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A Deed of Gift

with 13 comments

So, it’s the day before the fourth of July, and I’ve just spent three hours trying to find instances of people in dialogue talking about things that “don’t make sense,”  and then get them to say something else.

And then I decided that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take a short break.  So I went reading through the comments on yesterday’s post, and there I found something that sort of startled me.

Robert says that a man (or woman, I suppose) has to go “through Good to get to Great.”

And I’m not really sure that’s true.

One of the first things I ever learned in American history, once I got beyond the elementary level, was this:  John Adams was a good man but not a great one;  Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but not a good one.

Here’s exactly the sort of thing I should be talking about before the fourth of July.

Anyway, the reason for that particular truism in my history classes in complicated, but let’s just say that I came along at just about the point when high school history classes were trying to find some way to acknowledge both Jefferson’s achievements and the unholy mess he made of almost all his personal life.

But that kind of distinction between great and good comes up other places, too–the one that keeps popping into my head is actually from the first Harry Potter novel, where Olivander tells Harry that Voldemort did great things–terrible things, but great.

All right, the reference is silly, but it’s early in the morning and I’ve been working.

Given that kind of distinction, however, Hitler would be a great man–and if a great man is in some way a genius, he probably was one.   Jonas Salk would be both great and good.

If you see what I mean.

I want you, however, to contemplate the live and times of a man of whom you have probably never heard:  Robert Carter III, master of Virginia’s Nomony Hall through the American Revolution and Subject of Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator:  Slavery, Religion and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter.

 Before I get started, let me say this:  this is one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life.  Ever.  It’s well written and well researched.  It covers territory I was never aware of before I read it.  And it outlines the life of a man nobody has ever heard of–until recently, when Levy decided to make a point of it–but whose story has implications for virtually everything about American history and our understanding of it.

Robert Carter was of the same generation as Jefferson and Madison, and he knew them both.  In some ways, he did them one better.  He was the richest planter in Virginia during most of his life, and he had sense enough to start investing in manufacturing when the planter class was trying to hunker down and pretend that economic change hadn’t already come.

He was also the owner of 485 slaves–and one day in 1795, he showed up at the county courthouse with a “deed of gift,” which freed them.

Okay, the actual operation of the Deed of Gift was more complicated than late, and took longer to unwind.  Carter actually freed his slaves over a period of years, although once he’d made the decision he had a tendency not to worry if one of the slaves ran off under his own power. 

But the fact of the matter is that he did free them, along with teaching them skilled trades so that they had something they could use for work when they were out on their own, and teaching them to read and write even when it was against the law, and worshipping next to them in the same pews and taking communion with them in the early revolutionary Baptist church.

He did all those things, in fact, that I was always taught in history class it would be impossible for a man of his time and station to do.  The contradictions in the life of a man like Jefferson, for instance, are explained by saying that in that time and in that place, he did (almost) everything he could do.  The same is said of Washington.

But here is Robert Carter, and the time and the place did not stop him.

What started him, though, was almost as important.  What started him was religion.

One of the things Levy’s book is good for is the way in which it illuminates the complicated place of religion in Revolutionary War sympathies, especially among those people who were not among the pantheon of Founders.

That pantheon was mostly highly educated and either Deist (like Jefferson and Madison) or “rational Christian” (like Adams, who favored state established churches but did not believe in the divinity of Christ).

Among more ordinary people in Virginia, however, the religion of the Revolution was Baptist.

And the Baptist Church was not the Baptist Church you see today, in either the north or the south.

I suppose the closest you could get today to what the Baptist Church was then would be the Pentacostals and the Holy Ghost People–and then you’d only get close, not all the way.

Baptists in the Revolutionary War era spoke in tongues, got slain in the spirit, wailed and screamed and jerked around on the floor–and sat side by side, black and white, slave and free, rich and poor.

And took communion together, black and white, slave and free, rich and poor.

And all that kind of thing was actually illegal in Virginia at the time.

In fact, one of the other things this book is good for is explicating just how complicated and detailed were the laws of Virginia regulating slavery.   Before the end of the Revolutionary War, it was illegal for a slaveowner to manumit even a single one of his slaves, and Carter only got away with teaching his to read and write and practice trades because, being Robert Carter and the richest man around, the authorities were too deferential to touch him.

But the other thing Robert Carter was was an American original all out religious loon.

I’m not saying that because he converted from the establish Anglican Church to the Baptists, or because he took communion with his slaves. 

Actually, Carter was a pretty tame Baptist, as that kind of thing went.  He had been brought up a Virginian aristocrat.  He wasn’t about to start dropping to the floor and wailing in religious ecstasy.

The Anglican Church at the time had strict customs for separating the races and the classes.  Families “bought” pews, and the richest families bought the most expensive ones, near the front.  Blacks, free or slave, had their own churches elsewhere.

