Robert "Councillor" Carter III
Robert Carter was born into one of the most prominent and powerful families in the American colonies. His grandfather, Robert "King" Carter, was speaker of the House of Burgesses, held 300,000 acres of land and nearly 1000 slaves, and might have been one of the richest men in colonial America.1 Due to the death of his father, Robert Carter II, when the younger Robert was only four, "Councillor" Carter grew up well aware of the wealth and prestige was set to inherit, and the lifestyle that accompanied this status.
By the age of 9, Robert Carter III had been sent to study at the College of William & Mary in Virginia's capital of Williamsburg. After years of studying the skills considered essential for a member of the colonial gentry, at 21, Carter left for London, where he spent the next two years of his life. According to scholar Shomer Zwelling, his trip speaks to the young Carter's insecurity about the perscribed path he was expected to take in life.
"Robert Carter III departed for England at the very moment he was to assume the duties and obligations of adulthood. While staying in London he was unencumbered by the carefully prescribed social role he was to fulfill when residing in provincial Virginia. Abroad he could live carefreely, assume new roles, and just as easily cast them off."2
Carter married the wealthy and beautiful Frances Ann Tasker in 1754, and settled down with her at his father's plantation at Nomini Hall. In 1758, as a respected member of Virginia's elite class, he was appointed to the Governor's Council, and took up residence at an imposing house next to the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. "During this phase of his life Carter was a man with cosmopolitan interests, expensive tastes, and worldly ambitions."2 He was friends with George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and Virginia Governor Francis Fauquier, enjoyed the city's intellectual life, and staked out a position as a political moderate in turbulent times.
The pace of change in the revolutionary period, however, became too much for Carter, who opposed the Stamp Act, but urged reconciliation over violent conflict. In 1772, he left Williamsburg with his family to return to Nomini Hall, seeking a "refuge from a combative, competitive, and often deceitful world".2 Throughout the rest of his life, Carter appeared a conflicted man, torn between the the gentrified life of a Virginia aristocrat and the changing culture of Revolutionary America. He grew increasingly introverted and reflective. Philip Fithian, the tutor that Carter welcomed to Nomini Hall to educate his children, expressed a great respect for the patriarch, but thought him distant and brooding - "given to retirement".3
Around 1780, a series of deaths in the family - an infant daughter, the eldest son Ben, and finally, his wife - left Robert Carter on the brink of an emotional breakdown. Claiming to have seen a vision of Jesus, the Councillor converted to the fledgling Baptist church, and was baptised in 1783. Increasingly disenchanted, Carter wrote that he was a failed father, ran without enthusiasm for the constitutional convention in Richmond and lost, and explored the mystical religious movement known as Swedenborgianism. He left his Baptist church in part because of that faith's acceptance of slavery, which he had grown to find morally repugnant. He began supporting anti-slavery efforts and by 1790 declared that the "situation of Blacks here [in Virginia] is my greatest difficulty". In 1792, he initiated a program of manumission for his approximately 500 slaves. If he wasn't to have security and happiness in life, it seemed, carter wanted to die with a clear conscience.2
Increasingly alienated from the mainstream, by the time of his death in 1804, Carter had come a long way from his youthful promise as a rising member of the Virginia gentry. In his later years, a member of a spiritualist sect, holder of unpopular and revolutionary views on slavery, and having sent the remnants of his family away to study and live with those he saw as better guardians than himself, Carter wrote to his daughter Harriet that his "plans and advice [had] never been pleasing to this world".2 In his mid-19th century work Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, Episcopal Bishop William Meade remembered Robert Carter as an enigmatic figure.
"In Councillor Carter, of Nomini, the grandson of King Carter, this peculiarity was found in a large measure. Early in life his disposition was marked by a tendency to wit and humor. Afterward he was the grave Councillor, and always the generous philanthropist. At a later day he became scrupulous as to the holding of slaves, and manumitted great numbers. The subject of religion then engaged his thoughts. Abandoning the religion of his fathers, he adopted the creed of the Baptists, and patronized their young preachers, having a chapel in his own house at Nomini. After a time he embraced the theory of Swedenborg, and at length died an unhappy death-dreading Papist. All the while he was a most benevolent and amiable man."4
1. Berkeley, Edmund, ed. The Diary, Correspondence, and Papers of Robert "King" Carter of Virginia, 1701-1732. 1988. University of Virginia. 2 Nov. 2007 <http://etext.virginia.edu/users/berkeley/>.
2. Zwelling, Shomer S. "Robert Carter's Journey: From Colonial Patriarch to New Nation Mystic." American Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 613-636. JSTOR. Earl Gregg Swem Library, Williamsburg, VA. 1 Nov. 2007 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0678%28198623%2938%3A4%3C613%3ARCJFCP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6>
3. Fithian, Philip V. Journal and Letters: a Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774. Ed. Hunter D. Farish. 4th ed. Charlottesville, Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1990.
4. Meade, William. Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1857.