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Dunmore’s Proclamation – Remarks – Slaves

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

This day Lord Dunmore 1 issued the following proclamation, from his retreat, on board the war-ship William, now at anchor off Norfolk, Virginia. It at once shows the baseness of his heart, his malice and treachery against the people who were once under his government, and his officious violation of all law, justice, and humanity; not to mention his arrogating to himself a power which neither he can assume, nor any power upon earth invest him with.

Not in the legions
Of horrid hell, can come a devil more damned,
In evils, to top Dunmore!

“A proclamation: –As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great Britain and this colony, without being compelled, by my duty, to this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary step; rendered so by a body of armed men, unlawfully assembled, firing upon his Majesty’s tenders; and the formation of an army, and that army now on their way to attack his Majesty’s troops and destroy the well-disposed subjects of this country. To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors and their abettors may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law is unable to effect; I have thought fit to issue this, my proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given by his Majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his Majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as a traitor to his crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences, such as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, etc., etc. And I do hereby further declare all indentured servants, negroes, or others, appertaining to rebels, Free, that are willing and able to bear arms; they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be, for the purpose of reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty to his Majesty’s crown and dignity. I do further order and require, all his Majesty’s liege subjects to retain their quit rents, or any other taxes due, or that may become due, in their own custody, till such time as peace be again restored to this at present most unhappy country, or demanded of them, for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same. “2

It is necessary, for the welfare of two sorts of people, that the appearance of this proclamation should be attended with some comment. Such as have mixed much in society, and have had opportunities of hearing the subject of the present unnatural contest discussed, will be but little startled at the appellation of rebel, because they will know it is not merited. But others there may be, whose circumstances may, in a great measure, have excluded them from the knowledge of public matters, who may be sincerely attached to the interest of their country, and who may yet be frightened to act against it, from the dread of incurring a guilt which, by all good men, is justly abhorred. To these, it may be proper to address a few remarks upon this proclamation; and, as a part of it respects the negroes, and seems to offer something very flattering and desirable to them, it may be doing them, as well as the country, a service, to give them a just view of what they are to expect, should they be so weak and wicked as to comply with what Lord Dunmore requires. Those, then, who are afraid of being styled rebels, we would beg to consider, that although Lord Dunmore, in this proclamation, insidiously mentions his having till now entertained hopes of an accommodation, yet the whole tenor of his conduct, for many months past, has had the most direct and strongest tendency to widen the unhappy breach, and render a reconciliation more difficult. -For what other purpose did he write his false and inflammatory letters to the ministers of state? Why did he, under cover of the night, take from us our powder, and render useless the arms of our public magazine? Why did he secretly and treacherously lay snares for the lives of our unwary brethren; snares that had likely to have proved but too effectual? 3 Why did he, under idle pretences, withdraw himself from the seat of government, where alone he could, had he been willing, have done essential service to our country? Why, by his authority, have continual depredations been since made upon such of our countrymen as are situated within the reach of ships-of-war and tenders? Why have our towns been attacked, and houses destroyed? Why have the persons of many of our most respectable brethren been seized upon, torn from all their connections, and confined on board of ships? Was all this to bring about a reconciliation? Judge for yourselves, whether the injuring of our persons and properties be the readiest way to gain our affections. After insulting our persons, he now presumes to insult our understandings also. Do not believe his words, when his actions so directly contradict them. If he wished for an accommodation; if he had a desire to restore peace and order, as he professes, it was to be upon terms that would have been disgraceful, and, in the end, destructive of every thing dear and valuable.

Consider, again, the many attempts that have been made to enslave us. Nature gave us equal privileges with the people of Great Britain: we are equally, with them, entitled to the disposal of our own property; and we have never resigned to them those rights, which we derived from nature. But they have endeavored, unjustly, to rob us of them. They have made acts of parliament, in which we in no manner concurred, which dispose of our property; acts which abridge us of liberties we once enjoyed, and which impose burdens and restraints upon us too heavy to be borne. Had we immediately taken up arms to assert our rights, and to prevent the exercise of unlawful power, though our cause would have been just, yet our conduct would have been precipitate, and, so far, blamable. We might then, with some shadow of justice, have been charged with rebellion, or a disposition to rebel. But this was not the way we behaved. We petitioned once and again, in the most dutiful manner; we hoped the righteousness of our cause would appear, that our complaints would be heard and attended to; we wished to avoid the horrors of a civil war, and so long proceeded in this fruitless track, that our not adopting a more vigorous opposition seemed rather to proceed from a spirit of meanness and fear than of peace and loyalty; and all that we gained was, to be more grievously oppressed. At length we resolved to withhold our commerce from Great Britain, and, by thus affecting her interest, oblige her to redress our grievances. But in this also we have been disappointed. Our associations have been deemed unlawful combinations, and opposition to government. We have been entirely deprived of our trade to foreign countries, and even amongst ourselves, and fleets and armies have been sent to reduce us to a compliance with the unjust and arbitrary demands of the British minister and corrupt parliament. Reduced to such circumstances, to what could we have recourse but to arms? Every other expedient having been tried and found ineffectual, this alone was left, and this we have, at last, unwillingly adopted. If it be rebellion to take up arms in such a cause as this, rebellion, then, is not only justifiable, but an honorable thing.