That Carter would reject this in favor of the more egalitarian arrangements of one of the dissenting sects isn’t crazy, nor do I think he’s crazy because he came to his decision as the result of a religious experience. 

Most of the people I have known in my life who have converted to Christianity from something else, or from indifference, have done so because of an intense personal experience in which they were sure they were directly in contact with God.

No, what makes Carter such an odd figure religiously is that he kept converting.  Having moved from the Anglicans to the Baptists, he became disenchanted with the Baptists as they became more conservative (no more everybody side by side) after the War.  He then founded his own Baptist Church on the old lines, then moved away from that to Swedenborg’s Church of the New Jerusalem, and finally.

He was in the midst of Swedenborgian enthusiasm when he made the Deed of Gift.  Living in a small house in a working class neighborhood of Baltimore in the years afterwards, he morphed into a kind of Deist.

He was, in fact, almost as much of a religious mess as Jefferson was a personal one.

And yet it was religion that made Robert Carter want to free his slaves, and want to meet with them on as much of a plane of equality as possible before that. 

And it was religion of a particular kind–anti-rationalist, depending on revelation and not reason, rejecting the entire Enlightenment project in favor of an emotive connection with the radical equality implicit in Paul to the Corinthians, but never explicit until then.

No, I’m not advocating that we should all go off and start speaking in tongues–although, when I was a child, I was sometimes taken to tent meetings by a babysitter, and in those days I could get slain in the spirit with the best of them.

I’m just saying that it would be hard to decide if Robert Carter was a great man, or a good one, or both.

And that the actual relationship of religion to the American founding, and the American present, is a lot more complicated than either side of the church/state debate likes to make out.

Written by janeh

July 3rd, 2011 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses to 'A Deed of Gift'

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  1. I agree. My one hedge is that when I said you had to go through “good” to reach “great” I was talking about books. A book with poor (or faked) research and sloppy reasoning doesn’t become a great book because in a century or so, people largely agree with the conclusion. The author didn’t EARN that conclusion.

    (There was a 17th Century (?) book correctly identifying native Americans as related to the peoples of East Asia. The author didn’t examine physical features after the manner of Linneus. He said everyone had to be descended from one of Noah’s sons, and the other ones were accounted for already. The correct conclusion does not make the book a triumph of ethnology.)

    But yes: plenty of great men are more or less failures as good ones. And I always get a kick out of people telling me to leave religion out of politics–and that I have a moral obligation to use government to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick.

    One or the other, please.


    3 Jul 11 at 10:16 am

  2. “..I always get a kick out of people telling me to leave religion out of politics–and that I have a moral obligation to use government to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick.One or the other, please.”

    Morality and religion are not synonyms. One can detest religion, or at least the religions one has to actually put up with and still feel that individuals owe some level of duty of care to others.


    3 Jul 11 at 12:00 pm

  3. Indeed one can. But on what basis does one come to that conclusion? Ask someone to explain why one has that “duty of care to others” get out a stopwatch, and see how long before “human brotherhood” comes into the conversation. It’s not a pre-Christian line of thought.
    As with Marx, welfare state liberals have taken Judeo-Christian imperatives even when they reject the religion on which they are based. It’s an imposing structure–but it’s got no foundation.


    3 Jul 11 at 12:33 pm

  4. “Indeed one can. But on what basis does one come to that conclusion?”

    Either morality is simply what God decrees at his whim, in which case it is a meaningless bunch of arbitrary rules anyway, subject to change at any moment.


    Morality is something that exists outside any God, and as such can be discovered by anyone.

    And it is the latter. Morality arises, like language, out of the needs of a social group. Like language, there is a window during growth when it is acquired.

    All the religious ethical writings of the world, whatever gods mouth they are placed in, are really just humans working out what it takes to live together and trying to get some concrete authority to “authorize” the imperatives. The “Judeo-Christian” “imperatives” are no different — which is why they differ so little from any other religious or other ethical imperatives.


    3 Jul 11 at 2:02 pm

  5. Now, I would have said that the things expected of a good Christian were not always–especially in regards to helping strangers–the things required of a follower of Wotan or of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

    But if there were a universal religious obligation to care for the poor, this would still get us no closer to a moral obligation not based on religion.


    3 Jul 11 at 2:20 pm

  6. Jane recommended this book months ago and I’ll second the recommendation.

    “Atheist Delusions: The Christian revolution and its Fashionable Enemies” by David Bentley Hart

    The moral rules that Michael believes are universal are all Christian and are not shared by other cultures.


    3 Jul 11 at 2:56 pm

  7. Or, if they’re shared by other cultures at all – and that almost invariably because of the influence of Christian missionaries – the family, clan or, at most, the tribe is about the limit of the practical application of those principles.

