“The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter”
By Andrew Levy
336 pp., Random House
In Andrew Levy’s “The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves,” we learn about the grandson of Tidewater legend Robert “King” Carter — Robert Carter III — who was born into the highest circles of Virginia’s Colonial aristocracy.
On Sept. 5, 1791, the man who was kin to the Washingtons and Lees, and a friend and peer to Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, severed his ties with this glamorous elite at the stroke of a pen. In a document he called his Deed of Gift, Carter declared his intent to set free nearly 500 slaves in the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.
How did Carter succeed in the very action that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson claimed they fervently desired but were powerless to effect?
And why has his name all but vanished from the annals of American history? Levy (pictured below) traces the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and passion that led to Carter’s extraordinary act.
“At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, Carter was one of the wealthiest men in America, the owner of tens of thousands of acres of land, factories, ironworks–and hundreds of slaves. But incrementally, almost unconsciously, Carter grew to feel that what he possessed was not truly his. In an era of empty Anglican piety, Carter experienced a feverish religious visionthat impelled him to help build a church where blacks and whites were equals. In an age of publicly sanctioned sadism against blacks, he defied convention and extended new protections and privileges to his slaves. As the war ended and his fortunes declined, Carter dedicated himself even more fiercely to liberty, clashing repeatedly with his neighbors, his friends, government officials, and, most poignantly, his own family.”
Drawing on years of research, Levy’s “The First Emancipator” is a portrait of an unsung hero who has won his place in American history. It is an astonishing, challenging, and ultimately inspiring book.
About the Author: Andrew Levy is the Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University in in Indianapolis, IN. He is author of the critically acclaimed “Brain Wider Than the Sky” and the award-winning biography “The First Emancipator.” See more here. (Author photo by Randy Johnson.)