A forgotten Virginian led where Washington and Jefferson feared to go.

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Understanding our history is one path to understanding ourselves. That’s why we have Black History Month and Presidents Day, which actually go well together.

For 50 of the first 60 years of the United States, the presidency was held by men who owned other people, more specifically, white men who owned black people. Their thoughts and actions shaped the country we inherited.

I went digging around for more information and unearthed Robert Lopresti. He’s a librarian at Western Washington University and creator of a website titled simply, “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves.”

People were always getting the number wrong, so he set the record straight. Twelve presidents were slave owners. Eight owned people while they were in office. Lopresti also captured their evolving thoughts about slavery and African Americans.

George Washington in 1786 said, “I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of (slavery) … ” Yet he didn’t set his slaves free while he was alive.

Enslaved people made his wealth, just as they contributed hugely to the whole American economy.

George Washington was the wealthiest president. And why? He owned lots of land and people. Between them, he and Martha owned about 300 people at the time of his death.

Thomas Jefferson wrote often about the evils of slavery, but he didn’t give up his property. Owning slaves kept Jefferson in comfort. Still, Jefferson, ranked by Forbes Magazine as the third-richest president, died broke. He spent a lot. Have Americans really changed so much?

James Madison owned slaves and thought slaves should be freed then moved far from white people. He never freed his.

James Monroe, also a slave owner, wrote that slavery was evil, but said, basically, hey, I didn’t create it, and it’s too hard to get rid of.

I noticed as I was reading about the presidents that successive presidents seemed to take harder stands in defense of slavery. Lopresti noticed, too. In his research, he told me, he saw the positions of slave owners harden as both the abolitionist movement and cotton profits grew.

John Tyler in 1838 gave God the credit for seeing Africans brought to a land where they could become civilized and Christian — like him, I suppose.

Lopresti began his research in 2001 after reading an article by Andrew Levy, “The Anti-Jefferson.” It was about a Virginia planter we never hear about, the superrich Robert Carter III.

Levy argued that the reason we don’t hear about Carter is that it would be too embarrassing. No one could argue the slave-owning founders were just innocent men of their time when in 1791 one of the largest slave owners began freeing the 500 men and women he owned. His act was no secret. Carter knew Washington and lent money to Jefferson. You can read more in Levy’s 2005 book, “The First Emancipator” (Random House).

Many slave owners said it was fear that kept them from acting. They worried what those mistreated people might do if freed. “Jefferson once said, ‘We have the wolf by the ears, and we dare not let go,’ ” Lopresti said.

And yet Carter, and others, did it successfully. Carter didn’t like his slaves, and they didn’t like him. On being freed, people had to choose a last name and it was usually the former master’s name, but Lopresti said there is no record of a single person taking Carter’s name. But they coexisted peacefully with him after freedom.

Lopresti pointed out something else. Carter didn’t act to be kind, but because of his religious conviction that slavery was immoral. It didn’t hurt that he could rent farm land to the newly freed at a profit. Lopresti likened Carter to Oskar Schindler, the businessman who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jews during World War II.

“Schindler was not a nice person either, just a person who did the right thing.” And Lopresti raised a question about our reaction to contemporary problems, when we consider ourselves good people.

“If they can figure it out, what is our excuse?”

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.