Original American Villain
American history is littered with heroes and villains. Our founding fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin,—were surely among the first American heroes, but whom were they fighting? Any good comic book has taught us superheroes need a villainous counterpart.
John Murray, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore, garners the distinction of America’s first villain. Lord Dunmore was the British Royal Governor of Virginia at the time of the American Revolution and a foremost adversary of the colonists. As a colonial governor in the mid-1770’s, Lord Dunmore would have been a controversial man due to his title alone. Lord Dunmore’s lack of diplomatic skills and drastic crisis control made him a convenient target for colonial hatred during the build up to the American Revolution, compelling Thomas Jefferson to cite his actions in the list of grievances against the British Empire in the Declaration of Independence.
The first event that placed Lord Dunmore squarely in the colonists’ crosshairs was the infamous Gunpowder Incident. The Revolutionary War officially began at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. A day later, Lord Dunmore ordered a seizure of weapons and gunpowder from the colonial magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the eyes of many colonists, this was a concerning sign of Lord Dunmore’s British allegiances.
The second action that angered the colonists was Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation. On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore issued a decree that offered freedom to slaves and indentured servants if they declared their loyalty to the British and took up arms in the British military.
The Gunpowder Incident
The Gunpowder Incident started when Lord Dunmore organized the removal of locks from firearms in Williamsburg’s armory and seized stores of gunpowder. Citing a potential slave insurrection, Dunmore ordered the removal of these supplies from the armory and transported the weapons to a British warship. Dunmore claimed this was a preventative measure to ensure that rebellious slaves would not get their hands on arms.
The threat of slave rebellion was certainly real in the American colonies, so Lord Dunmore’s reasoning was plausible. Especially in southern colonies, which had the largest enslaved populations, slave uprisings were commonplace in the 1760’s. This meant that colonists, especially in a state like Virginia, were well aware that hostilities could break out at any moment. Despite the actual danger of slave uprisings, Lord Dunmore’s explanation for the gunpowder affair did not seem realistic to Virginians. Virginia Gazette editor Alexander Purdie wrote on June 16, 1775:
“This answer gave no satisfaction. The people could not conceive how disarming them would discourage their negroes from rising, should they be so disposed; nor could they divine how he could procure the powder, upon any emergency, from a vessel whose station for one hour was uncertain. The magazine had never yet been attempted by the negroes; and, had this been apprehended, they thought it might easily have been secured by a guard. Upon the whole, they looked upon the Governour’s answer as evasive and insulting; and the people were, with difficulty, kept within the bounds of moderation.”
To most Virginians, Lord Dunmore appeared to have a more sinister intention—to quash a potential colonial rebellion by inciting a slave rebellion and impairing the colonists’ means to defend themselves. This would, in turn, render Virginia unable to participate in the revolution against Britain.
Preventing American Rebellion
Much of the literature that the colonists read coming out of London supported this ulterior motive. British pamphlets argued for emancipation of American slaves in return for military service. Rumors swirled that an emancipation bill was set to reach the floor of the British Parliament, although that did not materialize until the 1807 Slave Trade Act which closed the transatlantic slave trade and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which outlawed slavery in the British Empire. More importantly, the Virginians knew that Lord Dunmore’s seizure of their gunpowder supplies was the result of an order handed directly down from London. In fact, Parliament gave similar instructions to all the North American colonial governors. In late 1774 and early 1775, a rush for gunpowder occurred all along the Atlantic coast. British officials tried to seize the powder, whereas many colonists tried to keep control of it. Oddly enough, the most successful of the British efforts to capture colonial gunpowder was that of Lord Dunmore.
