By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
(CNN) It was 230 years ago Sunday that Robert Carter III, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, quietly walked into a Northumberland County courthouse and delivered an airtight legal document announcing his intention to free, or manumit, more than 500 slaves.
He titled it the “deed of gift.” It was, by far, experts say, the largest liberation of Black people before the Emancipation Proclamation more than seven decades later.On September 5, 1791, when Carter delivered his deed, slavery was an institution, a key engine of the new country’s economy. But many slaveholders — including founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who knew Carter — had begun to voice doubts.
That was the extent of their umbrage.Chattel slavery was wrong, the men said, but they supposedly worried it was not practical to abolish the institution without societal and economic consequences.
“As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other,” Jefferson wrote a fellow politician almost 30 years after Carter’s deed of gift.
Yet Carter had provided them a blueprint, not only for freeing their slaves but for ensuring the freedmen could sustain themselves, even prosper and integrate into society. Washington freed his slaves after death. Jefferson freed only 10 people of the hundreds he enslaved.