- Born to prominent family in 1728
- Eighteen-year member of governor’s Council
- Early emancipation proponent
- Converted religion twice
Born to noble family
Robert Carter was born February 9, 1728, son of Robert Carter and Priscilla Churchill Carter. Both of his grandfathers, the land baron Robert “King” Carter and William Churchhill served on the governor’s Council.
In 1737, he entered the grammar school of the College of William and Mary. Little else is known about his youth until February 1749, when he received his patrimony and sailed to London’s Inner Temple to study law. He returned to Virginia in June 1751 without being admitted to the bar. Several of his contemporaries commented on his lack of learning and social grace.
Establishment at Nomony Hall
Carter moved into Nomony Hall – also spelled “Nomini” or “Nominy” – the Westmoreland County mansion he inherited from his father. He learned the business of tobacco planting and exported as many as 100 hogsheads of the leaf to England each year. On April 2, 1754, Carter married Frances Tasker, daughter of Benjamin Tasker, longtime president of the Council of Maryland. Of their 13 daughters and four sons, eight daughters and all four sons reached adulthood.
Service on governor’s Council
In April 1752, Carter was appointed to the Westmoreland County Court. He ran for vacant seats in the House of Burgesses, but was not elected. Through the influence of his wife’s uncle, Thomas Bladen, Carter received an appointment from the king on April 7, 1758 to serve on the governor’s Council. In 1761 he purchased a large frame house near the Governor’s Palace on the green in Williamsburg and moved there with his family.
For the next 14 years, Carter regularly participated in Council proceedings. He was a member of committees that drafted responses to the governor’s speeches to the assembly, considered amendments to proposed legislation, and examined accounts of the treasurer or the journals of the Council.
Work with Indian affairs
He accompanied Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier to New York in 1761 to discuss Indian affairs and to Georgia two years later to discuss relations with the southern Indian tribes. In 1763 Carter served on the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, and in 1766 he drafted the Council’s response to the king following the repeal of the Stamp Act. Carter joined Richard Corbin in representing the Council early in June 1775 when it officially expressed its concern to the royal governor about rumors that British marines were to be stationed in Williamsburg.
He developed close friendships with Governor Fauquier and his successor, Governor Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, as well as William and Mary Professor William Small, and George Wythe. Not long after Governor Dunmore took office in 1772, Carter moved his family back to Nomony Hall. Carter still traveled to Williamsburg on Council business but focused more on the management of his estate. The Revolution concluded Carter’s service on the Council, which ceased to exist in July 1776.
Conversion to evangelical Christianity
A member of the Church of England from childhood, Carter became a vestryman of Cople Parish in Westmoreland County in November 1752. In June 1777 he announced his conversion to evangelical Christianity and soon allied himself with the Baptists. The next year, Carter was baptized by immersion and joined Morattico Baptist Church. He attended prayer meetings, provided financial support for evangelical preachers, and became one of the denomination’s most influential adherents in Virginia.
Emancipation of 500 slaves
Although Carter inherited and owned hundreds of slaves, his growing opposition to the institution echoed the antislavery sentiments of many Baptists in the 1780s. On August 1, 1791 he executed a deed of emancipation for more than 500 of his enslaved African Americans. It was probably the largest emancipation by an individual person in the United States before 1860. Because of Virginia’s restrictive laws, the emancipation was gradual, and the young slaves received their freedom when they reached adulthood. Carter spent his remaining years working out the details and schedule, an effort that occupied his agents and executors well into the nineteenth century.
Conversion to the Church of the New Jerusalem
In January 1788 Carter discovered and quickly embraced the theology of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and switched his allegiance from the Baptists to the Church of the New Jerusalem. Carter caused several of Swedenborg’s writings to be reprinted in America and wrote the preface for the first American edition of The Liturgy of the New Church, published in Baltimore in 1792.
Carter moved with two of his younger daughters to Baltimore in 1793 in order to be closer to a center of Swedenborgian worship, and three years later he divided his Virginia estate among his surviving children and grandchildren, who drew lots for their portions. He spent his last years managing his investments. Robert Carter died suddenly in Baltimore March 11, 1804 and was buried in the garden at Nomony Hall in Westmoreland County.