A deed of emancipation

A deed of emancipation September 5, 2012

I had never heard of Robert Carter III until I read this post from Warren Throckmorton last month.

The bad news about Carter, who died in 1804, was that he owned Nomini Hall, a large slave plantation in Virginia. He “owned” more than 400 enslaved persons on that plantation.

The good news about Carter is that eventually he decided to free them all.

After the death of his wife, Frances Ann Tasker Carter, in 1787, Carter embraced the Swedenborgian faith and freed almost 500 slaves from his Nomini Hall plantation and large home in Westmoreland County, Virginia. By a “Deed of Gift” filed with the county in 1791, he began the process of manumitting slaves in his lifetime. His manumission is the largest known release of slaves in North American history prior to the American Civil War and the largest number ever manumitted by an individual in the US.

He filed that “Deed of Gift” on Sept. 5, 1791 — 221 years ago today, beginning the process (a gradual, slow process) of freeing each of his slaves in turn.

Andrew Levy has written a history of Carter: The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. Levy explores both the problem that Carter’s overlooked example provides (Washington and Jefferson really wanted to free their slaves, but it just wasn’t possible …) and the problems Carter encountered by attempting such a thing. Levy writes:

When the Virginia Assembly passed the 1782 Manumission Act, its members simply did not conceive that someone such as Robert Carter might invoke its liberties: the act did not provide guidelines for how to conduct an emancipation so large that it would take place in more than one county, for instance, nor so complicated that one intimate, familial list might not comprehend the will of the master.

Virginia wasn’t sure what to make of Carter’s effort. Nor was Carter, apparently. Levy writes that he was deeply “divided between the desire to maintain his mastery, or be rid of it.”

But in fits and starts, sometimes resolutely and sometimes reluctantly, Carter gradually made good on the promise of the deed he filed 221 years ago today.

I’ve not read Levy’s book — the above is all from a quick skim. But I have just added it to The List.




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  • arcseconds

    So spirit-seers and their dreams are good for something, then. 

    That’s good to know. 

  • Thanks for discovering and mentioning Andy Levy’s book – Andy is a colleague of mine at Butler University.

  • walden

    It is an excellent book.
    Among other things, it shows how the Methodists and Baptists were outcasts in Virginia society (indeed illegal societies for part of the period), and reveals the lengths to which Carter and some very smart lawyers had to go to comply with the tightening manumission laws.  He appointed some itinerant ministers as trustees and assigned them various sets of slaves, in order to get around limits on the numbers of slaves one owner could free each year.
    An amazing story that none of us learned in American history (while “learning” that Jefferson had no practicable way to free many or most of his slaves).  Apparently you needed a lot of money and really clever lawyers to manage it, as the slavocracy became ever more ascendant.

  • Jurgan

    Didn’t Washington free most of his slaves in his will?

  • What I find interesting is that the slave-apologists never account for the fact that the law increasingly made it harder to manumit slaves. In fact, that level of government interference is quite surprising and can only make sense in light of understanding these policies as being about maintaining a social hierarchy, not the private interests of human beings.

    To that extent, manumission threatened the hierarchy by creating a class of people who, while still not full citizens, were not owned by anyone and thus no theoretical obstacle prevented them from participating as full members of society, only existing prejudices.

  • thatotherjean

     George Washington arranged in his will to free the slaves who belonged to him, but only after the death of  his wife.  Martha, possibly afraid that his slaves would  kill her to obtain their freedom early, freed them all within a couple of years after his death.  Her own slaves, she passed on to relatives, and owned only a single slave at the time of her death (according to several reasonably reliable internet sources).

  • MikeJ

     George was just born to late to have them sealed in his tomb with him.

  • PJ Evans

    I found a will for a several-times-great-grandmother of mine, in Pennsylvania, which frees her two women (one black, one mulatto, mother and daughter), with assorted possessions and some money, according to the verbal wishes of her husband, who had died 20 years earlier (and intestate). The will is dated 1794, proven in 1798.

  • Space Oddity

    Actually, the matter of the slaves being freed after Martha’s death was due to the fact that many of George and Martha’s slaves had intermarried, and Washington didn’t want to break up families.  George HOPED his wife would follow his example.  Didn’t happen.