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James Lafayette Petition

  • James's Petition to the General Assembly, November 30, 1786
In this petition, a slave named James, who worked as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution, requested his freedom.
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    Storming a Redoubt at Yorktown, oil painting, October 14, 1781
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James's Petition to the General Assembly, November 30, 1786

In May 1776 when the white men who composed the fifth Virginia Revolutionary Convention met in Williamsburg and voted to instruct the colony's representatives in the Continental Congress to introduce a resolution for independence, they also appointed a committee to draft a declaration of rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted in June 1776, like the Declaration of Independence adopted in July of the same year, proclaimed that all mmen were born free, but neither the Convention nor the Congress meant by their declarations to abolish slavery. During the first years of the Revolutionary War, Congress refused to allow African Americans to enlist, but later many free African Americans and some enslaved African Americans served in the army, some as substitutes for the men who owned them and did not wish to serve. In 1783 the General Assembly freed the African Americans from Virginia who served in the Revolutionary War, although only eight were known to have been granted their freedom under this provision.

Slavery endured for another eighty-two years in Virginia, but some men who contributed to American independence gained their freedom even though they had not enlisted in the army. One of the most famous was an enslaved man James, who belonged to a New Kent County planter named William Armistead. Late in the Revolutionary War, with his owner's permission, James acted as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette and was able to slip in and out of the British headquarters at Yorktown and collect crucial information about the British Army's plans. After the war ended, James returned to slavery in New Kent County and twice petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom as a reward for his service to the American army. With assistance from Lafayette, the assembly passed a law on November 30, 1786, that freed him as of January 1787, and with his freedom James took the name James Lafayette.

The American Revolution brought a period of change in Virginians' attitudes about slavery. During the two decades after the war began, some slave owners freed their slaves, either for religious reasons or because they believed that slavery was inconsistent with the freedom and ideals of liberty and equality for which they had fought. In the postwar period, a Revolutionary War hero named John Cropper emancipated sixteen of his slaves for that reason. Petitions such as James's are evidence that the American Revolution started a flow of emancipation thought in the United States that was unprecedented for its time.

For Educators

Questions

1. What does it mean to petition? Why was James petitioning?

2. What role did James play in the Revolution?

3. Under whom did James serve?

Further Discussion

1. Consider Dunmore's Proclamation of 1775. With the British offering slaves their freedom for service, what reasons would the enslaved have for serving the Americans who did not guarantee freedom? Why would the state government of Virginia not want to set free those enslaved men who had served America?

Links

James Armistead Lafayette - African American Trailblazers Video

Lesson Plan: James Lafayette

Video: Billy and James: Choices Facing African Americans during the Revolutionary War

Suggested Reading

Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Salmon, John S. “A Mission of the Most Secret and Important Kind: James Lafayette and

American Espionage.” Virginia Cavalcade 31, no. 2 (1981): 78–85.

To the honorable the Speaker & gentlemen of the gen l Assembly*,
The petition of James (a slave belonging to Will: Armistead of New Kent county) humbly sheweth: That your petitioner perswaded of the just right which all mankind have to Freedom, notwithstanding his own state of bondage, with an honest desire to serve this Country in its defence thereof, did, during the ravages of Lord Cornwallis thro' this state, by the permission of his master, enter into the service of the Marquiss Lafayette: That during the time of his serving the Marquiss he often at the peril of his life found means to frequent the British Camp, by which means he kept open a channel of the most useful communications to the army of the state: That at different times your petitioner conveyed inclosures, from the Marquiss into the enemies lines, of the most secret & important kind; the possession of which if discovered on him would have most certainly endangered the life of your petitioner: That he undertook & performed all commands with chearfulness & fidelity, in opposition to the persuasion & example of many thousands of his unfortunate condition. For proof of the above your petitioner begs leave to refer to the certificate of the Marquiss Lafayette hereto annexed, & after taking his case as here stated into consideration he humbly intreats that he may be granted that Freedom, which he flatters himself he has in some degree contributed to establish; & which he hopes always to prove himself worthy of: nor does he desire even this inestimable favor, unless his present master from whom he has experienced everything, which can make tolerable the state of slavery, shall be
made adequate compensation for the loss of a valuable workman; which your petitioner humbly requests may be done & your petitioner shall ever pray &c.

* The writer of this document used the long or leading s, a character that looks similar to an "f" but is used as an "s."