Dunmore's Proclamation

Dennis Watson talks about the royal governor’s promise to free slaves and indentured servants who joined the British army in the American Revolution.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org.  This is “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Dennis Watson who is Lord Dunmore at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lord Dunmore made himself famous and enormously disliked – I would guess – with his proclamation offering to free slaves who fought for the British.

Dennis Watson:  Well, yes, that’s true, but then one must realize the context in which he brought forth his proclamation. He, as the royal governor, was more strident and loyal to His Majesty and well knowledgeable that as the royal governor his power was absolute. Any challenge to royal authority or parliamentary powers, he perceived it, and not forgetting the instructions sent to him from London…he interpreted those instructions in the way he thought proper. I would say that Lord Dunmore in his stay in Virginia contributed much and tried to understand indeed the fears and worries of the people of Virginia.

And remember that many any of his decisions were made by advice of council – the Governor’s Council, 12 men, Virginia men, who had, over the years, consolidated their power considerably here in this largest of the 13 colonies in North America. His proclamation, when he did issue it, was that he was in a state of…well, the colony was in a state of war, was it not?  The Congress was sitting in Philadelphia, Colonel Washington – his old friend and companion who visited his home on many occasions, dined, breakfasted, etc., men who had things in common – he was now commanding general of the Continental Army. Dunmore had truly removed the powder from the Magazine which caused a great stir here in Virginia – and especially with Patrick Henry. It didn’t take much to heat up Patrick Henry…

Lloyd:  (Laughs)

Dennis:  â€¦but, Henry, of course, when that whole powder incident was executed, and when it was discovered, well literally all hell broke loose here in the colony and in the city in particular. People marching on the governor’s house demanding he put the powder back, men of common sense holding the people back and speaking to the governor in a fashion that would try and calm things down. But excuses…or whatever they may be, from the governor, or how they were interpreted… indeed by Virginians – were that. It was, if you will, downhill from there on. Dunmore himself, well, I’m sure indeed they spoke one to another, but he had royal authority and he was absolute in that position. He interpreted his instructions as they should be.

Virginia, of course, had troubles with Parliament over the whole Boston business, which brought it to a head. But, when he had to flee his house for the second time, and permanently, on June 8th at around 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, with his family, etc., he left for good, Williamsburg, never to return, oh he intended to return. He feared for his life. Mind you, members of the council and members of the assembly, if you will, the government, assured him both personally and publicly – through the newspapers – that no one would harm a hair on the governor’s head, or that of his family, in particular. 

But whatever Dunmore’s reasons for doing what he did, departing in the middle of the night, whatever they might have been, they were calculated, no doubt. He intended to go down to Norfolk and bring together, indeed, those loyal to the Crown. Norfolk, the largest port and city in the colony, and commercially viable city in the colony, the big factors, if you will, the big merchants representing the companies of London and Glasgow, the money men, were all down there. And, some would call it a nest of Tories.

But nevertheless, there is where he consolidated his power; there is where he tried to get an army which he was unsuccessful in getting truly a British army, if you will, to come to his assistance. So, the army that he put together was in great part Virginia men, Englishmen, Scotsmen, and others. And more importantly, how do you make an army grow quickly?  [You] play on the very fears, if you will, of Virginians themselves.

One must remember when I say that Dunmore has done things for Virginia, he tried to understand Virginia’s needs and desires. Representing the Crown and Parliament and his commission, with advice of council, he received legislation that would come from the floor below to the executive branch of government, governor’s council. There, after discussion, he would either sign or send back that piece of legislation. And in particular, when these men, these Virginia planters, had taken years to come together to realize that “let us slow down the importation of slaves into the colony. Let us put a tax on them. Let us pass a piece of legislation that we would all support.” Now, what is interesting is that when it did go up to Dunmore for Dunmore’s consideration, he understood their concerns, and with an understanding, signed that legislation, which indeed is not law until London approves it.

Now, what he had done was put his signature to a document which says that they would put a tax on the importation of new slaves. They wanted to slow the numbers down. The numbers were growing at a rapid rate. And, amongst many men – maybe not all – a concern that perhaps one day what if, what if the slaves should revolt in any great number. That’s a considerable number of Negroes to rise up against their masters. Nevertheless Dunmore understood and signed it. Oh, it came back eventually from London with the instructions to him, if you will, “Don’t ever do it again.”

Lloyd:  (Laughs)

Dennis:  So, and he did write back supporting the reasons why he signed that legislation, trying to explain to them the concerns of these Virginia men. After all, I don’t believe Dunmore was a fool at all – stubborn perhaps, but reasonable, understanding. And I use that as an example, for that piece of legislation that he signed – understanding the natural fears and concerns of Virginia men – he turned that around against them. He needed an army, and quickly. How do you put the colony back in a state of order? How to come back into the city and put down what was now a rebellion?  [Patrick] Henry was a master recruiter. He had raised hundreds and hundreds of men. They had styled themselves into independent regiments, and they were ready to defend the colony at all costs, the capital in particular, and made war against the governor and he against them. His army consisted of what would be Dunmore’s Proclamation.

