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In 1775 Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, was in a desperate position. Several hundred armed rebels controlled the streets and fields of Virginia. Dunmore had been forced to flee the capital of Williamsburg for the safety of the naval town of Norfolk. Williamsburg was a nest of Patriots and Dunmore felt that it was no longer safe for him to stay there. His loyal forces had been reduced by desertion and harassment to about 300 troops.

By this time, many of his soldiers were blacks of uncertain origin who claimed to be free. Although nobody had stepped forward to claim them as a slave, it seems likely that Loyalist officials tacitly accepted runaways on the grounds that most slaveholders in Virginia were rebels. At least one early soldier in Dunmore's militia was an escaped slave from New Jersey who went on to later fame in the war.

In desperation, Dunmore issued a proclamation calling on all able bodied men to assist him in the defense of the colony, including the slaves of rebels. These blacks were promised their freedom in exchange for service in the Army. This was controversial at the time, especially among Loyalist slave holders who had feared a mass slave rebellion. Some thought Dunmore had gone mad. Still, this strategy was extremely successful. Within a month Dunmore had raised 800 soldiers.

The Virginia Congress replied immediately to Dunmore’s Proclamation with the Virginia Declaration, which denounced his offer of freedom as striking at the foundations of Virginia’s society. After decrying Dunmore for filling slaves with false hope and causing them greater suffering, it proceeded to threaten the death penalty to escaping slaves.

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation was the first mass emancipation of slaves in American history, and as such it deserves to be remembered as an important moment in history.

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Lord Dunmore's Proclamation

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Lord Dunmore's Proclamation

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