What was Lafayette's stance on slavery/did he own slaves?
Lafayette always expressed sympathies for “the black part of mankind.” His first encounter with slaves was with oystermen in South Carolina in 1777. He suggested using black troops in the American conflict and employed a former slave, James Armistead Lafayette as a spy and trusted valet. By 1783, after reading Condorcet’s Réflexions sur l’Esclavage des Nègres (1781), he asked Washington to consider a joint venture for gradual emancipation; but he would conduct the experiment alone in the French colony of Cayenne. From then on, he became part of an international network of activists. His last known letter was addressed to an abolitionist society in Glasgow (May 1834). Such convictions passed to his family, and his grandson Gustave de Beaumont published a novel about racism and a (tragic) interracial union in the United States: Marie, ou l’Esclavage aux Etats-Unis (1836).
In 1785 Lafayette acquired a clove and cinnamon plantation called “La Belle Gabrielle,” along the Oyapok River in present day French Guiana. Here, he accomplished the “gradual emancipation” of nearly seventy slaves aged between 1 and 59, whom the administrator of Guyana helped to select. They were paid for their labor, were provided with education, and punishment for them was no more severe than for white employees. Lafayette hoped to show that productivity and the birth rate would rise and infant mortality would decrease under these “humanitarian” conditions, thus demonstrating the inutility of slave trade for economic exploitation.
“…This almost entirely French republic has something piquant… there is only one point to which I decidedly cannot resign myself: that is slavery, and the anti-Black prejudices. I believe that in this respect my travel might have been useful. The fact that I asked to meet with colored men who fought on January 8 was another proof of what I am preaching continuously, not for the beauty of it, but in order to bring gradual healing. In the current situation, it resides in the prospect of colonization in Africa as well as the easy move to Haiti, where there is plenty of space…”
Although he more than once suggests using black troops in the conflict, it is clear that he considers them “property,” at least as late as 1781. By 1783, however, his remarkable proposal to Washington that they consider a joint venture for gradual emancipation. After which, Lafayette’s definitions of liberty and equality extend to all men. In the years before the French Revolution, Lafayette was very active in the cause, joining various anti-slavery societies, corresponding with other advocates, and reading everything he could get his hands on, including works by the Marquis de Condorcet and noted British abolitionists Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson.