It was nearly a century before Abraham Lincoln. And it was one of the “bad guys,” John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, who issued it: the first Emancipation Proclamation. Lord Dunmore freed the slaves of the Royal Colony of Virginia on November 7, 1775.
That date is tucked away in the chronicles of American history like a guilty secret. Maybe it’s because we really don’t want to acknowledge what motivated many American colonists to take up arms against England. It was the need to preserve slavery. It was the wealth of the plantations, wealth only made possible by slave labor. It was all about the money.
Dunmore’s Proclamation was issued from a British warship in Yorktown harbor. He had fled there in April after the colonists surrounded his royal palace in Williamsburg, the colonial capital. They were furious that he had effectively disarmed them by removing the colony’s supply of gunpowder from the public magazine and storing it in another British ship. It was the day after the Lexington and Concord clashes in Massachusetts. The Virginians didn’t buy Dunmore’s initial excuse that he was safeguarding the powder from potential seizure by rebellious black slaves.
The November proclamation by Dunmore offered freedom to slaves who would rebel and take up arms against their masters. Some 800 to 2,000 did so, becoming his “Ethiopian Regiment” in the early stages of the war. They had some initial success in the Chesapeake area, but later on were evacuated to New York to fight there.
At the time of the April rebellion, and as he was fleeing to the safety of the moored warship. Dunmore had announced that “by the living God, he would declare freedom to the slaves, and reduce the city of Williamsburg to ashes.”
Hindsight shows that the Dunmore Proclamation was hugely important in uniting the American South against the Crown. Like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, it was just a war measure, intended to incite rebellion and bring disorder to the enemy. But it backfired, with disastrous results. Virginia and the rest of its Southern brethren were now in the rebellion to stay. Hundreds, if not thousands, who had been undecided enlisted in the Continental Army. Nothing did more to turn the South against the Crown than the Dunmore Proclamation.
All of the colonies chafed under the harassments of the British – the endless taxes, harassment, and disdain. Not all colonists supported slavery, of course, and many were ardent abolitionists whose time had not yet come. But the prospect of liberated slaves was the final provocation. As one Virginian wrote to a friend overseas, “Hell itself could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves.”
Virginia in the Forefront of the Revolution
The Revolution needed the Southerners. It especially needed Virginia, the largest and wealthiest of all the colonies. That is the main reason that Thomas Jefferson was picked to write the Declaration of Independence. John Adams, for one, insisted on it.
Back in 1774, Adams, Jefferson, and Benjamin Rush had discussed the political situation at a tavern in Frankford, Pennsylvania. At that time, Adams acknowledged and wrote that “Virginia is the most Populous State of the Union. They are very proud of their ancient dominion, they call it; they think they have the right to take the lead…”
Two years later, when asked why Jefferson, still such a young man, would draft the Declaration of Independence, Adams replied, “It was the Frankford advice, to place Virginia at the head of everything.”
And so it was. But Virginia would most likely never have been there, had Lord Dunmore not attempted to free the slaves first.
Britain in the Forefront of Abolition
British authorities never repudiated Dunmore, even though they must have realized that his declaration did not have the intended effect. In 1779, British General Sir Henry Clinton’s Philipsburg Proclamation freed slaves owned by Patriots throughout the rebel states, even if they did not enlist in the British Army.
That second Emancipation Proclamation prompted about 100,000 slaves to try to leave their masters and join the Brits over the course of the entire war. And at the end of the war, the British relocated about 3,000 former slaves to Nova Scotia. This wasn’t much, compared to the total slave population, but more American slaves were freed by the British than in any other way until the Civil War.
Britain also had an admirable conversion to the cause of abolition in the ensuing decades, again well before the days of Abraham Lincoln. The plight of the slaves became better known to people in the mother country as a result of the Revolutionary War, and public sentiment turned against it.
The conversion took a few years, and not before British Colonel Banastre Tarleton made himself a fortune in the slave trade after the war was over. Boomers who were fans of Leslie Neilsen, “The Swamp Fox” of Walt Disney’s shows, will remember Colonel Tarleton as his primary military foe in the Carolinas.
Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807, and the Royal Navy began an anti-slavery patrol of West Africa in 1808. Between then and 1860, the West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1600 ships involved in the slave trade. They freed 150,000 Africans, almost all of whom had been destined for plantations in the American South.
So, taking the long view, the First Emancipation Proclamation by Lord Dunmore was a short-term failure. But it set in motion a long chain of events that must be termed beneficial, even though there was much suffering along the way.
The Emancipation Proclamations. More than one of them. And now you know the rest of the story.