How Presidential Myths and Visions take Root!

Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. In the Executive House in 1814. Removed before it burned with the building. Returned to the White House, where it remains on view to this day.

What we “know” about the past or even its most celebrated characters—might not be true! Or it might once again warm us to a visionary leader whose actions continue to serve us to this day.

21st Century Americans are fixated on Washington’s white “wig,” which appears everywhere, particularly in the Gilbert Stuart portrait that hangs in the White House (nearly consumed by flames in 1814 when British soldiers torched the “Executive’s House” along with the U.S. Capitol). It wasn’t a wig. One of his slaves, possibly valet Billy Lee, the only slave he freed outright, gathered his long, natural hair, fluffed, curled, and powdered it white. This from Alexis Coe, author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. His hair color (shows below his military hat in the painting from the French and Indian War years earlier):  Red!

About the “Executive House” — the name given the President’s home before the fire. After the application of whitewash to the remaining walls to cover the smoke stains left by the blaze and the rebuilt mansion, the building became the “White House.”

The story that Washington freed his slaves seems also to stick in the minds of his countrymen, maybe because we want to believe it. Washington did put into his will that his slaves would be freed when he died (1799). This may have come after letters from the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who at 18 came to America and helped Washington fight the Revolution. Strongly against slavery, the Marquis encouraged those American officers he fought with to free their slaves in respect for the battle for liberty.

In his will, Washington passed the ball to Martha, saying the slaves would be freed when she died, probably not wanting her to be “without help.” But he may not have realized how this would impact his wife and household after his death. Slaves who had waited a lifetime for the General to die believed they would be freed then, not upon the death of Martha. Within the year she freed the 126 slaves she controlled, unfortunately more in fear for her own safety than in a gesture of good will, according to Abigail Adams. There were other slaves, maybe 100 or more, who were chained to the next generation through inheritance and whose future generations would be held in slavery until Emancipation in 1863.

Benjamin Franklin, not a President but as a multi-faceted, multi-talented Founding Father who spent a great deal of time in France as a diplomat, freed his slaves long before he died. He also petitioned Congress to abolish slavery in keeping with the liberty achieved through the American Revolution. But instead of freeing slaves, Congress in 1793 passed the Fugitive Slave Act, granting slave owners the right to track down their “property” across state lines and take slaves back into captivity, even after they reached “free” territory. Washington signed this bill into law.

Standing Lincoln, a statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Lincoln Park, Chicago, Oct. 21,2018

Regaining Calm

Lincoln, the great American martyr, left many things undone when he expired never regaining consciousness to offer final words to family or those left to attempt to put the country to right after that week’s surrender. James Tackach, a professor at Roger Williams University, reminds us of Lincoln’s visit to Petersburg, VA, with his wife and friends as the Civil War wound down in April 1865. He urged the entourage to stop at the site where months of trench warfare took the lives of tens of thousands. Lincoln stopped to look at a huge oak—the only one left standing that he called a “magnificent specimen of the stately grandeur of the forest.”

Tackach labels Lincoln the first “green president” in his book “Lincoln and the Natural Environment, exploring the famous president’s relationship with nature.  Earlier Lincoln set aside thousands of acres of California forest in the Yosemite Grant Act—laying the groundwork for the U.S. efforts to preserve, protect and study the environment. This precedent also nudged President Theodore Roosevelt to expand the national park system, though certainly he shared Lincoln’s admiration for mother nature.

As a boy Lincoln may not have had vast personal resources, but when he laid upon the forest floor and looked up at the variety of trees and wildlife around him, he enjoyed the tranquil beauty. My bet is that he believed by helping nature back into place after the war, he would assist generations of children, their relatives, and friends to regain the calm that he’d enjoyed. He’s left it to future generations to see and protect what he saw. When I visited Yosemite several years ago, I had no idea that Lincoln’s pen protected it. Knowing that only makes me savor it more.

