"A Wild Scheme"
The first inkling that Lafayette wished to take action in the cause for the emancipation of slaves appears in a remarkable letter from Lafayette to George Washington, written from Cádiz, February 5, 1783. This letter was written to inform Washington of the signing of the general treaty of peace between England and the United States, January 20, 1783, thus ending the Revolutionary War. It is a lengthy letter of celebration, but contains a startling paragraph requesting Washington’s collaboration in an experiment to emancipate slaves and use them instead as tenant farmers. As radical as the suggestion may have been, it is not surprising that it was Washington’s aid that Lafayette hoped to enlist. The two men were extremely close friends, in fact, their relationship was more like that of father and son. And Lafayette knew how influential such an action by Washington could prove. Although Washington responds cordially to Lafayette on this occasion, as well as later when he learns that Lafayette has actually begun the experiment, he never takes such action during his lifetime. Upon his death, however, in 1799, his slaves were freed by a provision in his will.
Lafayette to Washington, Cádiz,
February 5, 1783
George Washington to Lafayette, Headquarters Newburgh, April 5, 1783
The scheme, my dear Marquis, which you propose as a precedent, to encourage the emancipation of the black people of the Country from that state of Bondage in which, they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work; but will defer going into a detail of the business, till I have the pleasure of seeing you.
Lafayette to Washington, Paris, February 6, 1786
Another secret I entrust to you,
my dear General, is that I have purchased for a hundred and twenty five
thousand French livres a plantation in the Colony of Cayenne and am going
to free my Negroes in order to make that experiment which you know is my
Washington to Lafayette, Mount Vernon, May 10, 1786
The benevolence of your heart my dear Marquis is so conspicuous upon all occasions, that I never wonder at any fresh proofs of it; but your late purchase of an Estate in the Colony of Cayenne with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country, but I despair of seeing it ...
Skillman & Kirby Libraries · Lafayette College
· Easton, PA 18042
Last updated 9 August 2002