Out of the background: James Armistead Lafayette

Sarah Wells: Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette. A thoughtful blog post from a high school student about a lesser known figure from the American Revolution.

James Armistead, born a slave in the possession of Virginian William Armistead, secured the permission of his master to join the American army under the command of General Lafayette. He became a spy, serving as a double agent to get information both from Benedict Arnold and from Lord Cornwallis. After the war, with support from both William Armistead and Lafayette, he petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom and was manumitted.

James Armistead Lafayette’s story gives me pause—not merely because of the general lack of knowledge about his life, but because of the small window of time during which his manumission was possible. Though William Armistead sounds enlightened, the odds that James would have been freed had he not rendered such extraordinary service to the new Republic—and had a war hero on his side—seems extremely unlikely. I would guess that if his story played out around 1830 or later (when he died), the sentiment of the average Virginia slaveowner would not have been toward freedom.

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