The Marquis de Lafayette, who fought for American independence and revisited the United States fifty years later, wrote, “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.” What might Lafayette have seen in 1824 America that would impel him to make such a statement? How had slavery evolved? Was it expanding? How entrenched in American life was it at this time?
In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited America fifty years after he fought for American independence. He was visiting his family’s old estate which he had sold to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 during his famous visit to America. He wrote a letter and asserted that he would never have drawn his sword in the cause of America if he could have conceived that by so doing, he was founding a land of slavery.
Lafayette wrote of his visit to his old property, “I was never in one place before with so much emotion.” He must have felt a tremendous amount of nostalgia to visit the property and see the home he had built on it. The home itself must have been something incredible with its grand architecture and beautiful construction. Lafayette must have been proud to see how well he had built the structure (Nicholson, 2018).
The plantation was located in beautiful Virginia, which was an ideal place for growing tobacco. When Lafayette sold the property to Thomas Jefferson, he said that he could never own slaves because “I cannot reconcile the idea of being a master and a husband at the same moment with that tender sentiments I have for my dear wife.” This demonstrates that Lafayette must have been aware of the facts about slavery and that he had an aversion to the institution (Nicholson, 2018).
When he visited his old plantation, Lafayette must have seen slaves working on his land. They would most likely have been hard at work at the time of his visit, especially because it was an occasion for a famous man to be touring the property. He must have seen how well they worked even though they were being supervised by white overseers.
Lafayette must have seen how slaves were treated by their owners. This was his second time visiting the United States, and he must have been shocked to see how Americans treated their slaves. He had heard about slavery from Thomas Jefferson and its horrors in Paris, where he was living at the time of Jefferson’s visit. He must have been upset when he saw that there were still slave owners in America who beat their slaves and did not give them food or water for days (Nicholson, 2018).
Lafayette’s statements in this letter are not only shocking, but they are also extremely poignant. He was stunned to realize how the system had developed and how little the two countries had progressed. He claimed that slaves were “more attached to their masters than to their wives, children and parents” and thought it was “a shameful sight when slave owners beat and treat their slaves with cruelty.” Lafayette was correct in his observations (Nicholson, 2018).
Lafayette was a deeply conservative man and was shocked that Jefferson, a slave owner himself, had become president of the United States. He thought that Jefferson would be unable to handle such a key responsibility. Lafayette obviously believed slavery was wrong and decided not to fight for its abolishment because he did not want to be involved in creating another country where slavery existed.
How Had Slavery Evolved?
When Lafayette began to read the Federalist Papers, he must have been appalled by the fact that these authors had supported slavery as a necessity. The Federalist Papers were written as opposing arguments in support of the Constitution. These were the documents that led to passage of the Constitution, which established a nation in which slavery existed (Bowers, 2019).
The slave owners of Virginia and people who supported slavery in general did not want blacks to come into their states and compete for jobs with whites. They would have been angered if they had known that, in the future, all blacks would be free in America and that there was nothing they could do about it. These people did not want their society to change. Most people of the time did not see what their society was like as having any flaws.
The slaves were a representation of the American dream for many whites. They wanted to believe that all blacks were successful and lived wonderful lives as slaves, which is why so many people who supported slavery thought that blacks liked being slaves. They wanted to believe that people of color were not capable of living the lives of free people (Bowers, 2019).
The women who were involved in the abolitionist movement like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were attacked by other white women for defying their husbands and speaking out against slavery. This proves how ingrained support for slavery was in the minds of many white Americans. All blacks were considered as slaves by various whites, even though many blacks were free citizens in America.
Lafayette could not have foreseen the progress that American society had made during his lifetime. He realized that people like Jefferson who supported slavery had become powerful men. However, he was shocked to realize how far America had progressed since Jefferson’s time and how it was in danger of going backward because of the beliefs of other people who supported slavery (Bowers, 2019).
How Entrenched in American Life was it at This Time?
The South was the most dominant political state at this time with the south having ten slaves for every free person living in that area. It was far less than England which had four slaves for every free person in the country, and it was far less than France which had six slaves for every free person. There were five states, which had outlawed slavery. This led to the belief that many people had that slavery was dying in America (Maass, 2020).
Slavery was considered to be a part of life in most parts of America at this time. Slaves in the South were treated just as badly as slaves in Africa by their owners, and they did not have opportunities to change their situation or improve their quality of life.
The Plantation System was very common in the South when Lafayette visited it during this time period. The plantation system usually consisted of a large estate that was worked by slaves. Most of the plantations were located in the South where most of them grew cotton and tobacco. The plantation owners usually were large landowners who had hundreds or thousands of acres (Maass, 2020).
Free blacks often worked as craftsmen in the South such as blacksmiths, carpenters, or gardeners. They were also allowed to own their own property and live freely in many parts of America at this time period. The slaves in America were not treated as badly as slaves in Africa, but they were not safe from mistreatment by their owners.
The majority of the population in America during this time period supported slavery. There was a small percentage of the population that began to realize how horrible it was for Americans to own slaves and to sell them into slavery. There were even some people who recognized that people of color had rights and should be treated equally.
The North wanted to abolish slavery, but did not want a war to end the institution. They knew that if they attempted to abolish slavery, the South would have rebelled and threatened civil war. The North was also afraid of losing their large slave population and the economic opportunities they provided. Many of the northern states had large agricultural industries in which slaves worked as field hands.
Lafayette knew that in America’s early years, people had held slaves as they did in Europe and elsewhere in the world. However, he believed that the Americans would progress and realize this was an evil practice. He was not sure whether people in America would end slavery, but he believed that they eventually would (Maass, 2020).
He could not have imagined how difficult it would be for the country to come to a consensus on this issue. He saw slavery as a terrible blight on the country and knew that it had oppressed many people of color in America. Lafayette believed that slavery was wrong and he did what he could in his lifetime to help fight against it.
In conclusion, Lafayette was shocked to learn of the support for slavery in America when he traveled to Virginia during this time period. His education on history and the English language made him an intelligent man and made him realize that it was not okay for America’s Founding Fathers to have supported slavery. He knew that someday, America would progress and eventually end slavery. He also believed that once this happened, many of the people who supported it would see how wrong it was and would change their minds about it.
Nicholson C. Bríd. (2018). Documents of the lewis and clark expedition. ABC-CLIO. Retrieved November 17 2022 from https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1949684.
Bowers, C. E. (2019). Man, Myth, Marquis: A Historiographic Essay on the Marquis de Lafayette. The Histories, 5(1), 5. https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=the_histories
Maass, J. R. (2020). Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship That Helped Forge Two Nations by Tom Chaffin. Journal of Southern History, 86(4), 910-911. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/772301/summary