The place is Virginia. The time is the late 18th
century. It’s the antebellum South, and the
ink is barely dry on the Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution. Washington, Jefferson, and
Lee were among the luminaries of the day. Each of
them enjoyed influence and wealth and played a premier
role in shaping the profile of this country as we
Then there was Robert Carter III. Carter is described
by scholar Andrew Levy as "probably the richest,
most powerful, most literate man in the rich, powerful,
enlightened colony of Virginia." His land holdings
exceeded that of Jefferson or Washington, and he
owned more slaves than either. Nomini Hall, the
Carter plantation, stood assuredly tall and white-pillared
as was the style of homes designed to impress. But
something stirred within the soul of Carter that
led him to commit a radical act. In 1791 he wrote
what was termed a "Deed of Gift." It ran
on in a string of detail that would glaze the eyes
of any attorney, but at its core was Carter’s
intent to free over five hundred slaves. No one,
but no one had freed that many slaves. No one in
the newly American South had undertaken that scale
of manumission. But Carter did.
Why did he do it? Why did this southern gentleman
move against his cultural grain? Why did this father
give up what his children surely thought was their
inheritance? And more importantly for us, why has
history almost succeeded in burying this act and
all possible residue of Robert Carter III? These
are the questions that lured Andrew Levy into his
scholarly quest for details.
In his worldly accumulation of wealth, Carter was
quintessentially Southern white antebellum American.
In his eccentricities, he was quintessentially himself.
Early on he strayed from the norm. Rather than choosing
a wife from the ranks of his neighbors’ daughters,
he found a mate in Baltimore society, "a well-read
ironworks heiress with a lacerating wit." While
his peers attended staid Anglican churches, Carter
was drawn to a small Baptist church where he took
Communion with his slaves. While his illustrious
friends sent their sons to the College of William
and Mary, Carter sent his to the abolitionist leaning
schools in the north.
Yet Carter was still a slaveholder. He joined his
peers in acknowledging that slavery was wrong but
emancipation was impractical. It is a familiar argument,
commonly offered to redeem the slaveholding practice
of the rhetorically progressive Thomas Jefferson.
Their culture rendered emancipation impractical.
They simply inhabited their culture.
It wasn’t until the 1780s that Carter’s
correspondence and journals reveal an increasingly
overt intolerance for slavery. In 1782, the state
of Virginia opened a window for his impulses, unexpectedly
legislating a means whereby a private slaveholder
might free his slaves under certain conditions.
It was a political quirk serving emancipation. Several
small slaveholders, Quakers and Baptists especially,
used that loophole. Even Martha Washington chose
to counter her husband’s will and freed his
slaves two years after his death rather than after
hers, as the will had stipulated. Carter’s
act of manumission, eight full years before Washington’s
death, stood out because he had the most to lose
in the circles that already looked askance at him.
What makes his act even more compelling is that,
in Levy’s words, Carter didn’t "look,
act, or write like a man who possessed a single
egalitarian impulse." All the while his writings
reveal a white man becoming ever more trusting of
the blacks he knew and ever more suspicious of the
impulses of his peers whose reality of practice
belied their rhetoric of liberty. Who knew his depth
of disappointment when he failed to achieve political
stature? Who knew what comfort he received from
whom when he lost his wife and his most beloved
children? He continued as an anomaly among his neighbors,
eschewing status gained by the conventions of his
time and place yet lacking an eloquent pen that
could have incited a groundswell for his views.
"Ultimately," contends Levy, "the
reasons that Robert Carter disappeared—and
remains disappeared—have less to do with what
he did than with what others failed to do, less
to do with the narrative of American history within
which his story would fit than with the narratives
of American history that his story contradicts."
Robert Carter makes us squirm, so we ignore him.
History hurts, so we bend it. Or worse, we deny
it. We do so, because, as Levy concludes, to do
otherwise "forces us to consider whether there
now exist similar men and women, whose plain solutions
to our national problems we find similarly boring,
and whom we gladly ignore in exchange for the livelier
fantasy of our heroic ambivalence." (Levy,
And so to our own time, wherein we stand face to
face with our own choices, inhabitants of our own
history, inundated by rhetoric no less captivating
than that known to Robert Carter. We are amid the
aftermath of the United States’ war on Iraq.
Saddam Hussein has been overthrown. A new regime
is in site. The threat of weapons of mass destruction
from one tyranny has been removed. A "coalition
of the willing" has had its comeuppance against
nations that flagged. Yet the whereabouts of Hussein
and his family are unknown. Transition to a new
regime is shaky. There is as no evidence that the
former Iraqi powers were developing weapons of mass
destruction Post-war casualties are mounting. Anti-American
sentiment is high throughout Iraq.
