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Dunmore's Proclamation: A Time to Choose

Dunmore's Proclamation
  • Proclamation issued offering freedom to slaves who fought for the King
  • Created fear and unrest in Virginia resulting in martial law
  • Aligned undecided and moderate Virginians against the British
  • Slaves motivated by desire for freedom, not allegiance to the Crown
  • Many slaves supported colonists
  • Revolution divided Virginians, black and white

Proclamation issued offering freedom to slaves who agreed to fight for the British

In November of 1775, Virginia's royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation in response to information that the colonists had begun forming armies and attacking British troops. Dunmore wanted to put a quick end to the fighting and other activities he considered traitorous. Known as "Dunmore's Proclamation," the governor's announcement created fervor among the populace and may have actually helped secure the alignment of many moderate or undecided white Virginians against the British government. The proclamation declared Virginia in a state of rebellion and placed the colony under martial law. But the most offensive portion of the document was the section that offered freedom to slaves and bonded servants of patriot sympathizers and forces if they were willing to bear arms and fight for the British.

Dunmore believed slaves would rise up against their masters

Dunmore's strategy was one that he had considered before. In a 1772 report to Lord Dartmouth, the British secretary of state for the colonies, Dunmore had suggested that in case of war with foreign powers, the colonists "trembled at the facility that an enemy would find in procuring Such a body of men." Dunmore had further expressed a belief that the slaves would rise up in huge numbers against their masters, "and therefore are ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves." [Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York, 1972), p. 131.] Shortly after the Gunpowder Incident in April 1775, Dunmore threatened the Mayor of Williamsburg by stating that he would destroy the town and "proclaim liberty" for slaves in response to civil unrest.

Slaves motivated by desire for freedom, not vengeance

Dunmore misunderstood the slaves' potential motivation. It was not the opportunity to avenge themselves that caused them to join the British; it was the desire to secure freedom. Noted historian Dr. Benjamin Quarles assessed that the slaves "reserved allegiance for whoever made them the best and most concrete offer." [Benjamin Quarles, "The Revolutionary War as a Black Declaration of Independence," in Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, eds, Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville, Va., 1983) pp. 292-293.] The fact that Dunmore was basically in exile on board a ship, did little to motivate large numbers to join him, but, nonetheless, a considerable number made the attempt. When a slave, owned by Robert Brent of Northern Neck, escaped, Brent noted that the slave's action "was long premeditated." Brent also noted that the slave's escape "was from no cause of complaint . . . but from a determined resolution to get liberty, as he conceived, by flying to lord Dunmore." [Virginia Gazette, November 17, 1775, Supplement.]

Number of slaves who joined the British questionable

The number of slaves that actually joined the British is questionable. Dr. Quarles estimates that it may have been about 800. It should be noted, however, that other historians now suggest that this figure may be conservative. Accounts from the period support the view that there may have been considerably more. Robert Carter Nicholas, president of the Virginia Convention, wrote to the Virginia Delegates in Congress that "many of our Natives it is said have been intimidated and compelled to join them [the British] and great Numbers of Slaves from different Quarters have graced their Corps." The British, he continued, are "using every Art to seduce the Negroes." [Letter dated Nov. 25, 1775, quoted in Robert L. Scribner and Brent Terter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia and the Road to Independence, IV: The Committee of Safety and the Balance of Forces ([Charlottesville, Va.], 1978), p. 470.

Decision to support British or patriots divided black families and white

Edmund Pendleton, wrote to Richard Lee that "letters mention that slaves flock to him [Dunmore] in abundance; but I hope it is magnified." (From letter dated Edmund, Virginia)]. Even George Washington warned, "Dunmore should be instantly crushed. . . . otherwise like a snowball rolling, his army will get size." [Pendleton to Lee, Nov. 27, 1775, quoted in Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, p. 131; Washington to Joseph Reed, Dec. 15, quoted ibid.]

The decision to join Dunmore and support the British cause must have created tremendous debate and concern throughout the slave community. What factors influenced whether a slave's allegiance was given to the British or the colonists? There are a variety of possible answers. It is likely that the desire for freedom was so overwhelming that the slaves seized the first viable offer. It is also possible that the slaves wanted to show that they were worthy of respect and the rights of citizenry by remaining faithful to the authority of the British government. On the other hand, how does one explain the numbers of blacks, such as Salem Poor, Oliver Cromwell, and Peter Salem, who whole-heartedly supported the colonists? Were their reasons for supporting the American cause the same as white patriots? Possibly.

After learning of the death of Crispus Attucks, a free black killed in the Boston Massacre in March 1770, the colonists revered him for having lost his life for liberty. But the slaves must have surely asked, whose liberty? Even as free blacks, the full rights of citizenry were denied African Americans. Generally, they were still subject to the same curfews and laws that applied to slaves. The only difference between free blacks and slaves in the 18th century was that free blacks had the right to own and protect property.

The decision to join the British or support the patriots was one that surely split some slave families and friendships, just as it did the white citizenry. The American Revolution, for all intents and purposes, was a civil war that affected every member of society in some way.

Learn more:

Summary of Dunmore's Proclamation
Letter Regarding Dunmore's Proclamation
Runaway Advertisements
The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter