Book Recommendation–The First Emancipator

Since we began this blog, our most asked questions have been about slave history at Oatlands.  I’ve just finished reading The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy and I have to recommend this book wholeheartedly.  This is the story of Robert Carter III, grandson of Robert “King” Carter and father of George Carter who built the Oatlands we see today.  Robert Carter III arranged the freedom of his slaves (nearly 500 of them by the time he was done).  And he did this in the 1790s, when others of the Revolutionary generation were struggling with the contradiction between the concepts of liberty and the realities of bondage. 

Slaves were freed on all of Robert Carter III’s plantations, including his Leo plantation.  His son George renamed Leo, calling it Oatlands. 

If you love early American history and are curious why you’ve never heard of this act of emancipation, you need to read this book.  Naturally, you can get it in Oatlands’ gift shop.

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About oatlandsva

Director of Development at Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site.
This entry was posted in 1821 Brick Bank Barn Restoration, Historic Site Information, Slave Life at Oatlands, Staff Happenings. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Recommendation–The First Emancipator

  1. Elizabeth Simon says:

    I hope you will forgive me, but I really must disagree with your recommendation. On the plus side, The First Emancipator is an accessible biography about an important early American. But on the minus side, the book’s theories and arguments simply do not stand up to careful examination. The author’s lack of solid scholarship — including historical misinformation, lack of referencing for important statements, fanciful psychological interpretation, circular reasoning, and simple error — is evident on nearly every page. Even the title is an error (to put it kindly) and gives a preview of the author’s talent for spinning historical information as carelessly as a politician spins statistics. Robert Carter, as the author himself admits, was not the first or only slaveholder of his time to free his slaves. And Carter certainly was not a founding father, in any sense of the term. It’s a shame, really. Carter is a fascinating subject, and his decision to emancipate his slaves was laudable and unusual. If First Emancipator had been written with more rigorous attention to fact and less self-serving pseudo-revelation, it could have been a useful addition to follow the classic 1941 biography of Carter by Louis Morton. As it is, the book is more psychobabble than history. I highly recommend finding a copy of the Morton biography, which was reissued in paperback by University of Virginia Press in 1969. It is dense, amazingly detailed, and not for the faint of heart. It may also be a bit dated at this point. But it definitely gives readers a more realistic portrait of Robert Carter, who deserves a much better book than The First Emancipator.

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