Lafayette Rogue Double Agent
It’s interesting to me that Ralph Ellison should choose to write about “James Armistead Lafayette.”
Almost fifty years ago, in 1974, the United States Bicentennial Society asked Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” which won the coveted and prestigious National Book Award in 1953, the year of my birth and the year Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in literature, to contribute an essay for its “Profile of Patriots.” He chose James Armistead Lafayette.
I say chose, but I really have no details as to whether it was assigned or not. Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the single and singular of his works, excepting “Juneteenth,” which was from his notes streamed together after his death, is at bottom about perception and relationship. He could have written his essay about Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, or W. E. B. Dubois, or any number of other choices, I suspect. He was influenced in his own writing by hard writers, like Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Hardy, and if it is true that we are the sum of our days, his choice of “James Armistead Lafayette” I do not see as random. Something in that story surely chimed for him notes of perception and relationship; besides, I want to better understand the musings of any writer who finds, as Ellison did, T. S. Eliot inspiring.
Ellison begins his essay: “At Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, there hangs a portrait in which the Marquis de Lafayette is attended by a Black man.” Desmond MacCarthy, nineteenth century literary critic and member of the Cambridge Apostles said, “It is the business of literature to turn facts into ideas,” and Ellison here triangulates first from the painting, to facts, and finally to ideas; from the part to the whole; from the particular to the general, the universe from a grain of sand, to quote Chekhov, as example of literary induction.
The painting, “Lafayette at Yorktown,” 1782, by French battle artist Jean-Baptiste Le Paon, was donated to Lafayette College in 1936, and depicts the Marquis de Lafayette in the foreground preparing, according to one descriptive text, for the assault on Redoubt Numbers Nine and Ten. Beside him is a Black man, said to be James Armistead Lafayette in such a stylized, Aladdin-like outfit as to upstage the Marquis. There is no definite evidence that this image is James Armistead (for purposes of clarity, until the explanatory tale later, let’s agree to refer to James Armistead Lafayette as James or James Armistead, and the Marquis as such or as just Lafayette); Le Paon never recorded any specific name as his model. The image, however, has become iconic for what is a wonderful story. It is emblematic of the French-American friendship that began with a Treaty of Alliance February 6, 1778, and extends in time and place all the way to the foot of Lafayette’s grave at Picpus Cemetery, Paris, on July 4, 1917, when Col. Charles E. Stanton declared, “Lafayette, we are here.” Not two months before, on May 10, 1917, a bronze relief monument by Daniel Chester French, whose work includes the Lincoln Memorial, was unveiled in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York. It was adapted from Le Paon’s “Lafayette at Yorktown.”
James Armistead, Ellison goes on to say, was a “fighter in the struggle for freedom within a struggle for freedom,” and here he fingers the sublime; this, it strikes me, is at heart what his essay is about. The dilemma. How do you reconcile “All Men Are Created Equal,” on the one hand, with bondage on the other? If contingency, which is the logic of history, is not preceded by undistracted moments, some shelter from the storm for purposes of personal reflection, choices are predictably pedestrian, unenlightened, and even mortal. For fear of Blacks taking to heart notions of liberty, for fear of insurrection if they were armed, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina on September 26, 1775, called on the Continental Congress to discharge all blacks then in the Continental Army. A Council of War on October 8 made it so, only to be followed November 7 by Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation. Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, promised freedom to any slave escaping to join the British army.
The Marquis de Lafayette, at mid-war completely at odds with prevailing sentiment, suggested to his patron and commander General Washington that they ally with Blacks, recruit them into the Continental Army ranks. After the war he would recruit Washington for a project to emancipate slaves.
Ellison is, I think, generous in his claim that the Continental Congress suffered from a “flawed moral position” and a “poverty of military imagination.” It was more properly a poverty of moral imagination.
Protest is a hard word; it seems as though it ought to be flanked by exclamation points and accompanied by the sound of a fist pounding a wooden table. Elihu’s admonition to Job comes to mind: “For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food.” But protest can affirm as well as object. Affirmation of one thing can highlight the need for remedy in another. Gestures, simple and unobtrusive but obvious, can be protest.
This brings us back to James Armistead. Ellison in his essay alludes to his being a spy at Yorktown in service to the Marquis de Lafayette, and to their reunion on the Farewell Tour. Limitations of space no doubt prevented adding filler.
