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Room for Improvement

After a prodigal youth in London, Robert Carter became a serious student of law, philosophy and ethics in Williamsburg

By Jeffrey E. Klee


“Poor wretch’d Bob Carter,” wrote John Blair in July of 1751. “I hope he won’t come to live in Wmsburgh.”

Young Bob Carter was many things in 1751 — masquerade-ball enthusiast, 23-year-old heir to one of Virginia’s great fortunes, gentleman planter — but the grandson of Robert “King” Carter was hardly poor. Upon achieving his majority in February of 1749, he inherited Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County, which included more than 65,000 acres of land and several hundred slaves

His wretchedness, on the other hand, was an object of wonder for many of his contemporaries.

John Page recalled that Carter was the pre-eminent example of a group of Virginia gentlemen who had gone to England for education only to return home “inconceivably illiterate” and “corrupted and vicious.” Years later, Carter himself conceded that while in London, the sociable charms of the city had beguiled him more than his studies and as a consequence, “my gratifications exceeded my yearly income.” It was thanks to young Bob Carter’s bad example that sober-minded members of the Virginia gentry chose to educate their sons closer to home, at the College of William & Mary.

Few could have predicted that this indulgent young dandy would, in his adulthood, amass one of the largest libraries in North America; fewer still could suppose that he would eventually develop the moral courage to emancipate his entire enslaved workforce.

It would be another decade before Bob Carter would set up house in Williamsburg, this time as Councillor Robert Carter III, husband to Frances Ann Tasker Carter, father of three young children, and, beginning in 1758, fellow member of the Governor’s Council with John Blair. In 1761, he assumed his leading role in colonial Virginia’s governance and moved into the house at the head of Palace Green that his grandfather Carter built in 1727. While it was well finished and spacious, with three large rooms on each of two floors, he quickly began a thorough campaign of improvements, ordering wallpaper for three rooms and the stair passage in February 1762. Over the next decade, he repainted woodwork, added wallpaper to a fourth room and filled the house with new furniture, books and other accoutrements of polite domestic life. He devoted special attention to his study, the front left room facing Palace Green. Here, he installed an exceptional collection of musical instruments, beginning with a harpsichord, which was soon joined by a glass armonica, a violin, two silver-tipped flutes, a pianoforte and, in 1771, a chamber organ. Carter was an adept and determined musician, described as “indefatigable in the practice” by his children’s tutor, Philip Vickers Fithian.

Like dining, the performance of music was a pleasurable and a sociable activity among Williamsburg’s gentry. Carter’s friends and musical accompanists were his neighbors on Palace Green, including George Wythe and Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier. They dined, made music and debated the proper response to matters of the moment — including, increasingly, the colony’s relationship with royal and parliamentary authority.

But if the study was principally a public reception room, filled with music and conversation, it was also a place for reading and reflection. The Princeton-educated Fithian appreciated Carter’s intelligent discussion of political and philosophical subjects but also noted how frequently he would disappear from the dinner table at Nomini Hall to read or play music in solitude.

Fithian was especially impressed with Carter’s book collection, which was, by 1774, one of the largest in the colony, with more than 1,200 volumes spread between the Palace Green house and Nomini Hall. By comparison, the entire catalog of the Library Company of Philadelphia included 1,072 titles in 1764, while most Virginians thought themselves fortunate to have even a single book, usually a Bible.

Carter’s reading was central to his sustained, determined program of self-education. Many of his contemporaries sought to amass consequential libraries; some of them did so to become better administrators, collecting volumes of law, politics and history while, for others, books served principally as signs of gentility and sources of amusement. In 1771, Robert Skipwith asked Thomas Jefferson for advice in selecting books appropriate for “a common reader who understands but little of the classicks and who has not leisure for any intricate or tedious study. Let them be improving as well as amusing.” Carter certainly did have the leisure for intricate study and he made the most of it. His mature correspondence cites the Scriptures alongside ancient historians and modern poets with the fluency of the scholar, not the airs of the dilettante.

