The emancipation of slaves remained an abiding passion for Lafayette until his death in 1834. As a young man he eagerly enrolled in anti-slavery societies on both sides of the Atlantic. He took an active role in the French Society of the Friends of Blacks, formed in 1788 to promote the abolition of the slave trade. After the upheavals of the French Revolution, Lafayette returned to France from prison and exile in 1799 and resumed his correspondence with British abolitionists and American statesmen on these issues, and began once again to follow the developments of the anti-slavery movements in England, France, and the United States.
In one of your New York Gazettes, I find a Association Against the Slavery of Negroes which seems to me worded in such a way as to give no offense to the moderate men in the Southern States. As I ever have been partial to my brethren of that colour, I wish, if you are one in the Society, you would move, in your own name, for my being admitted on the list.
In the cause of my black brethren I feel myself warmly interested, and most decidedly side, so far as respects them, against the white part of mankind. Whatever be the complexion of the enslaved, it does not, in my opinion, alter the complexion of the crime which the enslaver commits—a crime much blacker than any African face. It is to me a matter of great anxiety and concern to find that this trade is sometimes perpetrated under the flag of liberty, our dear and noble stripes, to which virtue and glory have been constant standard-bearers.
“Extract from the Register of the Society established at Paris for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (Translated by John Jay)
Lafayette and Jefferson had differing views on slavery. Although both men accepted that slavery was, in the words of one scholar, “in absolute contradiction with republican principles and the laws of nature,” Jefferson had not emancipated his own slaves, nor had he sought to make the new nation abide by these principles. In the letter excerpted here, he expresses his willingness to let slavery extend into states newly admitted into the Union, believing that this would lessen the control of the Southern States in deciding slavery’s ultimate fate. In his letter of July 1, 1821, Lafayette disagrees vehemently with this approach, finding it incomprehensible to consider the spread of so evil a system.