What we know of James Armistead is piecemeal, but the story has all Aristotle’s elements of good theater. Not only that, but it makes for rough and tumble at the philosopher’s table.
Here is what we know.
James was born in New Kent County, Virginia, on December 10, 1748, although some sources record the date as late as 1760. Col. John Armistead II and his first wife Agnes were public figures and well known in New Kent County; how James came into their possession is unknown. Their son William Armistead Jr. was born January 5, 1754, making James six years’ senior.
When his father died in 1779, William inherited at age 25 sheep, horses, taverns, stores, and slaves, including James.
James was man-servant to William, but their relationship seems to have lacked the struts of hierarchy typical to the time. They were educated together; Virginia had not yet passed legislation prohibiting education of slaves and this did not come until 1819. Perhaps William’s father thought the challenge of competitive learning a good thing. Or maybe James was being groomed to work the taverns and stores. Whatever the motivations, both young men were taught to read and write in both English and French. They likely would have studied Latin and translated Cicero’s “On Morals” and Plutarch’s “Lives.” These works appealed to the idea of “Glory,” which in those days according to Laura Auricchio, in “Lafayette Revisited,” was “quite divorced from notions of splendor,” and in line with reputation achieved by way of “virtue, merit, great qualities, good actions and beautiful works.” Unlike celebrity with its vacuous self-interest, or wealth with its self-absorption, glory was disinterested if rightly understood, and carried no supervisory shadows. The Marquis de Lafayette declared to Washington in 1778 that his one object was glory; he read Cicero and Plutarch at the College du Plessis.
In 1777, when he was twenty-three, the same year the Marquis beached La Victoire at South Inlet, North Island, South Carolina, William was named commissary of military stores in Williamsburg, for which he was paid three hundred pounds per year and expenses for one servant. We do not know whether James was the servant for whom William was subsidized, but it is reasonable to surmise that James would have helped out. In this capacity he would have seen the comings and goings of British and American troops; both alternately occupied Williamsburg.
In May 1779 Admiral George Collier landed forces in Hampton Roads, running raids and burning warehouses all along the coast. One year later Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital inland from Williamsburg to Richmond. William followed suit, moving his commissary in the spring and summer of 1780 to Richmond, and James most probably assisted.
Benedict Arnold, now a Brigadier General in the British command, camped his forces at Portsmouth, Virginia. On January 16, 1781, he ferried 1600 troops up the James River and set fire to Richmond.
Pressed to address the pillage and plunder, General Washington dispatched his twenty-three year old Marquis in February, 1781, to Virginia, with 1200 troops and instructions to trap Arnold and hang him where they found him.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis won at Camden, South Carolina, routing the “Hero of Saratoga,” General Horatio Gates, who did not stop galloping until he was a hundred miles away, only to be embarrassed at King’s Mountain and Cowpens.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Greensboro, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781, was an inflection point. Cornwallis defeated Major General Nathanael Greene, but it was costly, suffering casualties of near one-third. He marched the Cape Fear River to Wilmington, thought better of it, and turned north to join Arnold at Portsmouth. If he could subdue Virginia, he thought, the war would be won.
Guilford Courthouse, interestingly, is just across town from the F. W. Woolworth Company where, on February 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell A. Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil, sat at the lunch counter to trigger another inflection point.
The Marquis arrived at Yorktown, ahead of his troops, on March 14, now annually celebrated in Virginia as Lafayette Day. By March 23 he was at Williamsburg.
How James and the Marquis met is unclear. The Marquis was at Richmond April 28; he met with Governor Jefferson later that day, but perhaps he visited the commissary for supplies and met James there. It was likely at Richmond or Williamsburg that Lafayette observed an articulate, disciplined Black man going about his work. Perhaps James let a French phrase slip and the Marquis picked up on it. We do not know. It is likely they met and discovered some common resolve. Something between them somehow resonated. Cicero maybe, or Plutarch, or Madeira, Lafayette’s beverage of choice. It may be apocryphal, but William Armistead on July 18, 1781, was accused of neglecting his job as commissary, to the detriment of Lafayette and his men. Governor Thomas Nelson, the story has it, having succeeded Jefferson, ordered a hogshead (about 145 gallons; packed with tobacco it would have weighed 1000 pounds) of spirits to be procured by William and delivered to the Marquis.
