Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Were They "Men of their Time?"

When someone we admire does something we feel is wrong it is natural for us to look for an explanation.  In the case of the presidents who owned slaves one natural response goes something like this:

 They were simply men of their time.  For the most part they thought and did exactly what their neighbors thought and did.  It is irrational to judge eighteenth- and nineteenth-century people by twenty-first-century standards.

It’s not a bad argument.  But if  it as a real argument, and not just an excuse, then you have a responsibility to look at those neighbors. Were there really no men or women who were behaving more like twenty-first-century people?  Were there no “role models” the Founding Fathers could have learned from?

Enter Robert Carter III

Most of my information about Carter comes from Levy, "The anti-Jefferson" and Levy, The First Emancipator.


Robert Carter III was a member of Virginia’s planter class, the grandson of the richest man in the colonies.  He owned hundreds of slaves and, in 1791, he wrote: “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice…”

Nothing unusual about that; most of our presidents in this era who owned slaves said similar things about slavery.  What makes Carter almost unique is the second half of the sentence:“…and that therefore it was my duty to manumit them.”    Carter didn’t just condemn slavery in the abstract; he actually freed his slaves.  He filled a large book (called a “Deed of Gift” -- it still exists) with his plan for emancipating them, fifteen a year starting with the oldest. Newly born slaves would be freed when the reached 21 (male) or 18 (female).

Why didn't he free them all at once?  He thought kicking out several hundred free Blacks into the hostile state of Virginia with no way to make a living would be bad for all parties.  At fifteen per year he could get them jobs or rent them farms to help them survive.  And once he got his system organized he was able to free more than fifteen per year.

Some of the children of his slaves were still being freed in 1852, forty years after Carter’s death.  It is believed he freed close to 500 slaves in all; the largest emancipation by one person in American history.

Did the founding fathers know about Robert Carter III?  Jefferson borrowed money from him.  Washington’s nephew proposed to his daughter.  And the brief article at the top of this page appeared in at least eleven newspapers in 1791.

They knew about him, and they knew about the emancipation he performed.  They could have followed his example.  They chose not to do so. 

A Word For The Defense

In deciding to free his slaves Carter had certain advantages over the founding fathers.  Any southerner who freed his slaves was certain to lose two things: Money and Popularity.  Carter’s advantage was that he had plenty of one and none of the other.  

Many of the founding fathers were "land poor."  Their money was tied up in land, which dropped in value as fresh Western property became available.  Both Washington and Jefferson said they wanted to improve the lot of their slaves once their debts were taken care of.  Carter had considerable money that was not tied up in land, so he could afford to free his slaves more easily.

Any southerner who hoped for a future in politics knew that freeing his slaves would greatly decrease his choice of being elected.  However, before the Revolution Carter ran for office twice and each time he got clobbered (receiving less than 3% of the vote on one occasion). He must have known that freeing his slaves was not going to make him less popular than he already was; nothing could. So he was free from that worry.

Washington had a slightly different problem in that regard.  He was immensely popular and had no worries about getting elected.  But his popularity had to carry more weight than that; states were persuaded to ratify the Constitution by the fact that Washington would be the first president. If he became allied with a controversial opinion it would literally endanger the existence of the country.

Finally, Carter took advantage of a fairly brief window of opportunity. In the 1780s Virginia passed a law making it relatively easy for an owner to free his slaves.  The law changed in the 1790s. In other states and other times freeing slaves was harder – or even illegal.


Does all of this mean that Carter deserves no credit?

Definitely not.  The simple fact that he could afford to give up a valuable property for the sake of humanity does not mean he necessarily would - or we wouldn’t have any billionaires today. And while he didn’t have to worry about offending the electorate he did infuriate - and alienate - his family, who felt that he was unfairly whittling their inheritance.

Was Carter the only man of this time who freed his slaves?  Not at all; here is one more example.

The Case of the Secretary

(Most of my information about Edward Coles comes from: Miller, John Chester.  The Wolf By The Ears. Press: New York.1977.)


Edward Coles was President James Madison’s secretary. He was also a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson (and incidentally, like some of Sally Heming’s children, he bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson).

After Madison left the presidency Coles decided to sell his Virginia estate and move to the Illinois Territory, where slavery was not permitted. He would free his slaves there and set up those who chose to stay with him as farmers there.This was a variation of what Jefferson had long recommended: that all the slaves be freed and removed from the United States.


He asked for Jefferson’s approval, but the ex-president refused to have his name attached to the plan. He said ex-slaves could never be successful farmers because slavery had made them “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” (p206)

Coles went anyway.  Seventeen of his ex-slaves became tenant farmers and Coles became the second governor of Illinois, and led the successful fight against forces that tried to make slavery legal in the state.

What Does This Tell Us?

Many slave owners in the Federal Era admitted (at least privately) that slavery was a bad thing.  (Positions hardened later as the cotton gin made slavery more profitable and abolitionists became more vocal.)  Most slave-owners held onto their slaves.

But not all.  Some men, like Carter and Coles, talked the talk and walked the walk. If our leaders were “men of their time” then these others must have been “ahead of their time.”  But if they could do it, why not Jefferson, Lee, Henry, Madison and Monroe?  (Credit where it’s due: Washington arranged for most of his slaves to be freed after the death of him and his wife.)


Our founding fathers may have felt they had good reasons (political, social, financial, legal, religious) for not freeing their slaves. But we can not claim that the reason was that no one else was doing it.  That is an insult to men like Robert Carter who, as Andrew Levy suggests, may be ignored in the history books simply because he embarrasses those of us who esteem the founders.

Carter and Coles deserve their places as well.


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