The Musical Carter

Robert “Councilor” Carter III: The Musical Carter
by guest blogger and Oatlands Director of Programming and Education, Lori Kimball

Robert Carter III was the grandson of prominent and wealthy Robert “King” Carter, who owned approximately 330,000 acres in Virginia and hundreds of slaves. King Carter’s descendents inherited his vast wealth; by the time Robert III came of age, he had received 65,000 acres and over 100 enslaved people. Because of his service on the royal governor’s council in Williamsburg, he came to be called Councilor Carter. Among his properties was a large white house on the green next to the Governor’s Palace. It is still standing, although no longer open for tours at Colonial Williamsburg.

Like other prosperous gentlemen of his time, Councilor had the time and wealth to pursue his interests in reading, music, science and philosophy. Unlike his contemporaries, his belief in the institution of slavery changed over time and in 1791 he filed a deed of emancipation that would gradually free his 500+ slaves. It was the largest private emancipation in American history. This topic will be the subject of a future newsletter article.

According to a recently published book, Changing Keys – Keyboard Instruments for America 1700-1830, Councilor was considered to be a “skilled amateur musician” and “musical theorist.” He owned and played a harpsichord, piano forte, German flute, chamber organ, guitar, and an armonica, an invention by Benjamin Franklin that consisted of a series of glass bowls played by rubbing one’s fingers along the rims. The book describes Councilor as a “true product of the Enlightenment” who “considered his piano, one of the first in the colony, to be both a musical and a scientific instrument on which to experiment as much as to play.” Carter experimented with the sounds of his instruments and created a tuning device for his piano.

While living in Williamsburg during the tenure of Governor Francis Fauquier, Councilor often performed in weekly concerts that included notables such as Thomas Jefferson, fifteen years his junior. Councilor played the harpsichord or German flute. At one point, Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to purchase Councilor’s chamber organ.

The book, The First Emancipator, states that Councilor “…played his harmonica [another name for the armonica] in public, immune to the headaches its impossibly high, beautiful tones produced in many listeners.”

What is Councilor’s connection to Oatlands? His son, George, inherited several thousand acres in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax Counties, including part of the Goose Creek Tract. On this tract in 1804, he began construction of his house which he called Oatlands.

George inherited many of his father’s personal belongings, including a large library of Colonial-era books. He might have inherited the musical instruments, too. A May 5, 1818 advertisement in the Genius of Liberty, a Leesburg newspaper, announced lessons on the piano forte, German flute and clarinet. The ad stated: The principles of musick are imperfectly taught, in many parts of the country, for want of capable teachers. – It ought to be the wish of every lover of musick to understand it perfectly. A professor now offers to teach the fundamental rules of this science in 8 lessons so as to enable those who are taught by him, to pursue their studies by themselves, until they may attain a perfect practical knowledge of musick. Those who may choose to receive lessons upon either of the above mentioned instruments, will please to address their applications to G. Carter, Oatlands near Leesburg.

Research thus far has not determined if George was as passionate about music as his father or, successful businessman that he was, if he saw musical instruction as a business opportunity. Regardless, he offered the science and beauty of musical instruments to the Loudoun community.

For those interested in learning more about Councilor Carter’s musical interests and contributions, see the following publications: Changing Keys – Keyboard Instruments for America 1700-1830 by John R. Watson; The First Emancipator – Slavery, Religion, and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter by Andrew Levy (available in Oatlands’ gift shop); and John Randolph Barden’s master’s thesis, “Innocent and Necessary: Music and Dancing in the Life of Robert Carter of Nomony Hall, 1728-1804”, at the College of William and Mary.

Oatlands honors its musical heritage by incorporating, when possible, music into its programs. During last December’s candlelight tours, performers provided musical enjoyment in the Drawing Room. Country music will be the focal point of the Harvest Festival on October 20. Small performances are planned for the Drawing Room. Stay tuned (pun intended) for more information.


About oatlandsva

Director of Development at Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site.
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One Response to The Musical Carter

  1. Elizabeth Simon says:

    For a small sidelight on George Carter’s search for a music teacher, see “James Hewitt, 1770-1827,” by John W. Wagner (“The Musical Quarterly” (LVIII[2], pp. 259-276, 1972). Englishman James Hewitt, a fairly successful music publisher, performer, and teacher, moved to New York in 1792. At the time of Carter’s ad in 1818, Hewitt’s financial situation was shaky. He wrote to Carter (June 12, 1818) about an inquiry Carter had made to W. G. Gillingham of Philadelphia “on the subject of Music.” Carter had asked Gillingham “to recommend a Professor of Music to settle in the neighborhood of Oatland Mills,” suggesting the teacher was likely to earn as “from 1500 to 2000 Dollars per annum.” He also asked Carter “whether a Lady would have any prospect of success to establish an academy, to teach, French, Drawing, Geography 8cc,” apparently with the thought that his wife might start a school in Loudoun County. However, Hewitt apparently decided not to try his luck in Loudoun; he is listed in the New York city directory in 1819 and had moved to Boston by 1821.

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