In June 1775 royal authority in Virginia was in tatters. Lord Dunmore, the governor, was incapable of enforcing royal authority on the Virginians and concessions were impossible. Virginia was in a quasi-revolutionary situation. Dunmore was so concerned that he made a tactical retreat to a British ship off the coast. His obvious response to the Virginians’ challenges should have been a declaration of martial law, after which those who continued to oppose royal authority would be traitors. There was no certainty that this would succeed and Dunmore knew it. In a reckless act, Dunmore’s Proclamation offered freedom to able-bodied slaves from rebel slave-owners who joined his army. Dunmore’s Proclamation completed the alienation of many Americans from Britain.
Dunmore understood Virginian slavery. He too was a slave-owner and appreciated that slaves weren’t a homogeneous group. Virginian slaves are often thought of as working on plantations under the lash but this ignores slaves working in the service industry. These slaves were usually working in the household as nannies, kitchen staff, coach men, personal maids and so on. Like any other large group of people, slaves varied in ability, intelligence and social skills. Slave-owners talent spotted amongst their slaves. Slaves with potential were nurtured, eventually becoming important to the smooth running of their owners’ lives. (The addendum below illustrates this point.) Elite slaves were in an enviable position but had a heightened awareness of their servitude. Paradoxically they were in a psychologically worse position than field slaves who had no hope whatsoever.
Dunmore’s Proclamation was aimed at elite slaves; slaves who could read and were aware of the world beyond their locality. Dunmore was hoping this elite would act as opinion formers and spread the word amongst illiterate field slaves. But Dunmore’s message was conditional: only slaves from rebel slave-owners would be accepted. Dunmore wasn’t a moral anti-slavery crusader, he wanted able-bodied men who could be recuited into his Ethiopian regiment. Dunmore was weaponising slavery in Virginia: legitimising escape by slaves from their owners. The black slave population was nearly equal to the white population numerically but fear kept slaves on their plantations. Dunmore’s Proclamation didn’t create a flood of escapees.
Dunmore’s Proclamation was the nuclear option but was hamstrung by his unwillingness to declare ‘war’ on rebel Virginians. If he’d declared slavery illegal this may have unleashed the 40% of Virginian population who were slaves*. But that was an intellectual and political leap too far. It would have united rebel and loyalist slave-owners against him and was of dubious legality. Being in a quasi-revolutionary situation was uncharted territory. His proclamation was reckless because it hardened attitudes against both him and Britain without delivering a knock-out blow. Political leadership from London was ambiguous until the following year when independence was declared.
Dunmore’s Proclamation was a bold and imaginative initiative but was doomed to failure because it was ambiguous. A colonial revolution was beyond the scope of a governor who was intellectually bound by the concept of unchallenged royal authority. Dunmore failed but he did the decent thing and didn’t abandon those slaves who had joined him.
Addendum: an advert for a runaway slave following Dunmore’s proclamation
STAFFORD County, AQUIA, Nov 3, 1775.
RUN off last night form [sic.] the subscriber, a negro man named CHARLES, who is a very shrewd sensible fellow, and can both read and write; and as he has always waited upon me, he must be will known through most parts of Virginia and Maryland. He is very black, has a large nose, and is about 5 feet 8 or 10 inches high. He took a variety of clothes, which I cannot well particularise, stole several of my shirts, a pair of new saddle bags, and two mares, one a darkish, the other a light bay, with a blaze and white feet, and about 3 years old. From many circumstances, there is reason to believe he intends an attempt to get to lord Dunmore; and as I have reason to believe his design of going off was long premeditated, and that he has gone off with some accomplice, I am apprehensive he may prove daring and resolute, if endeavoured to be taken. His elopement was from no cause of complaint, or dread of a whipping (for he has always been remarkably indulged, indeed too much so) but from a determined resolution to get liberty, as he conceived, by flying to lord Dunmore. I will give 5l. [l = pounds] to any person who secures him, and the mares, so that I get them again.
N.B. Since writing the above advertisement, the mares have returned, and there is a great probability, form [sic.] many circumstances, to conclude that he was taken from Dumfries, in company with a white servant of mr. Andrew Leitch’s, in an oyster boat belonging to one Kelly, near Smith’s point, in Northumberland. I will give10l. if he is taken, and allow a handsome gratuity to any person who can convict Kelly of having carried him off.
*Virginia 1775 Slave population was 40% of the total http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25577