What choices did the Revolutionary War create for enslaved African Americans in Virginia?
By His Excellency the Right Honourable John Earl of Dunmore . . . A proclamation. [Declaring martial law and to cause the same to be . . .] Williamsburg, 1775, Printed Ephemera Collection, Portfolio 178, Folder 18, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Transcription | High Res)
This Lesson Plan is adapted from a more extensive plan available at "Shaping the Constitution: Resources from the Library of Virginia and the Library of Congress."
About the same time that fighting broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, removed the gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg, igniting outrage amongst the patriots. In the months that followed, the first, second, and third meetings of Virginia's Revolutionary Convention took place, as the patriot leadership planned for their collective defense. On June 8, Dunmore fled the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg to the British ship HMS Fowey because he feared being attacked, and in October, British ships attacked Hampton. A small contingent of British troops also skirmished with militia near Norfolk, and on November 7, 1775, Dunmore issued his proclamation offering freedom to enslaved men who ran away from masters in support of the resistance and agreed to fight for the king. 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
In 1781, late in the war, Billy an enslaved man ran away from Prince William County and was captured, tried and convicted of treason. He pled not guilty and testified that he had been forced to go aboard a British warship against his will and had never taken up arms on behalf of the king. Following the trial, Mann Page and others argued to Governor Thomas Jefferson that a slave, being a noncitizen who did not owe allegiance to the state, could not commit treason. Jefferson ordered the execution postponed, and Page then petitioned the House of Delegates to grant Billy a pardon on the grounds that a slave could not legally commit treason. Although Billy's life was spared, the legal doctrine that a slave could not commit treason was coupled with a denial that enslaved people could be citizens at all.
During the first years of the Revolutionary War, Congress refused to allow African Americans to enlist, but later many free African Americans and some enslaved African Americans served in the army. In 1783 the General Assembly freed the African Americans from Virginia who served in the Revolutionary War, although only eight were known to have been granted their freedom under this provision.
Some of the African American men who contributed to American independence gained their freedom even though they had not enlisted in the army. One of the most famous was an enslaved man James, who belonged to a New Kent County planter named William Armistead. Late in the Revolutionary War, with his owner's permission, James acted as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette and was able to slip in and out of the British headquarters at Yorktown and collect crucial information about the British Army's plans. After the war ended, James returned to slavery in New Kent County and twice petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom as a reward for his service to the American army. With assistance from Lafayette, the assembly passed a law on November 30, 1786, that freed him as of January 1787, and with his freedom James took the name James Lafayette.
Dominion—area under control by a leader
Accommodation—settling of differences, adaptation
Tender—small boat that attends a larger one
Civil law—regular civilian law
Martial law—law imposed by military authority
Standard—flag (here Dunmore ordered all men capable of fighting to join the king's troops)
Quitrents—kind of property tax or rent paid to the King
As a group, explore Dunmore's Proclamation.
• Discuss public announcements and how information moved in colonial Virginia: broadsides, newspapers, word of mouth, etc.
• When is the document dated?
• Who is it from?
• To whom is the proclamation addressed?
Discuss the uproar caused by the announcement that slaves of rebels could gain freedom.
• How do you think slave-owning or indenture-holding Virginians reacted to the news?
Ask students about what stands out about the Proclamation.
• Why and how are some words emphasized?
• Who was Dunmore?
• What was he announcing?
• Where was he when he made the Proclamation?
• What is unusual about his location?
Discuss the offer that Dunmore made to the enslaved African Americans and indentured servants of rebels (patriots).
• What were the ways in which slaves heard about the proclamation? A few might have been able to read the broadsides, while others may have overheard their masters and other people talking about them, and told each other.
Introduce Billy to the class by passing out copies of his petition. Have the students attempt to read the document first, but then present them with a transcription. Because this document contains so little information, ask students what unanswered questions they have about it? What else would they like to know? Once they are able to answer the basic questions, read aloud or share Billy's biography from "Shaping the Constitution: Resources from the Library of Virginia and the Library of Congress" (http://www.virginiamemory.com/online_classroom/shaping_the_constitution/people/billy). Discuss Billy's case with the students.
• What was he accused of?
• Do you think he was guilty as charged?
• How does this document relate to Dunmore's Proclamation?
• What might it tell us about Billy's motivations?
• What does the argument being made in Billy's defense tell us about the status of enslaved African Americans during this time period?
Introduce James Lafayette to the class by passing out copies of his petition. You can also show a picture him (engraving from the Virginia Historical Society on the LVA site http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/archivesmonth/2005/vhs/VHS_4.htm). Have the students attempt to read the document first, but then present them with a transcription. Explain James's fame in being associated with the Marquis de Lafayette and for his contributions as a spy for American forces.
Have students write a short essay from the perspective of either Billy or James explaining why he fought for the side he chose. In Billy's case, they can tell the truth about what happened to him. Did he run away to fight with the British? Or was his defense true? Was he was kidnapped?
1. What can this knowledge tell us about the lives, decisions, philosophies, and political ideas of enslaved people during the American Revolution?
2. What observations did the students make throughout the process?
3. What did they learn about the decisions enslaved people chose to make? Were they difficult or easy decisions?
4. How are Americans today affected by what happened during the American Revolution? What does Dunmore's Proclamation symbolize to present-day Americans?
Lanning, Michael L. African Americans in the Revolutionary War. New York City, New York: Citadel Press, 2000.
Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
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.
"Billy," Kneebone, John T. et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998, 1:490–491.
Salmon, John S. “A Mission of the Most Secret and Important Kind: James Lafayette and
American Espionage.” Virginia Cavalcade 31, no. 2 (1981): 78–85.