They who call us rebels... An American's response to Lord Dunmore's proclamation.But let us not be deceived with empty sounds. They who call us rebels cannot make us so. Rebellion is open, and avows opposition to lawful authority; but it is usurped and arbitrary power which we have determined to oppose. Societies are formed and magistrates appointed, that men may the better enjoy the blessings of life. Some of the rights which they have derived from nature they part with, that they may the more peaceably and safely possess the rest. To preserve the rights they have reserved, is the duty of every member of society; and to deprive a people of these is treason, is rebellion against the state. If this doctrine, then, be right, which no one, we believe, will venture to deny, we are dutiful members of society; and the persons who endeavor to rob us of our rights, they are the rebels, –rebels to their country and to the rights of human nature. We are acting the part of loyal subjects, of faithful members of the community, when we stand forth in opposition to the arbitrary and oppressive acts of any man, or set of men. Resort not, then, to the standard which Lord Dunmore has set up; and, if any of you have been so mistaken in your duty as to join him, fly from his camp as an infected place, and speedily rejoin your virtuous, suffering countrymen; for be you well assured, that the time will come when these invaders of the rights of human kind will suffer the punishment due to their crimes; and when the insulted and oppressed Americans will, if they preserve their virtue, triumph over all their enemies.

The second class of people, for whose sake a few remarks upon this proclamation seem necessary, is the negroes. They have been flattered with their freedom, if they be able to bear arms, and will speedily join Lord Dunmore’s troops. To none, then, is freedom promised, but to such as are able to do Lord Dunmore service. The aged, the infirm, the women and children, are still to remain the property of their masters; masters who will be provoked to severity, should part of their slaves desert them. Lord Dunmore’s declaration, therefore, is a cruel declaration to the negroes. He does not even pretend to make it out of any tenderness for them, but solely on his own account; and, should it meet with success, it leaves by far the greater number at the mercy of an enraged and injured people. But should there be any among the negroes weak enough to believe that Dunmore intends to do them a kindness, and wicked enough to provoke the fury of the Americans against their defenceless fathers and mothers, their wives, their women and children, let them only consider the difficulties of effecting their escape, and what they must expect to suffer if they fall into the hands of the Americans. Let them farther consider what must be their fate, should the English prove conquerors in this dispute. If we can judge of the future from the past, it will not be much mended. Long have the Americans, moved by compassion, and actuated by sound policy, endeavored to stop the progress of slavery. Our assemblies have repeatedly passed acts laying heavy duties upon imported negroes, by which they meant altogether to prevent the horrid traffic; but their humane intentions have been as often frustrated by the cruelty and covetousness of a set of English merchants, who prevailed upon the king to repeal our kind and merciful acts, little indeed to the credit of his humanity. Can it then be supposed that the negroes will be better used by the English, who have always encouraged and upheld this slavery, than by their present masters, who pity their condition, who wish, in general, to make it as easy and comfortable as possible, and who would willingly, were it in their power, or were they permitted, not only prevent any more negroes from losing their freedom, but restore it to such as have already unhappily lost it?

No; these ends of Lord Dunmore and his party being answered, they will either give up the offending negroes to the rigor of the laws they have broken, or sell them in the West Indies, where every year they sell many thousands of their miserable brethren, to perish either by the inclemency of the weather, or the cruelty of barbarous masters. Be not then, ye negroes, tempted by this proclamation to ruin yourselves. We have given you a faithful view of what you are to expect; and declare, before God, in doing it, we have considered your welfare as well as that of the country. Whether you will profit by the advice, we cannot tell; but this we know, that whether we suffer or not, if you desert us, you most certainly will. 4


1 His title was John, Earl of Dunmore, his Majesty’s Lieutenant and Governor-General of the colony and dominion of Virginia, and Vice-Admiral of the same.
2 Pennsylvania Journal, December 6. The proclamation was originally issued on November 6.
3 In the night of Saturday, (June 3, 1775,) some young men got into the public magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia, intending to furnish themselves with arms, but were soon surprised by the report of a gun, which was so artfully placed, (said to be contrived by Lord Dunmore,) that upon touching a string that was in their way, it went off, and wounded three persons, but not mortally. One of them was terribly hurt by several small balls that entered his arm and shoulder; another, by the loss of two fingers of his right hand, rendered incapable of following his profession for subsistence; the other wounded very slightly. There were two guns prepared for this horrid purpose, one of which was brought out the next morning and found to be double charged. —Holt’s Journal, June 22.
4 Virginia Gazette, November 25.

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