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The First Emancipator part II


Finished Levy's book this morning. An interesting read if you find the Revolutionary period facsinating or the most challenging puzzles of the human heart to be simultaneously enriching and depressing. In the last chapter Levy lays out his reasons for why Carter's story is virtually unknown. Among those are the academic tendency to flatten religious experience and motivation--Carter moved from Epicopalian to Baptist to Swedenborgian in his journey to become a former slaveholder.
Levy also writes:
In addition to controverting pro-slavery claims that emancipation was impractical, for instance, Robert Carter's story offended nineteenth-century Northern pride as well, which was founded, as the historian Joanne Pope Melish has recently written, in the belief that Northerners stood for "liberty," Southerners stood for its abstract opposite, and during the Civil War "New Englanders had marched south to end slavery," conquering a region infected by what George Washington Parke Custis called "a deadly diesease . . . entailed upon them by the fault of their fathers." At the very least Robert Carter stands as the exemplar of a group of men and women lost to history, whose heroic efforts undermine both Southern claims that emanicipation was impossible and Northern claims that emancipation was something that only Northern morality and Northern will could make happen, through persuasion or by force: between 1782 and 1861, white men and women in the state of Virginia freed more than one hundred thousand slaves without compensation, and without the support of a public consensus that showed much patience for their efforts. During that same time period, gradual emancipation legislation throughout the Northern states liberated approximately only sixty thousand slaves, providing in most cases financial compensation (as well as political cover) to the masters (182-83).

What I believe Levy finally rests upon is the utter lack of imagination of White Americans in dealing with the problem of slavery. Robert Carter was only one a few Virginia emancipators who didn't require that his former property move either to Africa or north. Washington only freed his slaves after his death and Jefferson didn't do it at all. Today, many of us, I imagine even Southerners, look back on our benighted ancestors and cluck our tongues. But if the brightest and best wouldn't do it, what makes us think we would do any better?

Comments

lotto winners said…
Thanks. Im Inspired again.
I know this is an old post (note the spam comments above me); but still wanted to remark:

What I believe Levy finally rests upon is the utter lack of imagination of White Americans in dealing with the problem of slavery.

I appreciate Levy's contribution with his book, in bringing to light Robert Carter III's extraordinary act. But I also agree with this reviewer's point:

large-scale manumission was a very complicated issue and perhaps that the Founding Fathers, whom the author constantly compares unfavorably to his biographic subject, understood some of the complexities better than Robert Carter III did. Carter himself moved to Baltimore before freeing his slaves in Virginia, in recognition, the author says, that “public acts” such as his Deed of Gift and “the departure of the author of such public acts from the slaveholding community were inextricably linked.”

It supports Sowell's arguments in White Liberals, Black Rednecks, in the chapter on slavery, that what many historians seem to forget in judging the past, is that they are seeing and judging the world Jefferson and Washington navigated through, with the 21st century lens of hindsight and 21st century moral standards that didn't apply then. The Founding Fathers, many of whom were anti-slavery, might seem to be hypocrites by not supposedly backing rhetoric with action, but I don't believe this is the case. You have to take into consideration, the context and constraints of the time, and the political realities (Washington and Jefferson as leaders of a newly found Republic and fragile coalition of States).

This is also demonstrated in Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which details why it did not outright "free all the slaves at once" and how Lincoln worked behind the scenes to move things along, toward emancipation and the realization of the 13th Amendment.

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