Lafayette’s Emancipation Proposal

With the war for American independence over, the Marquis de Lafayette proposed a plan to George Washington, “Which Might Become Greatly Beneficial to the Black part of Mankind.” Lafayette suggested that he and Washington “Unite in Purchasing a small Estate Where We May try the Experiment to free the Negroes, and Use them only as tenants—Such an Example as Yours Might Render it a General Practice, and if We succeed in America, I Will chearfully devote a part of My time to Render the Method fascionable in the West indias.” Lafayette conceded that it might be “a Wild scheme,” but “I Had Rather Be Mad that Way, than to Be thought Wise on the other tack.”

Marquis de Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette

Washington responded saying that the proposal “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” when Lafayette expected to visit America. Nowhere is it recorded that the project was discussed when Lafayette visited Mount Vernon in 1784.

By June of 1785, Lafayette was ready to begin his experiment. He ordered his attorney to purchase a plantation in French Guiana with the proviso that none of the slaves on the plantation be sold or exchanged. In February 1786, Lafayette informed Washington that he had “purchased for 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 Hobby Horse.”

Washington responded in May 1786, saying that “The benevolence of your heart my Dr Marqs 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.”

Further Reading:

Excerpts from letters between Washington & Lafayette