The King's Man

Could Lord Dunmore have prevented the Revolution? Interpreter Phil Shultz considers the question.

Learn more: Lord Dunmore


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

As the King's representative in Virginia, Lord Dunmore walked a fine line between satisfying the monarchy and the colonists. Phil Shultz, an actor-interpreter who portrays Dunmore, is here to talk more about the toughest job in Williamsburg.

Lord Dunmore was sent here more as the king's representative than the colonists' leader, is that fair?

Phil Shultz: When he arrives here, he really wears the proverbial two hats. If he doesn't look out for the welfare of the colonists, he's not going to be here very long because they'll make life miserable for him. If he doesn't look out for the welfare of the crown, he'll be recalled.

By the time he arrives in Virginia, the House of Burgesses has grown in size immensely. They've begun to siphon off a lot of the power that some of his predecessors would have had. So he's representing both. But it's a more difficult position for him in 1771 when he arrives than it might have been for some of his predecessors, because the power has begun to shift to the elected representatives of the people.

Lloyd: Is that because of the coming Revolution, discontent with the crown, the normal political upheaval? What's causing it all?

Phil: Part of it is the growth of the colony. Their sheer size has allowed them to assume more power. And, there is no doubt that there is a drumbeat of discontent when he arrives here. He might have been sent down here from New York because he had some military background, and the crown might have been hedging their bets. If we need to do something militarily in Virginia, let's have somebody that knows his way around.

But he's here to … we're a colony, and we have to remember that colonies are here to serve the mother country. Raw goods go one way, finished goods come the other. That's why the crown has colonies. They don't want anything to disrupt this system. First and foremost, the crown doesn't want anything to upset that apple cart.

Lloyd: Originally when Lord Dunmore first got here, the military background helped him quite a lot. He headed out West, the west of Virginia now, and was quite successful with putting down some Indian uprisings. If I have read my history correctly, when he first got here, he became quite popular.

Phil: Absolutely. We have to be very, very careful with John Murray, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore. When you begin to read the really blatantly hateful remarks about him, you're going to find that they’re after the proclamation of 1775.

Once he offered freedom and arms to the slaves, he's going to be the most reviled man that ever drew a breath in Virginia. There are probably still old-time Virginians that hate him. Up until the spring of '75 in Lexington and Concord, he's very popular.

When he returns from the West, and you were just mentioning Lord Dunmore's war, history just dubbed it "Lord Dunmore's War," he comes back, and he arrives on the 4th of December to find that he's got a new child in the house. Lord and Lady Dunmore name the child Virginia, and he's as popular as he's ever going to be.

She, by all accounts, is just one of those women that the colony just loved her. Just fell in love with this woman from the time she arrived. When you read the things about her in the paper, they just apparently loved her. So he's really riding high.

Lloyd: Yet at the end, as you have said before, he was probably the most reviled man in Virginia. Was Dunmore's Proclamation the one thing that he did which was totally wrong? Or was the Gunpowder plot involved, or did it just all get away from him? He failed somewhere.

Phil: D, all of the above. He gets caught up in this cycle of events where he can no longer divide his time between the crown and the colonists. When it comes to blows, he's the king's man.

So here's a man that's related to the House of Stewart, he's related to the House of Hanover, he's got royal blood in his veins. He's sent here by the king, who calls him his "right, worthy and beloved cousin," although they're not actually cousins. He better serve the crown when push comes to shove.

Lloyd: After he left Virginia, and left the United States, his career went on. I mean he did not fail as far as the king was concerned.

Phil: Yeah, he did all he could do over here. As a matter of fact, he prosecuted the war here with very limited resources from the summer of '75 until he arrived back in England in January of '77. The crown just couldn't see Virginia as critically important to the war, as Lord Dunmore did.

Lord Dunmore was saying, "Now, send me some troops." One of the reasons he's going to free and arm the slaves is, he can't get British regulars. He has a handful of British regulars here, 165 or so. He's going to raise a loyalist regiment of white men remaining loyal to the crown, but he can't get those British regulars. I'm not sure what else, given his limited resources, I'm not sure what else they could have asked of him.

Lloyd: Could he have prevented the Revolution? Say the king had sent him 3,000 troops, Could he have done anything?

Phil: You know, in history, we have this saying "what if." It's really anybody's best guess. I would believe that history would have been written differently in Virginia, but probably in the long run, it couldn't have stemmed the tide. The colonists had reached a point that they really believed that Parliament was siphoning off their rights as freeborn Britons. The children, I think, were going to leave the father's house.

In the end, he pointedly writes back to England and says, "I told you." When he finally has to leave here, he says, "I told you. If you'd have given me what I needed, it wouldn't be this way, at least not now." And he just, he reminds them pointedly that you refused to grant my wishes.

I suppose when you think about a man who's sent over by his majesty to govern the largest colony the king has anywhere in the world --Virginia, the most populous and we say the most wealthy—and then, due to unforeseen circumstances begins to slip away, I guess that steels you to "I'm going to do whatever I have to do to please the people that sent me." Freeing and arming the Negroes is the most drastic measure anyone could have taken in Virginia. Two hundred ten, 220,000 slaves, many of them are women and children. But imagine the worst nightmare of the Virginians has come to fruition.

Interestingly enough, on three occasions prior to the Revolution, the Virginians attempt to end the slave trade. They petition to end the slave trade because they're scared of an insurrection. But three times, he goes, he steps up to the plate for them.

On one of those three times, he says, "If I had my way, I would expel every slave from Virginia, because someday, one of our enemies is going to arm the slaves against us." Meaning the French, probably, or the Spanish. Turns out to be Lord Dunmore. History has ironies, and that's one of the great ones.

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