More depth on Robert Carter III

January 18, 2024 by Joshua
in Freedom, Leadership, Stories

I’ve written about Robert Carter III a bunch here. He figures in my book a lot, as someone who could have remained corrupted by slavery, as everyone around him did in Virginia after the American Revolution, but he freed his slaves. Thomas Jefferson didn’t, despite his brilliant words on freedom.

Sustainability today is overloaded with Jeffersons: people who talk big on sustainability but act the opposite, undermining their credibility and integrity. We can use more Carters.

A reader and old friend talked about Carter when we were at dinner. He hadn’t heard of Carter, so looked him up. He found out a lot and wrote it up well. I asked him if I could share with you all what he wrote.

A Primer on Robert Carter III

Quoting my friend and reader:


What you told us about Robert Carter III has lingered in my mind, and I have interrogated several sites on the web about him, his wealth, his treatment of slaves and his deed of gift.  This is what I have culled from comparing the various presentations:

Carter was born in 1727 and came of age in 1748, whereupon he inherited an estate comprising several plantations with diversified crops, worked by hundreds of slaves. He was known for his extraordinary liberality toward his slaves, allowing them to be educated, marry, and transfer to other plantations of his to be with their spouses. He rarely sold any slaves, and took pains not to break up families if it could be avoided.

Of course, slaves do not constitute wealth unless you either sell them or profit by their labor. And of course Mr. Carter profited.  He was the living model for today’s enlightened employers (a minority now as then) who make more money by treating their employees well than if they did not. He also (like Thomas Jefferson) encouraged his slaves to have children, as the more they multiplied the more his wealth grew in the long run.

As for freeing his slaves, this was not even allowed under Virginia law until 1782 (the “Manumission Act”), when Carter was already 55 years old. Although he eventually became by far the most copious single emancipator under this law, he was by no means the first: a total of some 10,000 slaves were freed during the first decade of the Act, many by legacy in the deceased owner’s will. Although Carter (like Thomas Jefferson) had spoken strongly against the institution of slavery, he did not execute his (insufficiently famous) Deed of Gift until 1791, so that if anything he was following others’ example, not they his. In fact, these others frequently cited in their legacy the ideals of 1776, so that it is reasonable to credit Jefferson with having inspired them to the legacy.

Carter’s Deed of Gift, which listed individually some 450 slaves of various ages, was—although lengthy—simple in form, although not entirely simple in its implications. Because of the conditions of the Act of 1782, distinctions had to be made between slaves over 45, those under 21, and those from 21 to 45.

Also, Carter was mindful of the probable backlash from his white neighbors, and therefore specified that the liberation would occur gradually according to a certain schedule. The plans of an idealist rarely, if ever, work out to perfection. Some married couples were of disparate age, so that the wife might still be enslaved when the husband was years into freedom. Children were not to be freed until they reached the age of 21. An enslaved woman might bear a child while awaiting her turn to be freed; this child would not be listed in the Deed of Gift.

And there was indeed a backlash from neighbors—so severe that Carter left Virginia two years later for fear of his life, and never returned. He left the supervision of his plan in the hands of an itinerant preacher, Benjamin Dawson, who shared his hatred of slavery. Dawson did his part faithfully, but his right to act for the absent Carter was, not surprisingly, challenged in court; Carter dealt with this by selling all his remaining slaves to Dawson for 1 dollar. Thus, by 1797 Carter technically owned no slaves. But the actual business of carrying out the Deed lasted some 30 years.

I can’t find anywhere the answer to the question, whether Dawson became rich eventually by owning the slaves transferred to him in 1797? The plantations were still there; somebody must have been collecting the income. Did it go to the freed slaves? (That would make Carter happy. But it’s probably too much to hope for.)

You made the comparison with Thomas Jefferson. First of all, Carter’s Deed of Gift was made when he was 64 years old. When Jefferson reached that age, he was well into his second term as President. So if you criticize Jefferson for not doing what Carter did, you are holding Jefferson blameless until 1807.

And second, I haven’t read anything about Carter being in debt after giving up his slaves. But Jefferson was in debt nearly all his adult life. It started, I gather, in 1774, when he incurred a large debt to the Scottish firm that bought his tobacco crop, and also assumed a big debt owed by his father-in-law John Wayles. As time went on, the debts only grew; Jefferson (as he confessed) had neither the skill nor the attention to manage his farm well. In addition, his wife Martha died in 1782, leaving him without a helpmate to keep a rein on expenses.

Here’s an excerpt from the site


Some of the general factors that contributed to Jefferson’s indebtedness, including situations both within and beyond his control, may be summarized as follows:

  1. Jefferson inherited a great deal of debt from his father-in-law, John Wayles, when Wayles died in 1774.
  2. Although Jefferson was wealthy in land and slaves, farming proved to be an unreliable and inadequate source of income. Also, although Jefferson himself was a major creditor, payments owed to him were unreliable and inadequate as well.
  3. Jefferson lived perpetually beyond his means, spending large amounts of money on building projects, furnishings, wine, etc.
  4. The financial panic that occurred in 1819 added a substantial burden onto his already-substantial debt. Also, he acquired a heavy debt from a friend late in life. In 1818, Jefferson endorsed a $20,000 note for Wilson Cary Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1820, and Jefferson was forced to take on his unpaid debt.

— Lucia C. Stanton, 1991

Thus, Jefferson was sometimes obliged to sell slaves in order to meet obligations; he also had to keep in mind that creditors could seize slaves as payment. By 1807, when you fault him for not freeing his slaves, the situation was already hopeless and he could only turn his mind away from it to his other interests.

Well, I didn’t know about Carter, and I didn’t know about Jefferson’s debts. Thanks for introducing me to the subject.

I haven’t opened the site “Jefferson racist” and I’m not eager to do so. If, by the turn of fate’s inscrutable wheel, Carter had become famous and Jefferson remained obscure, there would doubtless now be a site “Carter profiteer”.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter