Exhibition | Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement
Now on view at The Grolier Club:
‘A True Friend of the Cause’: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement
The Grolier Club, New York, 7 December 2016 — 4 February 2017
Curated by Olga Anna Duhl and Diane Windham Shaw
Although the Marquis de Lafayette is popularly known as ‘America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman’ in the current Broadway musical Hamilton, his role as an ardent abolitionist has not received the same kind of attention as his contributions to the American Revolution. The groundbreaking exhibition A True Friend of the Cause: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement, on view at the Grolier Club from December 7, 2016 to February 4, 2017, is designed to offer a more comprehensive look at the man who was a ‘hero of two worlds’. While Lafayette’s contributions in the areas of politics, diplomacy, and the military have received renewed scholarly and public recognition, his abolitionist activities are not widely known, nor have they been adequately explored in any major exhibition or publication in the last twenty-five years. This exhibition brings into focus Lafayette’s sustained efforts in France, the United States, and South America on behalf of the abolition of slavery.
Co-curators Olga Anna Duhl, Oliver Edwin Williams Professor of Languages, and Diane Windham Shaw, Director of Special Collections and College Archivist, Skillman Library, Lafayette College, offer a comprehensive view of Lafayette’s activities. Drawn from Lafayette College’s rich collections of 18th- and 19th-century rare books, manuscripts, paintings, prints, and objects—some of which are on public view for the first time—the approximately 130 works in the exhibition also include loans from Cornell University and the New-York Historical Society.
The Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) fought in the American War of Independence; was a friend to the Native Americans; defended the rights of French Protestants and Jews during the French Revolution; supported the national emancipation movements of the people of Poland, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and South America; and promoted the ideas and causes of women. Most significantly, he remained throughout his life a fervent advocate of the abolition of slavery and the African slave trade, earning the recognition of prominent British abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, as “a true friend of the cause.” Early on, Lafayette learned that the ideals of liberty and equality during the revolutionary era hardly benefited all members of society. In fact, one of the most daunting paradoxes of that era, which became a source of reflection and action for him, was the incompatibility between the national independence of the newly formed United States and the practice of slavery and slave trade.
The exhibition traces Lafayette’s first encounters with slaves on the South Carolina coast upon his arrival in America in 1777. Highlights of his role in service with the Continental Army are revealed in his letters to his mentor, George Washington, written from Valley Forge, Newport, and Virginia during the Yorktown Campaign, where Lafayette writes of the intelligence gathered by one of his spies, James, an enslaved African American. On view is a highly significant letter written by Lafayette to Washington requesting his partnership in a venture to free slaves. Stunning French prints of the American Revolution are included, as is an influential portrait, Lafayette at Yorktown, by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon.
The impact of abolitionist ideas on Lafayette is represented by the Marquis de Condorcet’s seminal work of 1781, Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres, and writings of British abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. Lafayette’s decision to move forward on his own by purchasing property in French Guiana to carry out his experiment in gradual emancipation is documented by an extraordinary group of documents on loan from the Cornell University Library. Included among them is a list of the enslaved who were selected to work on the property. Maps, prints, and early travel volumes recreate the image of this South American colony.
Lafayette’s complicated story during the French Revolution includes his membership in the French Society of the Friends of Blacks. Publications of the Society are on view, as are printed versions of landmark French documents— the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), the French Constitution (1791), and the decree abolishing slavery in the French colonies (1794). Lafayette’s hasty departure from France in 1792 to avoid the guillotine is documented by the beautiful sword that was taken from him when he was arrested and imprisoned by the Austrians, which stands as a symbol of his personal experience with captivity. Lafayette’s return to a quiet life in France in 1800 found him still passionately committed to the antislavery movement, rejoicing when England outlawed the slave trade in 1807. Commemorative volumes and prints celebrate that milestone.
Lafayette’s last visit to America in 1824–25 was an extravagant moment in the nation’s history. The exhibition includes some of the spectacular souvenirs that were made to commemorate his visit—china, textiles, and even a clothes brush with the bristles dyed to spell “Lafayette 1825.” Lafayette’s emphasis on greeting all Americans is highlighted, including his visit to the African Free School in New York City, where he received a welcome address by an eleven-year-old student. Calligraphed and delivered by the student himself, James McCune Smith, who went on to become one of America’s first black physicians and a noted abolitionist, this text is a loan from the New-York Historical Society Library. The Farewell Tour section also documents Lafayette’s friendship with fellow antislavery advocate, Frances Wright, and his support of her gradual emancipation project “Nashoba” near Memphis, Tennessee.
Also included are letters from James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Marshall, and letters from Lafayette to Albert Gallatin, William H. Crawford, Joel Poincett, and others. Even after his death in 1834, his influence continued, particularly in America, where abolitionists, both black and white, continued to cite his example. Finally, the exhibit includes special items chosen to remind us of the human face of slavery—manumission papers of a woman and a man freed by their Quaker owners; the pension records of an African American Revolutionary soldier from Connecticut; and the first American printing of the Brooks engraving of slaves tightly packed on board a slave ship. Despite the changing fortunes and conflicting reviews of his career, Lafayette has remained a compelling figure in world history, and the interest in his contributions shows no sign of diminishing.
Lunchtime Guided Tours with the Curators
December 7 and 14, January 11 and 18, and February 1, 1–2pm
Roundtable Discussion: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement
24 January 2017, 2–3:30pm
With co-curators and moderators Olga Anna Duhl and Diane Windham Shaw and featuring panelists Laura Auricchio (The New School), François Furstenberg (Johns Hopkins University), and John Stauffer (Harvard University). Reception to follow.
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The catalogue is available from Oak Knoll Press:
Olga Ann Duhl and Diane Windham Shaw, ‘A True Friend of the Cause’: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement (New York: The Grolier Club and Lafayette College, 2016), 76 pages, ISBN: 978 160583 0650, $40.