Robert Carter III was a most unlikely herald of liberty. The grandson of the Virginia land baron Robert “King” Carter (who convinced colonial authorities to let masters amputate the toes of runaway slaves) inherited a 65,000-acre empire of wheat plantations at age 4. Carter grew up to be a clothes-conscious dandy who mingled with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other future Founding Fathers, but did not participate in the American Revolution. After a feverish bout with smallpox in 1777, he underwent a spiritual awakening that in 1791 prompted him to free all of his 492 slaves—the largest single act of emancipation until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Carter ignored Jefferson’s warning that the liberated slaves should be moved away from areas of white settlement and instead invited them to live on his own land at low rent. He subsequently joined his wife’s family in Baltimore, where he died in 1804, at age 76. At his own request he was buried in an unmarked grave.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.