The Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769 petitioned the King to curtail his importation of slaves to the colony, arguing that slavery “greatly retards the Settlement of the Colonies.” With no other means of dependable labor for their plantations, Virginia slaveholders like Robert Carter rewarded those who worked on Sunday when needed, provided them measured independence, and allowed them to build their own quarters and supervise his plantation enterprises. The reward for faithful service was often emancipation by deed and will.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Robert Carter’s Deed of Gift
“On September 5, 1791, Robert Carter III of Nomony Hall, one of Virginia’s wealthiest slaveholders, delivered to the Northumberland District Court a document he called a “Deed of Gift.” It was a dry document . . . [which] signaled Carter’s intent to free his slaves, more than four hundred fifty in number, more American slaves than any American slaveholder had ever freed, more American slaves than any American slaveholder would ever free.
Carter lived next to the Washington’s and the Lee’s on the Northern Neck of Virginia, he was friend and peer to Jefferson, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and other members of the Revolutionary elite.
No monuments honor him, nor the Deed of Gift. No published map exists that can direct you to the patchwork ruins of his house and plantation; no stone wall tells exactly where his body lies. Sweep through the great bestselling histories of the Revolution and the founders, and you will rarely find even a footnote mentioning Robert Carter.
Eugene D. Genovese, in his classic “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” refers to Carter three times, once as an example of a slaveholder who consulted his slaves on the performance of their overseers, once as an example of a slaveholder who allowed his slaves to practice medicine, and once as a slaveholder who believed that slavery was unprofitable.
In the summer of 1791 . . . as Robert Carter composed the Deed of Gift, the private emancipation of slaves in the State of Virginia had been lawful for almost a decade. Such emancipations were difficult financial propositions, but certainly feasible: before Robert Carter freed his slaves, small slaveholders across Virginia had liberated almost ten thousand of their black servants, and entire States with significant slave populations, such as New Jersey, were learning how to finance emancipations on a public scale.
Similarly, like many slaveholders before him, Carter provided financial support and sponsorship that eased the transition to freedom, provided for disabled and indigent freed slaves, and laid the groundwork for an interracial republic, challenging in numerous small instances the notion that young America would fall apart if blacks and whites were free at the same time.”
(The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter, Andrew Levy, Random House, 2005. Excerpts pp. xi-xviii)