This is the only known portrait of Robert Carter III, who freed more than 500 slaves decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like Washington and Jefferson, he championed liberty. Unlike the founders, he freed his slaves

Updated 4:01 AM ET, Sun September 5, 2021

(CNN)It was 230 years ago Sunday that Robert Carter III, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, quietly walked into a Northumberland County courthouse and delivered an airtight legal document announcing his intention to free, or manumit, more than 500 slaves.

He titled it the "deed of gift." It was, by far, experts say, the largest liberation of Black people before President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act and Emancipation Proclamation more than seven decades later.
On September 5, 1791, when Carter delivered his deed, slavery was an institution, a key engine of the new country's economy. But many slaveholders -- including founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who knew Carter -- had begun to voice doubts.
That was the extent of their umbrage.
Chattel slavery was wrong, the men said, but they supposedly worried it was not practical to abolish the institution without societal and economic consequences.
"As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other," Jefferson wrote a fellow politician almost 30 years after Carter's deed of gift.
Yet Carter had provided them a blueprint, not only for freeing their slaves but for ensuring the freedmen could sustain themselves, even prosper and integrate into society. Washington freed his slaves after death. Jefferson freed only 10 people of the hundreds he enslaved.

Descendants: Deed is no footnote

Today, descendants of both Carter and the men and women he freed say more must be done to propel the largely uncelebrated deed of gift into the national conscience.
Meriwether Gilmore, who grew up in Westmoreland County, where Carter's Nomini Hall estate once spanned 2,000 acres, is related to Carter on her mother's side. Her sister is named after his mother and oldest daughter, Priscilla. Her father worked with Black churches in the area to commemorate the deed of gift's bicentennial in 1991.