How convinced we were that the principles infusing
our democratic rhetoric would match the invasion
that was to come. Iraq would be free of Hussein.
Our fears of nuclear warfare would be allayed, from
Iraq at least. We would be regarded as liberators
by the Iraqi people. How easily America bought into
it all. How deadly the consequences. How uncertain
the future of that readiness to accept without questioning,
though thousands of us did question. How the events
of 9/11 were used to fuel our penchant for war.
What can we learn from the perplexing and unselfconsciously
bold act of Robert Carter? What can we learn from
the abject refusal of historians to acknowledge
his deed as we move through a time in which the
deeds of those who called foul months ago and the
questions raised by the non-mainstream media are
beyond embarrassing for our aspiring democracy?
Once again, the dissonance rises from the ashes—the
dissonance that keeps us from our own best selves,
the dissonance that threatens to silence the better
angels of our national nature. Why couldn’t
we have stopped it while there was still time? "Loss
of face," said some. "To back down when
the call to war was so infused with democratic principles,
would have meant loss of face," echoed others.
"Whose face?" I asked then and ask now.
The face of the child incinerated by the first smart
bomb? The face of the pilot, mangled in the downing
of that first plane? The face of the ground soldier/casualty
of war, whose hometown was Baghdad or Cincinnati—did
it matter? The stone face of disbelief when Al-Jazeerah
caught the clips of what our imaginations were too
terrified to consider? The face of public opinion,
dancing to the pattern of the questions? Whose face
was lost? How exactly was democracy preserved? What
regime was overthrown at whose expense?
In the aftermath of where our collective spirit
can lead us, we are left with contradictions that
are painful to digest. Does it hurt too much to
learn the truth, to entertain, even in our dreams,
that there were alternatives, that it didn’t
have to be this way? How easy it was to grasp at
those principles of democracy and liberty and freedom
that we knew, we just knew we were fighting for.
It’s the disconnect between principles and
practice, between public image and private reality
that has a way of catching up with us—personally
and historically. As Wendell Berry observed, "I
eat my history day by day."
So we’re back. We’re back to those
bone-chilling, spirit-sapping contradictions raised
by the radical act of Robert Carter III, a cultural
anomaly, who simply didn’t make a big deal
out of doing what he knew was right, but was relegated
to history’s attic because he didn’t
lean in the memorably principled direction of his
neighbors. He just did what they said they really
wanted to do.
Imagine. It’s 1782, that year of legislative
loopholes, and there’s still time to use whatever
windows our religious and political imaginations
might have left open, to advance alternatives to
the oppression that is a lie when called by any
It’s 2001 and the shards of our spirits are
ashen while so many bodies are ash right here in
New York City.
It’s 2003, and we’re in the highly ambiguous
and rhetoric sapping aftermath of a war on Iraq.
But there’s time, there’s still time
for truth, for truth telling, for reconciliation,
for peace making. There’s still time.
If only we will digest the dissonance. If only
we will face the contradictions in our history and
the deceptions that infuse the defensiveness of
political parlance. If only we will affirm that
the resurrection of historical truth is worth it,
because falsehood has a way of catching up with
us, and taking a hard look at what’s going
on and what went on has a way of preventing us from
further folly. And because each of us, everywhere,
has one life, with no second chance that we know
of. Oh yes, we’ll leave the door ajar, just
in case there’s something on the other side.
But we don’t know, we really don’t know.
So we’re called to make the best of it here
and now on the planet we are called to share.
Among us there may be men and women, whose plain
and forthright solutions to our national and international
problems we find boring or naïve and whom we
are quick to write off in exchange for the myth
of having our rhetoric and our principles too. But
even in this unsettling aftermath of war, there’s
still time to hear the dissonance. There’s
still time to pay attention. There’s still
time to find our principles in our practice, to
discover what we say we believe in what we do.
my history day by day.
…By this earth’s life, I have
its greed and innocence,
its violence, its peace.
May Robert Carter III and all five hundred of those
free women and men, whose names we have yet to discover,
rest in peace. And may all of us, as free and faithful
spirits, live for it.
Adapted by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull from her
The Unitarian Church of All Souls, New
delivered March 16, 2003, the Sunday before the
United States invaded Iraq.
Wendell Berry, "History," from Collected
Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982, North Point Press,
Andrew Levy, "The Anti-Jefferson," from
The American Scholar, reprinted in The Best American
Essays 2002," edited by Stephen Jay Gould,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.