Were the Presidents who owned Slaves
by Rob Lopresti
When someone we admire does something we feel is wrong it is natural for us to look for an explanation. In the case of the presidents who owned slaves one natural response goes something like this:
It’s not a bad argument. But if you are using it as a real argument, and not just an excuse, then you have a responsibility to look at those neighbors. Were there no men or women who were behaving more like twenty-first-century people? Were there no “role models” the Founding Fathers could have learned from?
(Most of my information about Carter comes from this excellent article: Levy, Andrew. “The Anti-Jefferson.” American Scholar. Spring 2001.70 (2): p 15-35. See also Levy, Andrew. The First Emancipator.
Nothing unusual about that; most of our
presidents in this era who owned slaves said similar things about
slavery. What makes Carter almost unique is the second half of
the sentence: “…and that
therefore it was my duty to manumit them.” Carter didn’t just condemn slavery in the abstract; he actually
freed his slaves. He filled a large book (called a “Deed
of Gift”) with his plan for freeing them, fifteen a year starting with
the oldest. Newly born slaves would be freed when the reached 21
(male) or 18 (female). We know that in many cases he gave them jobs
or rented them farms to help them earn a living in the hostile state of
Some of the children of his slaves were still being freed in 1852, forty years after Carter’s death. It is believed he freed close to 500 slaves in all; the largest emancipation by one person in American history.
the founding fathers know about Robert Carter
A Word For The Defense
In deciding to free his slaves Carter had certain
advantages over the founding fathers. Any southerner who freed his slaves
was certain to lose two things: Money and Popularity. Carter’s
advantage was that he had plenty of one and none of the other.
Many of the founding fathers were “land poor.” Their money was tied up in land, which dropped in value as fresh Western lands became available. Both Washington and Jefferson said they wanted to at least improve the lot of their slaves once their debts were taken care of. Carter had considerable money that was not tied up in land, so he could afford to free his slaves more easily.
Any southerner who hoped for a future in politics knew that freeing his slaves would greatly decrease his choice of being elected. Before the Revolution Carter ran for office twice and each time he got clobbered (receiving less than 3% of the vote on one occasion). He must have known that freeing his slaves was not going to make him less electable than he already was; nothing could. So he was free from that worry.
Finally, Carter took advantage of a fairly brief window of opportunity. In the 1780s
Does all of this mean that Carter deserves no credit?
Definitely not. The simple fact that he could afford to give up a valuable property for the sake of humanity does not mean he necessarily would - or we wouldn’t have any billionaires today. And while he didn’t have to worry about offending the electorate he did infuriate- and alienate - his family, who felt that he was unfairly whittling their inheritance.
Was Carter the only man of this time who freed his slaves? Not at all; here is one more example.
The Case of Madison’s Secretary
(Most of my information about Edward Coles comes
from: Miller, John Chester. The Wolf By The Ears.Free Press: New York.1977.)
Coles was President James Madison’s secretary. He was also a
neighbor of Thomas Jefferson (and incidentally, like some of Sally Heming’s children, he bore a striking resemblance to
anyway. Seventeen of his ex-slaves became tenant farmers and
Coles became the second governor of
What Does This Tell Us?
Many slave owners in the Federal Era admitted (at least privately) that slavery was a bad thing. (Positions hardened later as the cotton gin made slavery more profitable and abolitionists became more vocal.) Most slave-owners held onto their slaves.
But not all. Men like Carter and Coles talked the talk and walked the walk. If our leaders were “men of their time” then these others must have been “ahead of their time.” But if they could do it, why not Jefferson, Lee, Henry, Madison and Monroe? (Credit where it’s due:
founding fathers may have felt they had good reasons (political, social, financial, legal, even religious) for not freeing their slaves. But we can not claim that the reason was
that no one else was doing it. That is an insult to men like Robert
Carter and Coles deserve their places as well.
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