In that month of November, he put into play a document which played upon the very fears of Virginia men – a proclamation which in essence stated that all persons, all Negro  slaves, who would take up arms on behalf of the Crown and fight by Lord Dunmore’s side that they would be free men. And, also to indentured servants – white indentured servants – who were under contract working off their time, if you will, likewise the offer was made. He raised, not thousands, but he did raise hundreds.

And the minute that proclamation was read out in the capital city, the minute it was put to the newspaper, the minute the word went outside of Virginia, it sent a ripple up and down the spine of every member of the Continental Congress, for when they realized what Dunmore had done in Virginia…Let us not forget that many people say “oh we have no slaves in New York or Massachusetts; we have no slaves here or there” – there were slaves in every colony, in every colony.  Virginia perhaps the most, because of its size, its agrarian [economy], its tobacco trade, wheat and corn, etc., but that put the fear into these men.

If Dunmore had truly been successful – which he was not, by the way – for what was put up by the committees of safety and the other men and provisional government if you will call it that, here in Virginia, were, to use the modern vernacular, roadblocks. They watched the ferries; they watched the rivers; they watched the creeks; they watched the roads for any Negroes, who at one time, would travel those roads with passes, on errands, if you will, for their masters, or the people who owned them – but not any more. They were watched carefully, carefully, for any who would attempt to run away.  

Lloyd: But in his proclamation, when he scared the owners, did he not also push the ones who were undecided toward the Revolution?

Dennis: Ha-ha…now, that is an excellent observation, for that’s what did happen. There were those, like Robert Carter Nicolas, a man of conservative values, if you will, a pious man, and others like him, who were wavering, uncertain if you will, sympathetic, sympathetic but not absolute, perhaps, in their support, to fight royal authority. Dunmore’s move did just that. When he put forth his proclamation, it was as if these very men climbed over on the other side of the fence. Those who straddled the fence climbed over. They realized then that such an abhorrent move by him to do that was despicable in their eyes, and I’m sure words indeed best suited for them themselves. No, it did just that. It took many a man who was uncertain and pushed him over on the other side. And, don’t forget those who had decided to stand firm, such as Henry and others – they used that as an example to convince the others. “Look what he has done; what reasonable man would do that, to rise up and threaten our very families, who might murder us in our sleep?” So, yes, it did; it turned many a man over.    

Lloyd:  I have read somewhere that when Dunmore took the powder from the Magazine, no one reacted as they thought they would react. It wasn’t quite as strong as they thought, and they wonder if at that time Lord Dunmore threatened to arm the slaves?

Dennis:  The word had crept out a little bit. To say that Dunmore’s Proclamation was something he did when he was down in Norfolk, I think it is fair to say that Dunmore had thought of that before he left the city. And somehow perhaps, perhaps was overheard, someone heard, someone suggested “what if,” because there were certain Negro slaves that came knocking on his door prior to his departure.

Lloyd:  Oh? Okay…  

Dennis:    So, it is interesting to realize the Negroes themselves, the slaves here in Virginia had what must have been the best communication network in the colony. For they who traveled around and were in the house unseen in many cases, moving to and fro, and even in the Raleigh Tavern… imagine indeed the Raleigh Tavern that day when Dunmore dissolved the assembly, and the next day when they all gathered to discuss what they were going to do next. The governor did not like the resolution of the day of fasting and prayer. But the Negro slaves in Southall’s tavern – some 19 of them, move around.  They run that whole tavern. And in the household of Peyton, John Randolph, even the governor’s household, they are the eyes and ears, and they communicated very well, one with another, what was going on. Oh yes.

No the gunpowder perhaps mishandled. What if he had removed it during daylight hours, some say?  Why, just take it out during daylight hours, and come up with some other explanation. No, he had secured the marines to do what they do best – move in under the cover of darkness and secret out the powder and take it down the road, and when some fellow, indeed, some miles out of the city said, “good evening gentlemen,” and they said “good evening.” He thought to himself, “Now what are all these marines doing on that big cart covered with a canvass?” It didn’t take long before someone realized to put the dots together and draw one line and realize that Dunmore was behind it, not just the marines.

No, I would love to have been there when Patrick Henry found out that Dunmore took the powder…oh…and all hell broke loose…he marched on the city did he not with 600 men or so…marched on the city. It was his intent to march on the Governor’s Palace and demand that he put the powder back.


Lloyd: That’s where I have heard that at that time Dunmore said, “Okay I’ll put the powder back, but I’ll arm the slaves.”   

Dennis:  True, he did, he did, but that was just talk, and at that time…well people put it down to the fact that the governor was greatly distressed, and, well, he did what he did at the time. No one really put much stock in it, for people thought, “Well, he would never do that. He would never do that.”

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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