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One Life, No Second Chance That We Know Of


by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull





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 know it.

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." (Levy, 208)

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, 212)

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 other name.
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.

I eat
my history day by day.
…By this earth’s life, I have
its greed and innocence,
its violence, its peace.
(Wendell Berry)

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 sermon at
The Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City,
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, 1987.

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.


"Tears Down The Drain"
Art by Arlette Lurie



Jan Carlsson-Bull, M.Div., Ph.D., is Assistant Minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls, NYC. She oversees the church's many social outreach and advocacy groups, provides pastoral counseling, preaches periodically, conducts rites of passage, and shares fully in the team ministry there. Dr. Carlsson-Bull is also active on several committees within the larger scope of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Rev. Dr. Carlsson-Bull earned her Master's of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Yeshiva University.