The Emancipation of James Armistead Lafayette

In his World rebuttal to us, David Barton claims that the case of James Armistead  Lafayette proves that we did not take into account slave laws other than the 1782 law allowing owners to emancipate their slaves. The situation of this slave who became a double agent during the Revolutionary War is an interesting story and one which more people should know. However, it does not prove we are wrong about slave emancipation.

In his World article, Barton wrote on page four:

Virginian William Armistead similarly wanted to free his slave, James (the hero of the Battle of Yorktown, credited with being America’s first double agent), but it took a special legislative act and the intervention of Virginia’s adopted favorite son, Marquis de Lafayette, in order to achieve William’s desire to free James.[xxvii] Why didn’t William just emancipate him, as Throckmorton asserts was possible under the 1782 law? Because Throckmorton did not account for the many other state laws that were also part of the Virginia slave code.

Armistead gained the trust of the British by feeding them (mostly false) information about the American army and then brought information about the British to the Marquis de Lafayette. As his petition to the Virginia House of Delegate claims, Armistead gave important service to the Americans and sought freedom based on that service.

In his article, Barton claims that William Armistead wanted to free James. However, Barton offers no evidence for this contention. There is a piece of this story that Barton does not tell you. It was James who approached the Virginia House of Delegates to gain his freedom. The petition (which is below) came from James with the support of Lafayette. Armistead eventually took Lafayette’s name as a tribute to his benefactor.

Apparently, Armistead (who himself was a Delegate in the Virginia House) did not try to stop James’ petition. However, one detail Barton omits is that William Armistead was financially compensated for the loss of James’ services as a slave.  In a private emancipation after 1782, no compensation was guaranteed to the owner. A slave and master could negotiate emancipation if the slave purchased his freedom but a master could also simply free his slave, if that slave was legally an adult under the age of 45 and of sound mind and body.

In the surviving documentation of James’ efforts to gain his freedom, James asked the Virginia House of Delegates for money to compensate his master William for the loss of his services. In other words, even though William was allowed to simply set James free (based on his age and his sound mind and body), freedom did not come to James until the legislature compensated William for his slave.

The primary sources are below. First is the petition which James submitted to the House of Delegates.

James Petitioned the General Assembly, November 30, 1786

To the honorable the Speaker & gentlemen of the genl 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.

Citation: Legislative Petition for James, Slave Belonging to William Armistead, 30 November 1786, Box 179, Folder 10, Library of Virginia, Richmond Virginia.

The Delegates acted favorably on this petition by passing the following law:


An act to emancipate James, a negro slave, the property of William Armistead, gentleman.

I. WHEREAS it is represented that James, a negro slave, the property of William Armistead, gentleman, of the county of New Kent, did, with the permission of his master, in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one, enter into the service of the Marquis la Fayette, and at the peril of his life found means to frequent the British camp, and thereby faithfully executed important commissions entrusted to him by the marquis; and the said James hath made application to this assembly to set him free, and to make his said master adequate compensation for his value, which it is judged reasonable and right to do.

II. Be it therefore enacted, That the said James shall, from and after the passing of this act, enjoy as full freedom as if he had been born free; any law to the contrary thereof, notwithstanding.

III. And be it further enacted, That the executive shall, as soon as may be, appoint a proper person, and the said William Armistead another, who shall ascertain and fix the value of the said James, and to certify such valuation to the auditor of accounts, who shall issue his warrant to the treasurer for the same, to be paid out of the general fund.

The Statues at Large; Being A Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, Hening (1823), Vol. XII, pp. 380-381, “An act to emancipate James, a negro slave, the property of William Armistead, gentleman,” October, 1786.

Note the means of compensation for William. James’ value was appraised by appraisers of William’s and the executive’s choosing. Eventually, William was paid $250 for James.

Barton’s question: “Why didn’t William just emancipate him?” is a good one but does not require the answer Barton hopes. We can find no evidence that William wanted to free James but was prevented by law from doing so. Instead the evidence points to a different scenario. James’ freedom was purchased from William by the Virginia House due to James’ meritorious service. James said in his petition that he did not want freedom unless his master was compensated. Whether that was really William’s condition for allowing the petition or James really felt that way is not known. What is known is that William could have freed James but did not until he was compensated.