James at some point asked permission of William to volunteer to serve under the Marquis. No uniform. No musket. No certificate of enrollment in the Continental Army. Logic would assume the initiative was Lafayette’s, but execution was James’s.
William Armistead gave permission. Let that concrete set for a second, because it is not intuitive. It is not as though James is taking William’s place in the ranks of the Continental Army; no record of a signing bonus to validate some nefarious pecuniary underhand. Besides, any slave could cross British lines to freedom, no questions asked. Why, then, first of all, did James ask permission for this particular assignment? Was it something in the Marquis, some perk of possibility; perhaps that the Marquis was conscious; that he saw the struggle within the struggle? Or perhaps the ricochet hypothesis: the ideals in James of Cicero and Plutarch in Brownian motion searching for a target, and finding it at Yorktown in Lafayette? The skeptic says it is too much to ask; the cynic, that it is so far gone in utopian speculation as to be not simply implausible, but totally unbelievable. Maybe so, but there is more to this chemistry than single bonds.
Why not just dart into night and to freedom? True enough, the leap would be into unknowns, but does not the fact that James stayed this side of the lines after Yorktown say something about hope?
This still begs the question as to why William gave permission.
The Marquis put high value on military intelligence; he wanted to know Cornwallis’s troop number and plans, such that he could effectively deploy his own limited resources. A spy would do; someone who could infiltrate enemy lines at Portsmouth, and like some invisible man unobtrusively scoop facts. James agreed to play the part and by July 7 he was in camp at Portsmouth working as a server at the officers’ mess, where talk was freewheeling and unrestrained. James discovered that Cornwallis intended to fortify the deep water port at Yorktown. This he managed to relay to the Marquis.
A twist worthy of high drama followed, not known to Ellison when he wrote his essay and this accounts for its absence there. James was efficient at his work and Lord Cornwallis took note. So much so that he, Cornwallis, asked James to spy on Lafayette. James agreed.
James was a double agent, but there was never question as to his loyalty. He and the Marquis fed Cornwallis inflated figures on Continental Army troop strength. Had Cornwallis attacked early on, before Washington and Rochambeau arrived, consequences could have been dire. As it was, Cornwallis thought the Marquis had forces greater than they were, and chose not to risk an assault.
The Marquis wrote two letters to his Commander-in-Chief, one on July 31, the other August 25, testifying to valuable information procured by an unnamed benefactor. We assume this was James Armistead.
After the surrender, October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis paid the customary visit to the Marquis’s headquarters. There he saw none other than James. “Ah, you rogue,” he said more as compliment, one challenger to another, “then you have been playing me a trick all this time.” The Marquis once said Lord Cornwallis was the most civil of the British commanders; this was his nod to James for a game well played.
Afterwards, James returned to routine with William Armistead. Although Virginia manumission acts in 1782 and 1783 spoke to liberty for slaves who had been soldiers during the war, technically James had been a volunteer. His mission had been dangerous and successful, but he had signed no enlistment papers, wore no uniform, and carried no firearm. In this surely James was disappointed, but if he harbored bitterness there is no evidence of it. He would not have read Elizabeth Bishop whose poem “One Art,” says paraphrased, “Despair is an art easy to master, and unworthy,” but he seems to have lived its sentiment. Nor would he have known psychiatrist Roberto Assagolt, who said, “Without forgiveness, life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.” But he would have known Job: “Resentment kills a fool and envy slays the simple.” Maybe his take on the logic of history was not so much acquiescence as acceptance and making the best of it.
In the fall of 1784, a year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Marquis returned from France to visit America. In Paris he had joined the Society of the Friends of the Blacks which advocated stopping the slave trade and extending equal rights to free Blacks. Arriving at Mount Vernon on August 17 for an eleven day stay, he discussed with Washington his own visions for emancipation of America’s Blacks. He participated in peace negotiations with the Iroquois, received an honorary degree from Harvard, and the state of Maryland made him and his male heirs natural born citizens of the state (which he would later argue made him a citizen of the United States once the Constitution was ratified in 1789).
