From the spring of 1775, when the second Virginia Revolutionary Convention adopted Patrick Henry's resolutions, supported by his “give me liberty or give me death” speech, to put the colony in a posture of defense, until the autumn of that year, tensions and small violent conflicts between the royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, and opponents of British policies increased. In the early hours of April 21, British marines on Dunmore's orders removed barrels of gunpowder from the public magazine (munitions storehouse) in Williamsburg to a royal warship and disabled the muskets in the magazine. On June 8, Dunmore fled the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg to the British ship HMS Fowey because he feared being attacked, and on October 27, 1775, British ships attacked Hampton. A small contingent of British troops also skirmished with militia near Norfolk, and on November 7, 1775, Dunmore issued this proclamation offering freedom to enslaved men who ran away from masters in support of the resistance and agreed to fight for the king. He created “Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment” and appointed white Virginia loyalists as its officers. More enslaved Virginians gained their freedom fighting for the king against American independence than gained their freedom by remaining at home, but many more men, women, and children died trying to join Dunmore and other British commanders during the war than succeeded in becoming free.
Rumors of slave insurrections had circulated in Virginia throughout 1775, and many owners of slaves feared that the British government would encourage a slave rebellion to suppress the patriot cause. Dunmore's proclamation did not significantly enlarge his military force, but did greatly increase resentment of the British government. Although Dunmore recruited a small regiment of African Americans, many of them died of disease in the camps and on royal warships, and his offer of freedom to enslaved Virginians persuaded many influential white men who were uncertain about which side to take to oppose the king and his royal governor. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson euphemistically referred to Dunmore's proclamation as exciting “domestic insurrection.”
1. What position did John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore, hold in Virginia?
2. What motivated Dunmore to issue this proclamation?
3. What is the purpose of “Dunmore's Proclamation”?
1. What impact did this document have on the dedication of Virginians to the patriot cause? Which do you think was more influential—armed fighting or this document?
2. If this document had not granted freedom to some slaves, would Dunmore's Proclamation have been so influential?
3. How do you think this document affected the slaves in Virginia? Were they disappointed, hopeful, or something else?
4. Read the petition of James Lafayette and his biography. What do you think he thought about Dunmore's Proclamation? Do you think the promises made to slaves in the proclamation appealed to James?
Holton, Woody. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Holton, Woody. “'Rebel against Rebel': Enslaved Virginians and the Coming of the American Revolution." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 105, no. 2 (1997): 157–192.