestry in 1776, and during the following year had a mystical experience while feverish from smallpox inoculation. This prompted further spiritual seeking, from composing his own prayer for God to "have pity upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels & Hereticks", to making trips to experience Quaker, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist preachers, as well as investigating Arminianism and perhaps Catholicism (although such was illegal in Virginia at the time). On September 6, 1778, the Rev. Lewis Lunsford baptised Carter in Totuskey Creek. Carter scandalized neighbors further by joining Morattico Baptist Church, a mixed congregation of white and black, free and slave. Carter knew he risked persecution, for Eleazar Clay, another wealthy man, had his life threatened after conversion, and during the three weeks preceding his own baptism Carter attended two different services that were attacked by armed mobs which included Revolutionary War veterans. Frances Ann Tasker Carter, who was declared an invalid in October 1779 after the birth of their 16th child, moved to Bladensburg, Maryland for health reasons, and eventually converted to the Baptist faith there a year before her death in 1787.
Meanwhile, Carter became a prominent Baptist, serving on its General Association, financing the foundation of several churches in the Northern Neck, and corresponding with eminent ministers. The noted Methodist missionary and anti-slavery activist Francis Asbury also lodged at Nomony Hall at least twice after Carter's Baptist conversion.
Carter believed human slavery immoral, and tried to pass his beliefs to his children. However, his eldest son, Robert Bladen (although an admirer of the poet Phyllis Wheatley), at least twice sold young female slaves against his father's wishes. He also gambled and incurred such large debts that when Robert Bladen fled to England in 1783, his father was compelled to liquidate not only lands, but also slaves and thus break up families. Moreover, in 1785 his son-in-law John Peck sold slaves given to his daughter Anne Tasker as a dowry before their northward move, so Carter gave his remaining daughters dowries which excluded human property. In February 1786, Carter decided to send his youngest sons George and John Tasker Carter to the new Baptist university in Rhode Island (what is now Brown University) and wrote to its minister president James Manning:
I beg leave to appoint you their Foster Father intimating that my desire is that both my Said Sons shd. be active Characters in Life ... The prevailing Notion now is to Continue the most abject State of Slavery in this Common-Wealth – On this Consideration only, I do not intend that these my two Sons shall return to this State till each of them arrive to the Age of 21 years.
In November 1788, Carter sent three daughters to live with Baptist friends in Baltimore, instructing their hosts "Girls are not to act by a Maid, but by themselves," although he also sent a slave as barter for their room and board.
During the 1780s, even the Baptist Church began to segregate its meetings, tumult rocked the General Committee after the Ketocton Association passed a motion that hereditary slavery was "contrary to the word of God," and Morattico Baptist Church changed its rule to allow only free male members to vote. The grieving widower responded by drafting a charter for Yeocomico Church which required egalitarian voting, then left Morattico for the splinter congregation, signing its charter below the signatures of several slaves. Carter also unsuccessfully ran for a position in the Virginia Ratification Convention. He experienced several bouts of illness, cared for by his daughter Sarah Fairfax, whose proposed marriage to Richard Bland Lee Carter postponed, perhaps because of the suitor's pro-slavery ideas.
Carter continued to host spiritual seekers, including a "Mr. Moyce" who in January 1788 introduced him to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Scandinavian aristocrat, scientist and mystic whose writings Carter began to request from business correspondents. Another critical point came in December 1789, when Carter "died", perhaps another religious experience tinged by illness. In 1790, Carter wrote British Baptist elder John Rippon, "the toleration of slavery indicates very great depravity of mind." He also criticized ministers who offered universal redemption, but only "partial Election before Creation". Nonetheless, as the Baptist Church grew more pro-slavery, it grew more popular, claiming 20,000 members in Virginia in 1790; it had become Virginia's second largest sect a decade later.
In the years after the Revolutionary War, Virginia's legislature (having barred the slave trade in 1778) passed several laws sympathetic to freeing slaves, although it did not pass a law legalizing manumission until 1782, and throttled many petitions for wider emancipation. Numerous slaveholders in the Chesapeake Bay area freed their slaves, often in their wills (like Quaker John Pleasants) or deeds, and noted principles of equality as reason for their decisions. The number of free African Americans increased in the Upper South from less than one percent before the Revolution, to 10 percent by 1810. In Delaware, three-fourths of the slaves had been freed by 1810. In the decade after the act's passage, Virginians had freed 10,000 slaves, without visible social disruptions. The price of slaves reached a 20-year low as the percentage listed as "black, tithable" (i.e. slaves) fell below 40%, the lowest point in the century. However, Virginia's courts sidestepped issuing appellate decisions ratifying emancipation until 1799, and the methodology of within-life emancipation was not established.
