After 33 years of enslavement with the Armistead family, James faced a crucial question: Who could he trust?
He had an invitation from the Marquis de Lafayette to join the Patriots as a spy for the Continental army. But there was no guarantee the Americans would grant him manumission after he risked his life for their independence. They proselytized liberty and fair representation while keeping slavery intact.
The assignment offered a path to cross the British lines where enslaved people were granted freedom in exchange for their allegiance to the Crown. But the British started the slave trade in the Colonies and many Loyalists continued to enslave people.
Instead of deciding between the Americans and the British, he decided to trust the Frenchman.
James Lafayette, a surname he later chose for himself in honor of the commander who trusted his talents, proved to be an effective spy. He and the other members of the Marquis’ spy ring provided the Patriots with vital information about the British army’s movements and fortifications ahead of the decisive Battle of Yorktown.
Portrayed by actor-interpreter Stephen Seals, James Lafayette now greets guests in the Historic Area as a Nation Builder.
“James’ story is a prime example of an enslaved person making the most of the opportunities available to not only survive but to create a better life,” said Seals, who began portraying James last year. “His story will force people to reassess how they view historical figures and concepts. They’re complicated and we should study them with that in mind.”
Born into slavery in 1748 in New Kent County, Va., James became the manservant for William Armistead Jr. when both were children. He learned to read and write — in English and French — presumably benefiting from the same lessons as his young master.
During the Revolutionary War, Armistead took over as commissary of the Public Storehouse in Williamsburg, bringing James with him. Because of the military supplies the Marquis de Lafayette would have ordered from the store, it is possible James met his future commanding officer through that work.
In his portrayal, Seals carefully explores James’ loyalty to the Patriots and his decision to join the spy ring. While it is likely that James trusted the Marquis more than anyone else involved in the war, it is also likely that James’ wife, Sylvia, had much to do with his decision. With what amounted to a free pass to cross the British lines, James could have agreed to the arrangement and then betrayed the Patriots and remained there. But he would have had to leave Sylvia behind. By joining the spy ring, he found a way to return to her, earn his own freedom and eventually gain freedom for her, as well.
James obtained Armistead’s permission to spy for the Continental army, likely posing as a runaway slave. He was able to gain the trust of top British officials, including Gens. Benedict Arnold and Charles Cornwallis.
A British soldier’s eyewitness account of a postwar meeting between the Marquis and Cornwallis indicates James may have been a double agent, providing misinformation to the British and disseminating the real intelligence to the Patriots — a position that would have offered easy excuses for moving between camps but increased his chances of being caught and killed by a British or Patriot soldier unfamiliar with his clandestine position.
Throughout James’ service to the Continental army, the Marquis updated Gen. George Washington with intelligence that had been collected. Though James’ name was never mentioned in writing, the Marquis referred to an “honest friend,” widely considered among historians to be James, who had informed him of Cornwallis’ move from Portsmouth to Yorktown, the British army’s fortifications and the tactical advantage the Patriots would gain if the French fleet created a naval blockade.
“His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered,” the Marquis wrote of James in a 1784 letter that supported freeing the enslaved man based on his honorable Revolutionary War service. “He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.”
Despite his service record and the Marquis’ support, James was not a free man until 1787. He bought 40 acres of land in New Kent and owned several slaves, most of whom seem to be family members he bought with the intention of protecting and freeing them.
Seals began working for the Foundation nine years ago, earning a job as an actor-interpreter through an audition in Memphis, Tenn., that had hundreds of actors competing for roles in a variety of productions across the United States.
The casting fulfilled his aspirations to perform for a living, a dream he had since middle school, when his drama teacher, Charmaine Crowell-White, cast him as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. It was his first foray into acting.
But he admits he initially lacked enthusiasm for the gig’s Colonial history component.
“As a black man in America, I did not think the Colonial era had anything to offer me,” Seals said. “Boy, was I really wrong. I wish more of my people were aware that they could truly understand their own identity and how they’re treated in society today by looking at Colonial times.”
James’ intellect stands at the center of Seals’ portrayal. Certainly a man whose acumen inspired opposing generals to recruit him would have weighed the dilemmas he faced as a black person, enslaved for 39 years, in the Colonies. His story allows Seals to ask his audience the same questions James would have asked himself: Who would you trust? What would you be willing to sacrifice for your family? What would it feel like to own your family as a means of protecting them?
These pressures are different from the ones faced by the military and political heroes of the American Revolution who are typically celebrated, and the exploration of these themes provides a new perspective on this time period.
“American heroes of the Revolution look like all of us,” Seals said. “I hope James inspires guests to explore more of those unconventional or out-of-the- ordinary heroes throughout history.”
The addition of James Armistead Lafayette to Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program is generously funded by Ms. Brooke England and retired federal Chief Judge Paul Michel.