MANUMISSION PETITION FOR JAMES LAFAYETTE
For what service during the American Revolution was James Lafayette awarded his freedom?
James, the slave of William Armistead, served in 1781 at Yorktown by spying on Lord Cornwallis for the Marquis de Lafayette. James carried vital information across enemy lines, even pretending to act as a double agent, providing the British with just enough information to gain their confidence so he could learn more to ensure an American victory.
At the beginning of the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia, offered enslaved Virginians their freedom, provided they would come and fight for the British. While the Continental army did not offer such an incentive, slaves still joined to fight for the American cause. One such man was James, the slave of William Armistead, a Virginia government official. In October 1781, James acting for the Marquis de Lafayette, spied on Lord Cornwallis behind British lines at Yorktown. James carried vital information across enemy lines, even pretending to act as a double agent, providing the British with just enough information to gain their confidence so he could learn more to ensure an American victory. After putting his life on the line fighting for freedom, James found himself returning to slavery as the war came to a close. An unsuccessful 1784 petition for James's freedom seemed to guarantee his slave status, but that same year James received a note from Lafayette commemorating his service, giving James a supporting document from an influential source. In 1786, another petition was sent to the Virginia General Assembly on behalf of James, asking for his freedom, and this time he won. The petition asked that his former master be compensated for the loss of his labor, and, in 1787, William Armistead was awarded $250 dollars as payment for James. James started the year 1787 as a free man, and he took the last name Lafayette. The historical record tells us that as a free man James Lafayette owned lands, held slaves, received a Revolutionary War pension starting in 1819, met Lafayette again during the Marquis's 1824 tour of the United States, and died at age 82 in the year 1830.
• Petition—a formally drawn request, often bearing the names of a number of those making the request, that is addressed to a person or group of persons in authority or power, soliciting some favor, right, mercy, or other benefit.
• Fidelity—strict observance of promises, duties, etc.
• Commemorate—to serve as a memorial or reminder of.
• PRE-LESSON ACTIVITY: Have students read the petition and identify James Lafayette's role in the Revolutionary War.
• TIMELINE: Have students create a timeline of important dates/events in James Lafayette's life.
• ORAL EXPRESSION: Before telling the class that James Lafayette won his freedom with the second petition, ask students what action would they take if they were the General Assembly. Have students debate by presenting evidence in favor of James Lafayette's winning his freedom and evidence against it. After the presentations, have a class vote.
• CREATIVE EXPRESSION: Today we can send letters to our representatives asking them to support legislation. Have students write a letter to a member of the General Assembly in 1786 telling the members why they should grant James Lafayette his freedom.
Research and Discussion Questions:
• Have students discuss the risks James Lafayette took and the possible motivations for his actions.
Salmon, John. “A Mission of the Most Secret and Important Kind: James Lafayette and American Espionage.” Virginia Cavalcade 31, no. 2 (1981): 78–85.