Carter hoped a gradual emancipation plan would pass Virginia's legislature. His neighbor Ferdinando Fairfax published one such plan in a Philadelphia-based journal, and Quaker Warner Mifflin presented petitions to Congress to do the same, but James Madison buried the proposals in committee. In early 1791, Carter refused to rent a plantation to Charles Mynn Thruston a Revolutionary veteran and Anglican minister with whose racial views he disagreed. His Baptist friend John Leland also left Virginia after a final anti-slavery sermon, which Carter copied in full into his journal.
Carter nonetheless began a personal program of gradual manumission of slaves on his many estates. He announced his plan on August 1, 1791, and began a new legal process by recording a Deed of Gift in Northumberland County on September 5, 1791. Since the manumission law required a five shilling fee, and Carter had plantations and slaves in several Virginia counties, he corresponded with the Westmoreland County clerk (where he resided) and followed up by filing manumission papers at the Westmoreland County court sessions the following February, May, July and August, despite resistance of his son-in-law John Peck, various overseers and tenants. Carter designed the gradual program to reduce the opposition of slave-owning white neighbors, but failed. He refused tenants' requests to relocate slave breeding women to circumvent the Deed of Gift. That winter Carter was shunned, although he sought help from fellow slavery opponents including George Mason (who declined to help and cited his own age and infirmity). By the filings of February 27, 1793, Carter was ahead of his own planned schedule. Moreover, he refused to relocate freed blacks, and began offering them wages, as well as grants and tenancies, sometimes dispossessing obstreperous white tenants. Carter began investigating relocating to the District of Columbia, and leased Nomony plantation and its servants to his son J.T. on April 26, 1793 (expressly conditional to the Deed of Gift).
Then, before the next Westmoreland court session, perhaps victimized by mob action such as tar-and-feathers, Carter and his daughters fled by ship with Negro George and Negro Betty to Baltimore (on May 8, 1793). He never returned, despite numerous entreaties. The meetinghouse used for the Yeocomico Baptist Church burned down six months after Carter left; Carter saved an unsigned complaining letter (which he believed from Thruston) that compared the Deed of Gift to fire destroying neighbors' houses.
Later life and death
Upon reaching Baltimore, Carter received the news that his son Robert Bladen had died in London, nine days after being assaulted by a city sheriff trying to collect gambling debts. Nonetheless, Carter joined the congregation of James Jones Wilmer, an Episcopalian minister receptive to Swedenborg's views, bought a small house on Green Street, and began attending many religious meetings. Before leaving Nomony Hall, Carter locked his books and papers in the library, and gave the only key not to his son J.T., but to a wandering Baptist preacher named Benjamin Dawson. Dawson proved a corrupt debt collector, but diligent abolitionist, duly securing legal papers from Carter in Baltimore and filing them in Westmoreland and other counties to free slaves. Carter made provision for his relatives, allocating them land, but not the slaves who were the subject of the Deed of Gift. On July 26, 1797, upon learning from Dawson that attorney John Wickham doubted the legal validity of the power of attorney which allowed Dawson to file further manumission papers, Carter executed an agreement selling Dawson his remaining slaves for the nominal sum of a dollar, which Dawson duly filed with the Westmoreland clerk, despite a beating by Carter's son-in-law Spencer Ball.
Carter spent the last decade of his life issuing manumission papers pursuant to his recorded program, writing letters in support of freed slaves whose papers had been stolen, and contemplating religious and political issues. Carter lent money to Baltimore to build its city hall, negotiated with the Bank of the United States, and donated money to Haitian refugees. Carter also thought he lived too long—mourning his daughter Anne's death in childbirth in 1798, and the deaths of Rev. Lunsford and his son-in-law John Maund in Caroline County, Virginia the following year. In 1803, the year before his death, Carter wrote his daughter Harriet L. Maund, "My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world."
Citizen Robert Carter (as he preferred to be called) died in his sleep, unexpectedly, on March 10, 1804. His son and executor, George, brought the corpse back to Nomony and buried it in the garden. The same day that George announced his father's death, he bought slaves for Nomony to replace those his father had freed over his objection.
On April 3, 1805, Rev. Thruston, acting as judge of Frederick County, Virginia, refused to allow Dawson to record the scheduled deed for emancipation for that year, perhaps because of George Carter's objection. But on March 24, 1808, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld Dawson's objection, declared the county court had erred, and authorized liberation of the slaves illegally held in bondage. Dawson continued to free sons and daughters born after 1791 to Carter's slaves, as did Thomas Buck and John Rust after 1826.
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- According to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography (vol. 3, p. 87) his preferred spelling, although Nominy or Nomini are more common today, as in http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=22384, http://www.hmdb.org/Marker.asp?Marker=22361
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- citation needed
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- Levy, Robert (2005). The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father who Freed His Slaves. Random House. ISBN 978-0-3755-0865-3.
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