Dunmore’s Promise of Emancipation: A Chance for Victory Lost

During the mid 1770s, the British government, as well as all who represented it, were growing increasingly unpopular. Yet despite this, the Royal Governor of Virginia popular for some time.  The Lord Dunmore had, after all, Led attacks on neighboring Indian tribes in 1774. In March of 1775, he was praised by a patriot convention for his “truly noble, wise and spirited Conduct on the late Expeditions against our Indian Enemy.” (Free Virginians, 275) Yet overnight this popular image of Governor Dunmore changed. He decided to give the key to the local militia’s gunpowder to the British army and ordered them to seize it due to the increasing unrest of the times. This act enflamed colonist passions who saw it as a imposition on their liberty and ability to defend themselves, as well as a punitive measure to prevent them from rebelling. However, this paled in comparison to the reaction people would have to what Lord Dunmore would try next.

In order to restrain the unruly colonists and restore order, The Lord Dunmore sent a message to the House of Burgesses saying that if any senior British officials were harmed, then Dunmore would “declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the city of Williamsburg to ashes.” This spooked anyone who was a free white person in those times. Fear of slave revolt and the Africans taking revenge on their brutal masters was held by most everyone of the time. While many slave-holders managed to fool themselves into thinking that their slaves enjoyed working for them, most at least knew unconsciously that the slaves were not happy, and considering their numbers could easily overpower their white masters if they got their hands on weapons. Threatening to unleash a slave revolt was the ultimate way of threatening the more unruly colonists into line, while at the same time poking at the hypocrisy of those who were calling for liberty only for themselves. This threat provoked some men from the countryside to come to the city to protest, while others pleaded with them not to demonstrate for fear of Dunmore carrying out his word. Although most companies chose to back down, one decided to march towards Williamsburg despite the concerns of others. At this time several slaves presented themselves to the Governor to offer service, which Dunmore refused, but did say that if this company attacked he would accept their requests.

The Lord Dunmore was originally a popular governor until his threat of Emacnipation

The Lord Dunmore was originally a popular Governor until his threat of Emancipation

While at first the decision to threaten freedom of the slaves seemed like a strategically sound threat, it had begun to work against the Governor. He had intended the threat to keep the peace, and while thus far that had been the case, tensions between the Governor and Patriots were at the highest they’d ever been. One newspaper, the South-Carolina Gazette, scolded him for the “monstrous absurdity that the Governor can deprive the people of the necessary means of defense at a time when the colony is actually threatened with an insurrection of their slaves. ” (Free Virginians 149) Matters were made worse by the news of the battle at Lexington and Concord and rumor that there was an emancipation bill being proposed in parliament. Some even claimed that the new incoming governor for South Carolina would free the slaves as soon as he arrived. When a widespread slave conspiracy was found in Pitt, Craven, and Beaufort counties of North Carolina, many began wondering if the British officials had not been involved in the plot.  And as general insurrection spread, so did the fear that Governor Dunmore might enact his promise regardless of whether an official was harmed. However, by this same token, as a confrontation became more inevitable, it gave Lord Dunmore and the British a distinct advantage. Freeing the slaves and using them to outfit Royal and Loyalist regiments would give a tremendous numerical advantage to the Loyalist cause. James Madison admitted privately to a friend that tampering with the slaves  was “the only part in which the colony was vulnerable” and that they should “fall like Achilles before the hands of one who knows that secret.” (http://www.blackloyalist.info/john-murray-lord-dunmore)


Despite the many fears the colonists had they were ultimately not realized. Although the Governor did eventually fulfill on his promise, he only did so in the most limited of ways. He quietly began offering to accept fugitive slaves from different into the fleet he was assembling to fight the patriots. Although he did welcome any slaves regardless if they belonged to a loyalist or patriot master, it only applied to those who managed to make it to his fleet. The punishment for those caught in the act was working in the lead mines, a virtual death sentence. Indeed, when published in the papers, they often warned of what fate would await them should they be caught. (http://www.blackloyalist.info/john-murray-lord-dunmore) Because of this only a small minority of slaves chose to  follow Dunmore, and before long he found his new fleet surrounded on all sides by patriot militia. The issue of encouraging slave insurrection had become a rallying cry for many in South, with Patrick Henry proclaiming it showed King George as a “tyrant rather than a protector of his people” and that the only sound response being a “immediate, clear, and full Declaration of Independency.” (http://www.blackloyalist.info/john-murray-lord-dunmore) A resolution proclaiming Virginia’s independence was unanimously ratified on June 29, 1776. Lord Dunmore soon found himself forced to retreat northward and give up dominion of Virginia.


While far from a majority, many slaves made their way to Lord Dunmore's fleet and enlisted in the British Army

While far from a majority, many slaves made their way to Lord Dunmore’s fleet and enlisted in the British Army

Upon retrospection, one might wonder what had gone wrong with Dunmore’s plan. Arming the slaves was certainly dangerous for those slave holding patriots. However, by forcing the slaves to first make their way to his fleet to find freedom, Dunmore made so that slaves first had to make a perilous journey if they wanted liberty. So dangerous was the journey, and so uncertain was the idea of Dunmore actually fulfilling his promise, that most chose not to try and escape. If Dunmore had instead proclaimed emancipation for all slaves, it would have proved a rallying cry that would have led to at least thousands of Africans siding with the British, in hopes of maintaining their emancipation. By trying to moderate his position, it proved to be the undoing of Lord Dunmore and the Loyalist cause in general. Had the Governor but let the people go, the entire war might have ended much differently.



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