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.
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?
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?
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.