In the closing days of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote his old commander George Washington suggesting an experiment. The two would purchase land where Washington's enslaved laborers would then work as free tenants. Lafayette believed that Washington's participation in the project would help to "render it a general practice." Lafayette hoped that his plan would prove successful in the United States and then spread out into the West Indies.
Lafayette expressed the passionate sentiment that "If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad in this way, than to be thought wise in the other task."1 Washington responded warmly to the idea but preferred to discuss the details in person, explaining: "The scheme...which you propose as a precedent, to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in wch. they are held, 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."2
By June of 1785, Lafayette was ready to begin the experiment, ordering his attorney to purchase a plantation in French Guiana with the proviso that none of the enslaved people on the plantation be sold or exchanged. Lafayette informed Washington in February of 1786 that he had secretly acquired an estate "in order to Make that Experiment which you know is my Hobby Horse."3 Upon learning of this move, Washington responded warmly: "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."4
Washington himself attempted to conduct a similar change at Mount Vernon. In the last six years of his life, Washington tried to rent the four outlying farms of his plantation if he could find "good farmers" from England or Scotland willing to take on the project. This scheme would relieve Washington of the burden of managing this land, while at the same time insuring a stable income. He also believed that many of the enslaved people working on the farms "might be hired by the year as labourers," if the tenants chose to use them instead of bringing in workmen from their own country.5 Although Washington corresponded with a number of prospective tenants, none of the negotiations proved fruitful.
1. "Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, 5 February 1783," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 26 ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington. DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1938), 300n.
2. "George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, 5 April 1783," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10998.
3. "The Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, 6 February 1786," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-03-02-0461.
4. "George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, 10 May 1786," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-04-02-0051.
5. "George Washington to Arthur Young, 12 December 1793," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0337; "George Washington to Tobias Lear, 11 September 1797," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0312; and "George Washington to Richard Parkinson, 28 November 1797," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0435.