“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.