    I really do think it’s long past time where militant or proselytising atheists should get over themselves and accept the bleeding obvious: you don’t have to believe in a God or gods to acknowledge that the source or at least the inspiration of our current western moral and charitable instincts is Judeo-Christianity. It doesn’t weaken ones’s atheistic bona fides to acknowledge that, but doing so certainly preserves ones general credibility.


    3 Jul 11 at 4:57 pm

  8. Most of “Judeo-Christianity” is pagan in origin, including especially the moralizing bits. Borrowed almost wholsale from the Epicureans and other Greek traditions. The insistance on one husband for one wife, and no divorce is purely pagan, and pagan upper classes at that.

    The more superstitious bits, including “glorified bodies” (avoiding that pesky need to be mummified), a judgment day, faith instead of works etc. are sometimes borrowed from and sometimes in answer to other superstitions of the time, often Egyptian in origin.

    The only things “bleeding obvious” is that this complex syncretic thing known as “Christianity” is that most of it came from surrounding cultures which predate Christianity or even much contact with Abrahamic religions of any kind by centuries – and that requires no “god” to explain where the philosophy/morals came from or how the syncretism arose.

    Christianity is the philosophical heritage of the Pagan Greeks wrapped in the metaphysical revenge of Akhenaten.


    3 Jul 11 at 7:05 pm

  9. Whether the ideas are Judeo-Christian or pagan, from one religion or a hundred or none, the ideas themselves seem to be the point. “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick” are logical and rational choices. Poverty and sickness, when allowed to go untreated, begin to run rampant. When that happens, everyone suffers.

    Poverty breeds desperation, and desperate people do desperate things. I’m not trying to imply that anyone ‘owes’ anyone else a living or a handout. I am simply saying that finding ways to deal with poverty benefits everyone.


    3 Jul 11 at 7:41 pm

  10. “Christianity is the philosophical heritage of the Pagan Greeks wrapped in the metaphysical revenge of Akhenaten.”

    Right or wrong, that’s so way beside the point that it’s irrelevant, Mike. Paganism was/is a religion or, at the very least, a clutch of spiritual belief systems.

    Go live in Asia or Papua New Guinea, where I have lived for years rather than days, weeks or even months, or Africa which I haven’t even visited despite the pleas of my SA-born daughter-in-law. You won’t find any charitable activity that isn’t based on religion, and in most of those places, on Christianity whose adherents are still overwhelmingly the predominant deliverers of health and social welfare. Just one example: leprosy – in PNG, the endemic Hanson’s Disease was brought under control if not actually eliminated mainly by the American Seventh Day Adventists. Father Damian was a hero of our childhood history books for his devotion to and tireless care of the Hawaiian sufferers of that horrible disease, giving his life in the process.

    I can think of no such atheist-inspired charitable organisations, or even of any comparable atheist individuals who have dedicated and even sacrificed their lives for the benefit of mankind without any hope af an earthly reward. (Don’t get me wrong; I don’t share their beliefs and think many of them are downright weird. But the Christian missionaries I knew well in PNG were nothing like your typical bible-thumping, Koran-weilding nutcases so common in our modern western world).

    Finally, if you really want compare the work of Christian missionaries with that of their irreligious if not exactly atheistic bureaucratic successors, visit the Australian Outback and check out the condition of the modern tribal Australian Aborigines. The grandparents can usually read, write and speak English. Their children less so, and their grandchildren only rarely and mainly not at all, despite billions of government dollars being poured into the Aboriginal health, education and welfare bureaucracies since the church-run missions were dismantled back in the 70s by left-wing zealots in the then government.


    3 Jul 11 at 9:08 pm

  11. Attributing Judeo-Christian obligations towards strangers to pagans–besides being historically dubious–gets you nowhere on finding a non-religious basis for it.
    As far as a moral code goes, the Christian (or Jew, or Muslim) argues that (a) God wants you to do certain things, (b) He is omniscient adn omnipotent, and (c) you, or at least your soul is immortal. Like LASF “even death will not release you.” Therefore it behoves you to do as God commands. You can argue that the premises (postulates?) are inadequately established, but the reasoning from them is clear and straightforward.

    Saying instead that “everyone believes in X” is not reasoning out a moral code at all. To say “all advanced cultures practice X” and then to make doing so one of the signs of an advanced culture is worse than not reasoning.


    3 Jul 11 at 10:57 pm

  12. As far as I know, both ancient Greece and Rome allowed divorce, Both also allowed infanticide. I would doubt that the Christian objection to divorce and infanticide comes from Pagan practices.


    3 Jul 11 at 11:24 pm

  13. Further to my last, this book sets goes a long way towards explaining how Islam differs from Christianity and other beliefs. Tribalism rules.


    The most startling quote in that book goes something like this: I against my brother; I and my brother against our cousin; I, my brother and my cousin against the world.

    That’s tribalism wherever it exists, and there is no concept like charity anywhere in it, at least beyond the tribe.


    4 Jul 11 at 12:29 am

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