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Home: Our Story: Revolution: The Philipsburg Proclamation

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By 1776 Lord Dunmore's policy of freeing the slaves of rebels to fight on their behalf had become standard policy throughout the colonies. However, there were clear limitations to this approach. Most crucially, slaves feared brutal retaliation against their families if they fled. A man might have been willing to risk death for himself, but unwilling to have his entire family tortured on account of his actions. The demand for black soldiers became less pressing. British prejudice had come into play as Howe banned the formation of new black fighting regiments and discharged his black troops. With the arrival of 30 000 Hessian mercenaries, the British were no longer desperate for men. There were some black companies in service, as well as numerous musicians, guides and labourers, but they were discouraged as front line troops.

Perhaps more importantly, the British had come to see the value of their policy as economic warfare. By encouraging slaves to flee, they would strike at the plantation economy that supported the rebels. It also forced southern landowners to use their men to guard slaves instead of fight the British. Plantation owners like Jefferson and Washington formed the backbone of rebel financing, which was always a problem for the Patriots. By striking at their wealth and source of supplies it was felt that the enemy could be defeated conclusively.

So it came that in 1779, Sir Henry Clinton issued the Philipsburg Proclamation. In effect, it expanded Dunmore's Proclamation to include any rebel slave who could escape, ready to serve for the British or not, anywhere in the colonies.

Clinton had black troops under his command, notably the Black Pioneers which he had ordered formed, and evidently found them to be as useful as any other troops. Strategically, he also saw the value of economic warfare against rebel slave owners. Clinton proved to be a friend to the Black Loyalists later in his life. Although he ordered that runaway Loyalist slaves be returned to their masters, he added that they should not be punished for escaping.

Interestingly, by 1778 the Patriots had turned the tables on the British by freeing Loyalist slaves when they were captured. Of course, many on both sides ignored these policies and sought to profit from their situation when possible by taking the slaves away and selling them (Boston King's Memoir has an instructive example of such a situation).

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Picking Cotton: 1860
Slaves who revolted in the years following the Philipsburg Proclamation were often put to work in captured plantations to grow food for the British Army.

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Sir Henry Clinton


Boston King's story of being kidnapped as a prize