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Diane Shaw, college archivist, gives the following report on recent acquisitions by Skillman Library:

For several years, we have been acquiring works for our special collections that document aspects of the great slavery debate that took place on both sides of the Atlantic. The debate ultimately resulted in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of slavery in the British and French colonies in 1838 and 1848 respectively. The same debate led to slavery’s abolition in the United States in 1865 with the 13th Amendment, but only after a bloody civil war.

Our aim in developing this collection is to support the study of the Marquis de Lafayette’s commitment to the abolition of slavery (see online exhibit) in France and America and to provide context for the College’s early efforts to educate African-Americans (which included the admittance of two Louisiana slaves in the 1840s under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church and the American Colonization Society). We are particularly interested in the state of the debate in America at the time of Lafayette’s visit in 1824-25 and in the years following the College’s opening in 1832. Records of the College literary societies show that questions relating to race and slavery were debated on campus with some frequency in the antebellum years.

Materials being collected include abolitionist poetry, anti-slavery periodicals, works that influenced Lafayette or are associated with him, and artists’ books and broadsides that provide contemporary reflections on these past struggles. Some recent highlights include the following:

Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade. London: R. Bowyer, 1809.
This magnificent quarto volume contains three lengthy poems: James Montgomery’s “The West Indies,” James Grahame’s “Africa Delivered,” and E. Benger’s “A Poem, Occasioned by the Abolition of the Slave Trade.” It is illustrated throughout with engravings after paintings by Robert Smirke that depict Africans being captured, hiding from slave ships, and being delivered from their fate by Albion. The volume also includes tributes to and engravings of the leading British abolitionists who were so influential to Lafayette’s understanding of the evils of the slave trade — Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce.

The Anti-Slavery Record. Vol. II. New York: R.G. Williams for the American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836.
The Anti-Slavery Record presents a fascinating compendium of articles, anecdotes, poems, and engravings devoted to exposing the horrors of slavery in America. The February number contains a lengthy piece entitled “The Consistency of Lafayette,” which begins: “How delightful the thought that this friend of our country did not confine his philanthropy to any clime or color. The only grief he had for America was that her people were not all free.” The article goes on to describe Lafayette’s experiment with gradual emancipation in the French colony of Cayenne in the 1780s. Other mentions of Lafayette appearing in the volume include excerpts from a lengthy letter written by the governor of Virginia to Lafayette in 1829 defending slavery.

The Last Will & Testament of General George Washington. Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1800.
Perhaps the most discussed portion of the first president’s Will is the directive that his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife and that provisions be made to support them, educate them, and help them find work. Washington lists this decree at the very beginning of the will in a lengthy clause emphasizing his request is to “be religiously fulfilled at the epoch at which it is directed to take place, without evasion, neglect, or delay.”

The topic of slavery was discussed by Washington and Lafayette throughout their long friendship that began during the American Revolution. Lafayette even asked Washington in 1783 (in a letter owned by Lafayette College) to join him in an experiment to try gradual emancipation, suggesting that Washington’s example would have great influence in America. Although this never came about and Lafayette chose to try it alone in South America, it is certain that Lafayette’s influence on Washington’s attitude toward slavery was profound.

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