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Dunmore's Proclamation

  • Dunmore's Proclamation, November 7, 1775
“Dunmore's Proclamation” declared martial law in Virginia and freed the slaves of rebel masters if they were able to fight with the British.
Related documents:
  • Dunmore's Proclamation to Virginia
    A Proclamation to Virginia, March 28, 1775
  • Billy Petition
    Petition of Mann Page on the Behalf of Billy, June 7, 1781
  • James Lafayette Petition
    James's Petition to the General Assembly, November 30, 1786
  • The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine
    The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, Cartoon, 1861
  • Fording the Rappahannock
    African Americans Fording the Rappahannock, Photograph, August 1862
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Dunmore's Proclamation, November 7, 1775

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.”

For Educators

Questions

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”?

Further Discussion

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?

Links

Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-Dunmore's Proclamation

Video: Billy and James: Choices Facing African Americans during the Revolutionary War

Suggested Reading

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.

By His Excellency the Right Honorable JOHN Earl of DUNMORE, His MAJESTY'S Lieutenant and Governor General of the Colony and Dominion of VIRGINIA, and Vice Admiral of the same.*
A PROCLAMATION
As I have ever entertained Hopes that an Accomodation might have taken Place between GREAT-BRITAIN and this Colony, without being compelled by my Duty to this most disagreeable but now absolutely necessary Step, rendered so by a Body of armed Men unlawfully assembled, firing on His MAJESTY'S Tenders, and the formation of an Army, and that Army now on their March to attack His MAJESTY'S Troops and destroy the well disposed Subjects of this Colony. To defeat such treasonable Purposes, and that all such Traitors, and their Abettors, may be brought to Justice, and that the Peace, and good Order of the Colony may be again restored, which the ordinary Course of the Civil Law is unable to effect; I have thought fit to issue this my Proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good Purposes can be obtained, I do in Virtue of the Power and Authority to ME given, by His MAJESTY, determine to execute Martial Law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this Colony: and to the end that Peace and good Order may the sooner be restored, I do require every Person capable of
bearing Arms, to resort to His MAJESTY'S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offences; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, &c. &c. And I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Dignity. I do further order, and require, all His MAJESTY'S Leige Subjects, to retain their Quitrents, or any other taxes due or that may become due, in their own Custody, till such Time as Peace may again be restored to this at present most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary Purposes, by Officers properly authorified to receive the same.
GIVEN under my Hand on board the ship WILLIAM, off NORFOLK, the 7th Day of NOVEMBER, in the SIXTEENTH Year of His MAJESTY'S Reign.
DUNMORE.
(GOD save the KING)

* The printer of this document used the long or leading s, a character that looks similar to an "f" but is used as an "s."