On November 16, 1784, the Marquis addressed the Virginia Assembly in Richmond. “Liberty of all mankind” was his keynote. William Armistead was then a member of the House of Delegates and likely heard the address.
Five days later, the Marquis wrote a testimonial for James. James Armistead, the testimonial read, had “industriously collected” intelligence “from the enemy’s camp” and “perfectly acquitted himself” and was “entitled to every reward his situation can admit of,” dated November 21, 1784.
Who extended the invitation to pen the testimonial? James? Perhaps, but my guess is more likely William. William, as a member of the House of Delegates would have had ready access, and this would be consistent with his having granted permission for James to volunteer at Yorktown in the first place.
On December 4, 1784, James submitted his petition for emancipation to the Virginia Assembly. It adjourned before the committee to which the petition was referred could report it out. The original petition has since been lost.
James filed a second petition on November 30, 1786; the two year interval from the first application is unexplained. It was referred to the Committee on Propositions and Grievances. A bill for emancipation was drafted and reported to the House of Delegates. It passed unanimously December 25, 1786. William Armistead as a member must have been instrumental; his objection would have stalled if not destroyed the outcome. The Virginia Senate followed suit on January 1, 1787. It was signed by Governor Edmund Randolph on January 9, 1787.
James was a free man at last.
Curiously, he never referred to himself as Armistead. With freedom in hand he now adopted the surname Lafayette. James Lafayette.
At James’s own request, William was compensated. On February 7, 1787, the Assembly appointed William Clayton to assess James Lafayette’s value. Most assessments were a straightforward one hundred pounds; in this instance, details unrecorded, but the assessment was two hundred fifty pounds. In March, 1787, the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts issued warrants to William for that amount.
James farmed, married, and had at least one son. The New Kent County personal property tax records show he owned two horses and three slaves, one less than sixteen. It was not uncommon for free slaves to purchase family members; we do not know whether this obtained for James.
In 1816 he purchased two tracts of land, part of the Philemon Woodyard Estate. One tract was thirty acres for which he paid $41.70; the other ten acres for $13.90.
In 1818 tax records record his wife’s name. It was Sylvia.
For thirteen months, 1824-1825, the Marquis de Lafayette visited all twenty-four states on his Farewell Tour. He visited Wheeling, and had West Virginia been a state at the time it would have been twenty-five states. Everywhere he was met with wild acclaim and celebration.
The Marquis arrived in Yorktown on October 18, 1824, greeted by governor James Pleasants and a crowd of 15,000.
The Richmond Compiler reported that James Lafayette wanted to travel to Yorktown to see his namesake, but funds were lacking. This story was reprinted as far as Bangor, Maine.
Somehow, he managed. The Richmond Enquirer reported that James Lafayette was in the crowd at Yorktown as the Marquis passed. The Marquis, the story went on to report, recognized James, called his name, ordered his coachman to stop. He had slipped on ice years before, fractured his left leg, and attempted a newfangled intervention to set the bone, which failed. He had a limp now, and walked with a cane. Most observers falsely attributed his limp to the musket ball taken to his left calf at the Battle of Brandywine.
He decamped his coach and limped to where James was standing and embraced him.
It was a simple, heartfelt gesture, uncontrived. Yet, it betrayed his stand; subtle protest, but no less declaratory.
They never saw each other again.
That same year, 1824, artist John Blennerhassett Martin painted a portrait of James Lafayette. As Ellison points out, he is “a dark, ruggedly handsome man” and “proud and dignified.” The painting hangs in the Valentine Museum at Richmond.
Six years earlier on December 28, 1818, James applied for a state pension as a war veteran. He was granted sixty dollars cash and forty dollars a year, payable as twenty dollars every six months. For the rest of his life every six months he journeyed to Richmond to collect. He signed “James Fayette.”
He collected his last pension payment on March 19, 1830. He died in Baltimore, August 9, 1830. Details are unknown, but Peter Coleman, a free Black in Baltimore and familiar with James, on April 1, 1832, confirmed his death. How he came to be in Baltimore is not known.
Ralph Ellison concludes his essay on a noble, hopeful note. James Lafayette, he says, asserted, “an individual identity earned at the repeated risk of his life and offering an unshakable faith in the ideal of Democracy.”
Chair, Lafayette Alliance