It was a September day in 1791. The 5th to be exact. A wealthy Virginian slave-holder made his way to the Northumberland District Court. He carried with him one of the greatest freedom documents in history. Yet very few know anything about the man or his document.
This was just after the “American Revolution.” George Washington was President. It was a time when the ink was still drying on other freedom documents like the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, the Fairfax County Resolves, and many others.
Great liberty speeches still echoed freshly in the minds of those who actually witnessed them; such as Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death speech, James Otis’s fiery words against the “writs of assistance,” and John Adam’s righteous defense of Captain Preston and his men.
But the document delivered on this 5th of September to the Virginia Court-House was a little different, so was its author. The author is Robert Carter III; the document is called a “Deed of Gift.”
This document wasn’t accompanied with fiery oratory, action was its spokesman. Action speaks louder than words for those who have ears to hear. Robert Carter’s “Deed” doesn’t make for exciting reading either. It’s nothing like the majestically phrased documents of the revolutionary period.
So what’s so special about the “Deed of Gift?” Robert Carter’s “dry reading” document achieved TOTAL freedom for more than 500 of his slaves! The document lists slaves, their occupations, and declares their freedom. That’s more slaves than anyone would free until the Civil War! What was later achieved by bloody force, Carter obtained without firing a shot, at great cost to himself.
The authors and orators of the Revolution had “inward conflicts” and were “wrestling” with the idea of achieving TOTAL freedom Many of those men owned slaves. But Robert Carter did more than struggle with slavery, he acted. He didn’t put off doing the right thing till a future date or when it was convenient. What’s even more striking is that he had more to lose by his actions than anyone! He owned more slaves than many of the Founders combined.
Carter’s neighbors were the Washington and the Lees. He was also good friends with the author of the Declaration of Independence. Carter and Thomas Jefferson played in a musical quartet which performed at the Virginia Governor’s ballroom. Carter and the Revolutionary heroes walked the same streets, read the same books, heard the same sermons, conducted business together, and took part in the discussions of liberty that lead to the Revolution. So why did Carter and his friend’s paths diverge?
Everyone has heard of those famous men I’ve mentioned so far. But I bet most of my readers are hearing about Robert Carter for the first time. Carter’s friends and neighbors have gone down as heroes of freedom while Carter is virtually unknown. Even the great biographers and historians covering that illustrious era merely give Carter a quick mention in their writings without ever telling us what he did. I found Carter in a footnote of an old history book! A footnote! How is it possible his “Deed” is overlooked?
Carter’s actions were not popular in his day. He received death threats. Some called him a traitor to his country! The very people who championed “liberty and property” during the war opposed Carter’s “Deed.” Carter appealed to the great champion of the rights of man, George Mason, to help him in his cause. But Mason wrote to Carter saying he was too old to help. So Carter had to face a hostile world alone! But he acted anyway.
Robert Carter provided the people of his day with a righteous example. He proved that slaves could be freed. It was perfectly legal at the time. Carter did it. The window of opportunity was open for others to follow his example, but not for long. When the Cotton Gin was invented in the 1790s slavery became more profitable. Then laws against freeing slaves were written. The window of opportunity closed! Inaction lead to the permanent horror of slavery and the ultimate death of hundreds of thousands on the battle fields of the 1860s.
Carter died nearly alone in a small home and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. He wrote to his daughter just before his death saying that his plans and advice were never pleasing to the world. Think about what the world of his day was. It was a world where “liberty” bells rang, and yet the man who actually fought for liberty without firing a shot was unwelcome! Where others have been willing to kill to keep other human beings, Carter was willing to suffer to free them!
Carter teaches us that it’s one thing to write lofty words about freedom, it’s another to act on freedom’s behalf – no matter what it may personally cost you! Carter ACTED where others just eloquently THOUGHT ABOUT ACTING. It’s one thing to theorize and philosophize about freedom; it’s another to promote it even when it costs you personally!
Today Carter’s legacy lives on. The descendants on Carter’s Deed can be traced from the Deed of Gift to the present. LaTonya Lawson-Jones, Project Director at Nomini Hall Slave Legacy Project, is a descendant of two families that were freed. She says Carter “was ahead of his time.”
May he not be ahead of ours!