This Presidential Week pick up something you haven’t read about one of our Presidents to get a renewed vision.


Alexis Coe, “Five Myths about George Washington,” February 14, 2020, Washington Post

Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

Hannah Natanson, “Lincoln’s Forgotten legacy as America’s first ‘green president,” February 16, 2020, Washington Post

Courage to Make a Stand

Could we have avoided the Civil War? Pictured: Fort Sumter aflame during shelling in 1861. Smithsonian illustration.

Robert Carter III could have changed the course of American History when he made a bold move against his own self-interest in 1791. But you’ve likely never heard his name because he wasn’t a Pied Piper.

His grandfather, King Carter I, highest ranking representative of England in America, owned 300,000 acres anchored in Virginia on the Rappahannock River, plus 1,000 slaves, and 10,000 pounds cash (when few Americans held cash). In 1732 he and his son died, leaving Robert III sole heir. At age nine Robert was sent to the College of William and Mary to prepare him to manage his inheritance, which he received in 1749: 6,500 acres and 100 slaves. (1)

Then he traveled to London to study for a law degree before coming home to inherit the family title: member of the Virginia Governor’s Council, offering advice to Virginia’s executive and serving on Virginia’s Appellate Court.  He campaigned several times for election to the House of Burgesses, where Virginia’s laws were made, wishing to introduce legislation concerning emancipation. Failing that, he gained an appointment to the Westmoreland Appellate Court in 1752.

He retired from his activity for the British Crown in 1777 and swore a loyalty oath of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He supplied provisions and bayonets to the American Revolution and paid dearly when his docks and plantation were raided by British ships.

Carter learned from others and took actions that moved him towards his ultimate decision:

  1. His great-grandfather, John Carter, freed his slaves and provided them homesteads and livestock in the 17th century. Although freeing slaves was illegal in Virginia until 1783.
  2. He delayed the sale of slaves at the Bel-Air Plantation that would break up families, yet it began 18 years of litigation with his Tasker in-laws. (His father-in-law Tasker had served as Virginia’s governor.)
  3. After the slaves given to his daughter Anne for her dowry were sold away from their family, he provided his other daughters’ dowry in land, not slaves.
  4. In 1786 he sent his youngest sons to the Baptist University in Rhode Island not to return until 21, so they would be out of Virginia, where slavery was prevalent.
  5. After becoming a Baptist years earlier because he believed them to be anti-slavery, in 1790 he wrote the British Baptist elder John Pippar: “the toleration of slavery indicates the very depravity of the mind.”
  6. Quaker Warner Mifflin petitioned a Congressional committee to consider an emancipation plan, but slaveholder James Madison buried it in committee before it came to light.

On September 5, 1791, Robert Carter III, who at the time owned approximately 200 slaves, wrote a “Deed of Gift” establishing a plan for gradual manumission. He developed an intricate plan to release 15 number of slaves each year for the next 50 years (the number of slaves over the 50 years increased based on the birthrate for the slave women). This seventy years before the opening of the Civil War.

But this action was not without risk.  In May 1793, Carter, his family, and Negroes George and Betty were forced to flee by ship to Baltimore with the threat of being tarred and feathered by angry whites. Carter never returned to Virginia.  His home church in Virginia, Yeocomico Baptist, burned down six months after the Carters left. He hired a Baptist preacher Benjamin Dawson to continue the program in Virginia, but some officials doubted Carter’s power of attorney provided to Dawson. To ensure the program continued, Carter sold the remaining slaves to Dawson for $1. Dawson filed the paperwork with the Westmoreland County clerk despite receiving a beating from Carter’s son-in-law Spencer Ball, who’d hoped to benefit from the slaves’ labor.

Years later, in 1803, Carter wrote his daughter, Harriet L. Maund: “My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world.” Problems continued when the judge of Frederick County refused Dawson’s attempt to record the deed for emancipation over family objections. Five years later, March 24, 1808, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld continuation of the emancipation plan, authorizing liberation of people held in bondage. The program, taken up by other Baptists taking Dawson’s place, continued until 1826, twelve years after Carter’s death and just 35 years before the opening of the Civil War.

