“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, penned in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, still resonate today. Yet Jefferson, and many of the other founders of the United States, pose a fundamental moral contradiction to modern Americans. Jefferson owned slaves. So did George Washington, James Madison, and many other antebellum presidents. Despite the lofty sentiments in the Declaration, many of the Founding Fathers denied the basic values of the Declaration and the American Revolution to the human beings they owned. Some of them were conflicted about this situation, it is true, but none overcame their internal conflicts to free their slaves during their lifetime.
Now, consider the case of Robert Carter III. He was a neighbor of Washington and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. From his plantation of Nomini Hall, he ruled an agricultural empire that included 509 slaves scattered across fourteen farms. The Carter family name was synonymous with Virginia’s slaveholding elite. Imagine the astonishment, then, that he caused in 1791 when he signed a deed freeing his slaves. All of them. With a stroke of his pen, he redeemed 509 fellow human beings from hopeless bondage to freedom. Carter even held a special ceremony with his slaves where they took new names to signify their new status as free people.
Some of his slaveholding neighbors tried to contest Carter’s actions, but he would have none of it. His explanation rings down to us today as an example, not only of the universality of the Declaration’s ideals, but also of the ability of individuals to do right and overcome the limits society tries to place on them. As Carter wrote, “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in slavery is contrary to the true principles of religion and justice, and that therefore it was my duty to manumit [free] them.” Unlike some of his more famous contemporaries, Robert Carter III lived out the values of the Declaration of Independence to the full. Perhaps it is time he takes his rightful place in our pantheon of national heroes.