Lafayette and Liberty: Richard Ingram opines on Mike Duncan’s recent book

August 31, 2021 Journal

Podcaster Mike Duncan’s, “Hero of Two Worlds:  The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution,” released August 23rd this year, details the life of The Apostle of Liberty.  

     Only nineteen years old and he had thought it through.  Against strident objections from his father-in-law, and more like restrained suggestions from his monarch King Louis XVI, Lafayette sailed to America to fight alongside Americans in what he considered a noble quest for independence.  He was wounded in the left calf at the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777.  He was in the thick of the siege of Yorktown, 1781, and the British surrender that followed.

     Ironically, as Duncan points out, the first Americans Lafayette met June 13, 1777, after “La Victoire” dropped anchor at North Island, South Carolina, were slaves.  He and Washington likely had deep discussions on the subject during a ten day stay at Mount Vernon during Lafayette’s third trip to America in 1784   There is no record of what they said, but Washington in a letter the year before said they would talk about it face-to-face.

     Lafayette came to believe that slavery, along with sectional bickering and weak federalism, could undermine this novel experiment in democracy.  He wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen before plunging headlong into the French Revolution less than ten years after the close of the American Revolution.  “Human beings are born and remain free and equal in rights,” he said.  He went on to support independence movements in South America, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Greece.

     Contradictory behavior is human nature, but an explanation helps make sense of the world.

     The New Yorker reviewed Duncan’s book.  Adam Gopnik says this:  “There is evidence that Lafayette briefly owned a slave in 1777—a fact that he never referred to afterward, seemingly out of shame—but by the time of his 1824 trip [The Farewell Tour to America], he was resolutely antislavery and egalitarian, meeting with a representative of Haiti and vigorously making the argument for abolition with his Virginia friends.”  The source of Gopnik’s evidence is unrecorded, but likely is lifted straight from Duncan’s footnote.

     Page 55 of “Hero of Two Worlds,” says this:  “Lafayette already emulated his new role model in one damning respect.  George Washington  espoused the cause of liberty while enslaving human beings.  He was one of the largest slave-owners in North America.  And though it is often passed over, we know during these early days in Philadelphia, Lafayette came to own a slave—“a Negro boy”—purchased by one of the Americans who sailed with him on La Victoire.  The boy was purchased in Annapolis for 180 pounds and used by Lafayette to run errands in Philadelphia.  No further reference is ever made of the boy after September 1777.  His life after this brief period with Lafayette is a total mystery.  For Lafayette, it became another inconvenient fact about his early life he never spoke of in later years.”  Footnote #20 is the reference:  “The receipt of the purchase is located in Brice-Jennings Papers, MS 1997, Maryland Historical Society.”

     Gopnik and Duncan are on the same page.  The veracity of their conclusions, however, is not ironclad.

     The document referred to by Duncan, and likely the source of Gopnik’s comment, is in the collection of the Maryland Center for History and Culture (formerly the Maryland Historical Society).  The citation is, “MHS MS 1997 Brice-Jennings Papers:  1777 Aug Brice, Edmund to Murray, D [note].”  This is a promissory note which Edmund Brice, an Annapolis native and the lone colonial to accompany Lafayette on his first voyage from France to America, signed on August 4, 1777, to Dr. James Murray, also of Annapolis, for 180 pounds.  This was for an enslaved Black intended, presumably, to help Marquis de Lafayette.

     The document on its front, handwritten, reads:  “4 August 1777 / I promise to pay to Dr Murray the sum of one hundred eighty pounds Currency for value rece.d of him for the use of the Marquis dela Fayette—as witness my hand & seal / Edmund Brice [seal]”.

     The back:  “Edmund Brices note to Doc.r Murray for a negro Boy for the Marquiss / August 4 1777 / paid by / James Brice”.

     A fellow Marylander, William Carmichael, recruited Brice to accompany Lafayette to America.  Brice was with Lafayette when they journeyed from South Carolina to Philadelphia, stopping overnight at Annapolis July 23-24, 1777.  Brice was his aide-de-camp until Lafayette returned to France the first time, in 1779.  Dr. James Murray was also an Annapolitan.  James Brice was Edmund’s brother.  On August 4, 1777, Lafayette would have been eight days in Philadelphia, and less than two months in America.

     This is the whole of the reference.  Anything else is speculation.  Who initiated the transaction?  Whose 180 pounds?  Was running errands the purpose, as Duncan claims?  Did Lafayette never say anything about it because he was ashamed, or because the event played out differently?

     Speculation is not evidence.  Say a teenager goes to a party where everybody drinks; a friend brings the teenager a drink, paid for.  Did the teen ask for the drink?  Provide the cash?  Take it and drink it?  For all we know the provider may have been his or her own benefactor.       

     I am unwilling to suspend benefit of doubt; I do not choose to read into this that Lafayette owned a slave.  Lafayette was voluble and taken with all things American; he was a letter writer and I would expect such an action, which constitutes serious penetration into realms for him unprecedented, to have received the attention of his pen.  Even so, if Duncan interprets correctly, and Lafayette was mortified and regretful for this impropriety at age nineteen, does it not imply some redeeming feature, some acorn from which lifelong loyalty to liberty grew?

     Similar claims, and to my mind overreach, attend a letter written to Lafayette by Henry Laurens on October 23, 1777, a week before the latter was installed President of the Second Continental Congress.  Laurens refers to “your black Servant.”  Clarifying details are nonexistent.  Lafayette was an aristocrat, accustomed to servants.  But purchase for profit was not part of the paradigm.

     The plight of Black America concerned Lafayette and in 1785 he decided to do something about it.  His grand idea was to educate slaves, pay them for their work, and when they got their bearings, free them.  When Washington and King Louis XVI failed to answer his clarion call, he used his own money to implement the plan.  He bought land in Cayenne, French Guiana,  with seventy slaves.  There was no corporal punishment, and the words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ were redacted from the vocabulary because, he said, they were so repulsive.  Lafayette became embroiled in the French Revolution; Adrienne stepped in to manage the project.  It was all lost when Lafayette was captured and his land confiscated.

     The document in the Maryland Center for History and Culture is the whole on which Duncan speculates, and Gopnik follows.  As “evidence that Lafayette briefly owned a slave in 1777,” it does not make a clear cut case.  

Richard Ingram

Chair, Lafayette Alliance  2021