Carter was not the only person to devise a plan to emancipate his slaves, but there were few who went to such efforts– leaving their home and moving out of state for fear of his life–to see that emancipation continued, even after death.

Carter’s Emancipation Plan – Could it have changed history?

Carter’s plan initially set up sharecropping blocks of land for 15 blacks each year, ensuring released slaves had the essentials of life with a launch into work to provide for themselves and their families. Eventually the slaves were freed. Despite his strong religious belief, Carter may have also acted partially out of self-interest, fearing he would be the subject of a revolt like the ones in South Carolina in 1740 or New York City in 1741 or Louisiana in 1791. Some of these incidents were as much between poor whites fearful of being replaced economically by slaves trained to a trade by their masters.

Carter’s 1791 plan had challenges. Slaves who were not selected to be emancipated were disgruntled. The most reported slave revolt in southeastern Virginia, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, occurred 40 years after Carter began emancipating his slaves—time enough others could have followed his lead. He worried that they might revolt, but unlike the slaves on neighboring plantations, they did see a future in freedom, albeit distant. His neighbors were angry that he had encouraged his slaves to believe that they would be freed—eventually—raising the concern that their own slaves might rise, wanting the same deal for themselves. Or that the freed slaves might encourage others to rebel across Virginia.

 Ideas to free blacks were far and few. The American Colonization Society (ACS) devised a plan to offer freed slaves a one-way trip to what became Liberia, Africa, beginning in 1817. American Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and initially Abraham Lincoln endorsed the plan because each did not believe free blacks could live in harmony with whites. Early proponents from the South feared that free blacks would disrupt their slave labor, adding to the dissatisfaction of their “free” labor force.

By 1830 northern abolitionists began the push for an end to slavery as an evil that demoralized the nation. Their efforts began to diminish the efforts of the colonization group, which were criticized as anti-black. Why leave the country if there’s a chance to remain here free? Reports from those who emigrated also discouraged other blacks from wanting to go. Of the 4,571 who arrived in Liberia between 1820 and 1843, just 1819 had survived by 1843 to disease and fighting on the continent. More blacks spoke out against being shipped to Africa. Lincoln rethought his support in 1854:

My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to liberty in their native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me—that whatever high hope (as I think it is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next 10 days, and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them in many times ten days.”(ACS wiki) [Lincoln referring to the fact that there were a total of four million slaves in America, making it impractical to consider. A total of 13,000 blacks emigrated to Liberia between 1817 and 1861.]

Missed Opportunity

Carter’s neighboring plantation owners had tunnel vision, never thinking what the future might bring if they make didn’t make a small financial sacrifice then to join Carter or devised their own method to emancipate their slaves.

What could have been if they acted before the nation began a serious North-South divide, before the cannon roared at Fort Sumter, before 720,000 fathers and sons died and millions of dollars in homes, farms, livestock, acres and acres of cotton and tobacco, miles of railroads, and thousands of bridges were decimated, destroying future prospects for a generation and leaving the South in diminished prospects for decades to come. Divisions created within the country’s psyche have yet to be completely repaired. Was inaction worth the long-term fallout? How many families on either side lost a father or son? How many never recovered financially? Was it worth it?

 Carter’s 1791 plan wasn’t perfect, but as one man he acted to begin to solve a problem that he saw as unethical and immoral. Issues come up in every life that require us to investigate our souls for answers. Finding courage to act once we’ve weighed an issue is a personal decision. No one can decide for you, but as you make that choice, if you cast your net wider, a broader picture may come into view, yielding a decision for the ages.

  • (Robert Levy (2005) The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, a Founding Father, who Freed His Slaves (Random House) The source for facts in this essay.

Baptists in America, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America