‘Double Tyrannie’

The figure of the man who transforms himself through reading is an enduring and appealing one. Consider transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau with Homer on his Walden nightstand or essayist Michel de Montaigne mining the ancients for insights into human nature. The Romans so admired by colonial Virginians saw such work as essential for those with a responsibility to govern. Carter and the most literate of his peers achieved their intimacy with classical history and literature from a young age, through careful study that required abundant time to devote to reading and conversation rather than tending fields, minding hearths or building houses. The treasonous implications of Patrick Henry’s Caesar/Brutus speech required an easy familiarity with ancient Roman history, and classical allusions pervaded the visual as well as literary culture of early Virginia. The Raleigh Tavern was decorated with prints of the Caesars, images that reinforced and relied on a fundamental mastery of ancient history while assuring clients that they were among properly educated company. And its principal reception rooms after 1751 were named for Apollo, the god of music, poetry and truth, and Daphne, the object of his romantic infatuation.

While familiarity with the ancients permitted elite Virginians to participate articulately in the public debates of the late American colonial period, some authors, including those in Carter’s library, suggested other motivations for reading, including, most critically, freedom from received and conventional wisdom. The Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus argued that the purpose of philosophical reflection was the cultivation of reason and self-discipline to overcome one’s passions, on the one hand, and an unthinking acceptance of social mores, on the other. The poet John Milton echoed this sentiment in his observation that study permitted one to liberate himself from “a double tyrannie, of Custome from without, and blind affections within.” Throughout his adult life, Carter worked to balance the weight of the public mood and the opinion of his friends with careful, methodical reflection on the lessons of ancient and modern history and philosophy, all tested against the teachings of the Scriptures and the glosses of modern theologians. This was no task for a dabbler.

‘An Addition to yr Studdy’

Robert Carter’s books were first installed in his study, one of the Palace Green house’s two principal reception rooms. But many British subjects of this period, encouraged by the Gospel of Matthew (“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet”), saw reading, like prayer, as an activity that should be removed from the sphere of sociability, shut off in a private space where one could read and contemplate in quiet. Cultural historian Robert Blair St. George sees Anglo-American closets of this period as private places of preparation, whether as dressing rooms, counting rooms or spaces of devotion. In the closet, one retreated from public life for a moment, the better to participate in it.

In 1771, the year his organ was installed, Robert Carter hired Williamsburg carpenter Benjamin Powell to build a small closet, roughly 8 by 13 feet, off the south side of the study. He fitted it with a library table and book press to contain over 450 volumes, consolidating them in this small, solitary space, set apart from the lively activities of music, dining and dancing. Adjoining one of the most public rooms in the house, it was a respite from public life, a place where he could concentrate his thoughts before returning to converse with Mrs. Carter, Mr. Wythe, and Dr. Small or deliberate with the Council and the governor.

But just a year later, something had changed for Councillor Carter. His closet, perhaps, was no longer enough apart, and he removed his household to his plantation at Nomini Hall and began to separate himself from public life. In this decade, he also became more focused on his spiritual life, seeking advice from Thomas Everard and George Wythe, his former neighbors, on religious books. At the same time, he retreated from the social and theological world of the established church. In September 1778, Carter converted to evangelical Christianity and became a Baptist, a radical choice for a man of his standing. Living on his plantation and worshipping outside the established church, he could live still more completely apart from the conventions of the Virginia gentry.

Through his reading, and through his retreat from Virginia society, Carter came to recognize, with a clarity shared by few of his peers, one key area in which the weight of public opinion was badly out of step with the principles of liberty, justice and equality that animated the movement toward Revolution: slavery. His misgivings about the morality of chattel slavery, the source of his wealth, hardened over the 1780s into abhorrence. Though he was unable to effect change in Virginia’s laws or influence many of his landowning peers, he resolved to do what he could, and so, in August 1791, he prepared a “Deed of Gift,” which led, over several years, to the manumission of his entire enslaved workforce, over 500 people. It was the largest private emancipation before the Civil War.

He did not come to this decision overnight. The construction of his Williamsburg closet, a space built specifically for personal study and devotion, reveals a commitment to contemplation that prepared him, in time, to see the social and political complexion of Virginia more clearly than he could in his adolescence. Reading quietly in his closet, he began liberating himself from Milton’s “double tyrannie,” allowing him to recognize the greater and lesser tyrannies that governed much of the world around him.

Jeffrey E. Klee is the Shirley and Richard Roberts Architectural Historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where he has worked since 2004. Klee began an intensive study of the Carter House in 2016.

Robert Carter, portrayed by actor-interpreter Gerry Underwood, reads a book in his home along the Palace Green in Williamsburg. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

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