(Read about all of my Top Ten Greatest Americans by clicking here.)
Robert Carter III of Virginia was one of the richest men in Revolutionary America. (He would have ranked near the top of the Forbes 400 List if they would have had one then.) He owned 16 plantations, 70,000 acres, numerous mansions, and several companies involved in shipping, manufacturing, and banking. He was the second largest slaveholder in Virginia “owning” almost 500 slaves.
Robert’s fortune had been handed down to him from his grandfather and then his father. His grandfather had been so rich and powerful in Virginia that he had been given the nickname “King” Carter.
Robert was born in 1728. He was raised with wealth, privilege, and the Anglican religion and enjoyed his lavish lifestyle until he was close to fifty years old.
Two things, however, began to change him. 1) He was influenced by the ideas of personal freedom and liberty as the American colonists began to talk about independence from England. During the War of Independence, Carter sided with the revolutionaries. For Carter, however, it didn’t make sense to determine freedom by skin color.
2) One of Carter’s slaves was his half-brother who was 3 years older than him and is referred to in Carter’s journals as “Baptist Billy”. In his late 40’s Carter began to attend a very unusual Baptist church where slaves, free blacks, and whites worshiped together. On July 12, 1777, Robert Carter wrote in his journal: “I doubted till very lately of the divinity of Jesus Christ. I thank Almighty God that, that doubt is removed“. Another journal entry states: “On March 15, 1778, Robert Carter and his servant Negro Sam, received tokens and the both did Commune”.
As Carter begin to enjoy fellowship with his slaves as his brothers in Christ, his heart began to change toward them. He wrote in his journal: “Man is more than a mere inanimate statue”. And: “Tolerating slavery indicates great depravity”.
As the founding fathers wrote eloquently about personal freedom, Carter tried to influence them to give freedom to the slaves of America. He wrote: “I apprehend that an act should pass here, declaring that all persons, male and female, were free from the date of the Act of Parliament declaring that the thirteen united states were free and independent states”. Eventually the northern states began to gradually free their slaves, but the southern states ignored his call. Carter later wrote: “My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world”.
Finally in 1791 Carter acted independently against the protests of many of his friends. He wrote a document to provide freedom to his 442 slaves called “The Deed of Gift” and filed it with the state of Virginia. He began by saying: “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain persons in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice, and therefore it was my Duty to manumit them.” This was by far the largest number of slaves ever set free by an individual in American history.
Later that year, John Rippon wrote in a newspaper called “Baptist Register”: “It is said that Mr. Robert Carter of Nomini, Virginia has emancipated 442 slaves, if this be true, vote him a triumph, crown him with laurels, and let millions listen while he sings — ‘I would not have a slave to till my ground'”. Instead, America ignored and forgot Robert Carter and his wonderful document of freedom — The Deed of Gift. He was even persecuted in his home state and finally moved to Baltimore.
Robert Carter was America’s greatest founding father because he applied the principles of freedom to all people. Had his example been followed by the other founding fathers American history and black history would have been radically changed and millions of Americans would not have had to suffer the cruel drudgery, bondage, and torture of slavery.