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Summary of Dunmore's Proclamation

Featured in Revolutionary City
  • Earl of Dunmore fled to British ship following removal of gunpowder from Magazine
  • Dunmore issued proclamation freeing slaves to join British forces
  • Proclamation created mistrust between masters and slaves
  • Fear of slave revolt spread throughout Virginia
  • Martial law declared

Dunmore issued proclamation November 15, 1775

June 8, 1775, in the wake of strong colonial protests following his removal of gunpowder stored in the public magazine, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore and the last royal governor of Virginia, fled Williamsburg for the ship H.M.S. Fowey. November 15, after a series of raids on Norfolk, Dunmore issued a proclamation decreeing martial law and declaring "all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty's Troops."

Taken together, the proclamation and Dunmore's military actions had several important implications that contributed to the inevitability of war.

Proclamation intensified mistrust

First, the proclamation intensified a growing distrust between masters and slaves by offering freedom to those slaves willing to fight for the king. The fear of slave revolts ran deep among white Virginians. Although the colony had been spared a major uprising, other colonies had not. Virginians considered the possibility to be very real, because they frequently experienced passive resistance, such as work slowdowns and feigned illness, from their slaves. If the slaves actually acted on Dunmore's promise, Virginians knew they would be hard-pressed to meet the threat.

Martial law declared

Second, Dunmore declared martial law. This reminded Virginians that, since the king's standard had been raised, all persons capable of bearing arms were to come forward and swear their loyalty to the king. Those not doing so were presumed traitors subject to execution and the confiscation of their property. The proclamation also noted that King George III had declared the colonies in open rebellion, upping the stakes and polarizing the colony into two camps, loyal and rebel.

Proclamation reminded moderates of the ideals of freedom

Moderate burgesses had acted as an effective brake on their more hot-tempered compatriots at earlier flash points, and Dunmore hoped that they would do so again, but he misjudged the effect of the proclamation. For some, Dunmore's offer of freedom to the slaves was seen as one more attack on private property. For others, the social disruptions inherent in the emancipation proclamation were far worse than anything proposed by the more radical Virginians. In the end, the proclamation reminded the moderate leadership that they believed in the same ideals as did the radicals. It also brought them to a point the radicals had been pressing for some time: that protection of these ideals was worth fighting for.

Learn more:

Introduction to African-American culture
Dunmore Proclamation