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James Lafayette Petition for Freedom, 1786


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


James Lafeyette was born enslaved about 1748. He lived on a plantation owned by William Armistead in New Kent County. Although he is sometimes identified as James Armistead, he never signed his name or self-identified as having the surname Armistead. During the American Revolution, he received permission from William Armistead to serve as a spy under the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then in command of the Continental army in Virginia. 

As a spy, James had unique knowledge of the region and the ability to blend in, which allowed him to acquire information about the plans of the British Army that he passed on to the Continental army. He posed as a double agent and pretended to spy on the Americans for the British. Instead he smuggled papers out of Cornwallis’s headquarters and also carried "secret & important" messages from Lafayette to other agents behind the enemy’s lines, which could have led to his execution if he had been caught. For all his brave actions during the war, James returned to life as an enslaved person. 

In this 1786 petition to the General Assembly, James asks for his freedom based on his service to his country during the Revolution. The General Assembly had denied his previous petition in 1784, but this time the Assembly granted his request and passed an act emancipating James, who then took the surname Lafayette to honor the former French General. 

James Lafayette moved to his own 40-acre farm in New Kent, where he married and raised a family. In 1818, at the age of 70, he successfully petitioned the General Assembly for a pension. When the Marquis de Lafayette toured the United States in 1824, he saw James in a crowd and embraced him as an old friend. James Lafayette died in 1832.

Citation: Petition of James, New Kent County, November 30, 1786, Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

Learn more about James Lafayette in his Dictionary of Virginia Biography entry at Encyclopedia Virginia.


VS.4, VS.5, US1.5, US1.6, VUS.4, VUS.5

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Scan It: Scan the petition. What names, words, or phrases stand out to you? List four or five. 

Post Activities

Think About it: While still enslaved James asked for permission to enlist to serve in the American Revolution. Why might he have made this choice? What potential benefits might have contributed to his choice?  

Social Media Spin: Create a social media post on the anniversary of the date James Lafayette received his emancipation. Be sure to include relevant information which would help people understand his importance in American history. 

Be a Journalist: Imagine you are interviewing James Lafayette before his death in 1832. What questions would you ask? Why would you ask those questions? Explain.