Fear of Emancipation
Having been governor of New York and Virginia, Lord Dunmore was well aware of the colonists’ fear of emancipation as slavery was the dominant form of colonial labor, nearly all business and exports were touched by slavery, and individuals’ wealth was derived from slave investments. When the colonists confronted him about their captured gunpowder he pressured them with threats of giving Virginian slaves their freedoms. Lord Dunmore knew that the notion of armed former slaves running throughout Virginia made the concession of a couple of barrels of gunpowder much less upsetting to the colonists. Lord Dunmore, however, lacked the foresight to see how such an action would turn the colonists against in him the long run. While the seizure of Williamsburg’s gunpowder may have prevented immediate colonial insurrection, the fallout from the incident allowed Virginians to associate a single character with their grievances. The Gunpowder Incident exposed Lord Dunmore as unsympathetic to the colonists’ worries and made him a target for future scrutiny. He had not yet taken direct action against the colonists, but after April 20, 1775, Virginians were extremely wary of their governor.
Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation was a response to growing anti-British sentiment in Virginia. The proclamation asserted that Virginia was in a state of rebellion and put the colony under martial law. Needing additional men to keep the rebellious Virginians in check, Lord Dunmore saw these measures as means to help quell the impending rebellion. Lord Dunmore was not an abolitionist. He offered freedom to slaves as a means to advance his own agenda. Much like Abraham Lincoln less than a century later, Lord Dunmore only offered freedom to those slaves who were not in rebellion against the sitting government.
Increasing British Power
Dunmore long believed that slaves would rise up against their American masters and come to the aid of the British. In a 1772 report to Lord Dartmouth, the British Secretary of State for the colonies, Dunmore told Dartmouth that the colonies feared foreign powers could use the large number of American slaves against them. In Dunmore’s words, “[the colonies] trembled at the facility that an enemy would find in procuring such a body of men.” He believed that the slaves would readily take arms against the Americans as a way to enact vengeance, “and therefore are ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves.” Lord Dunmore went as so far as to assume that he could rely on “all slaves on the side of the [British] government.” In reality, the governor’s decree only turned more colonists away from the British. Colonists saw Lord Dunmore’s action as another increase in British power and they rallied against it.
Slave Motivation for Independence
Lord Dunmore failed to understand the slaves’ true motivation for joining the British side. Above seeking revenge on American colonists, slaves primarily wanted their independence. Slaves in the colonies did not actively seek vengeance on anyone in particular; they gave their support to whichever side helped them best achieve their aim—freedom. For example, when a slave of Virginian Robert Brent’s escaped, Brent remarked that the breakout “was from no cause of complaint… but from a determined resolution to get liberty, as he conceived, by flying to Lord Dunmore.”
Lord Dunmore’s offer to join the British in war was not the only way slaves gained their freedom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Other prominent means of gaining freedom included:
- Sympathetic masters released slaves as freemen.
- Slaves could be freed as part of a master’s will upon their master’s death. This was called “manumission.”
- By legal petitions for freedom, commonly referred to as “freedom suits.”
- Escaping or participating in slave rebellions often gave enslaved peoples not the opportunity to become truly free, but at least the chance to escape enslavement.
It is estimated one thousand slaves took up Dunmore’s offer. The number may have been even greater had Dunmore not been exiled once the revolution started. By June of 1775, Dunmore had left Williamsburg and took asylum aboard the British war ship Fowey off the coast of Yorktown. In his words, “I thought it best for his Majesty’s Service to retire from such hostile appearances around me.” Even though not that many slaves joined Lord Dunmore and the British, the offer alone was enough to incite the colonists. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation served as evidence that the British colonial government was prepared to take direct action, in order to subdue its subjects.
Below, Professor Freeman at Yale University discusses the role of African Americans and Native Americans in the American Revolution.
Further angering colonists, allegations circulated that Lord Dunmore inoculated slaves with small pox and then sent them into mainland Virginia as a means of biological warfare. While the truth of this accusation is debatable, the irony is not. Lord Dunmore professed to care about the freedom of enslaved blacks as a way to enlist their support. Once he had their allegiance, he was willing to sacrifice their lives. This attempt at sabotage ultimately backfired and by 1776, most of Lord Dunmore’s enlisted slaves had succumbed to the disease, without inflicting much damage upon Virginians.
By not recognizing slaves’ real motivations, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation that did little to boost the capabilities of the British military and did lots to increase the ire of the American colonists. For the Virginia governor it was yet another ill-fated attempt at securing British power in Virginia that resulted not in him becoming a British hero, but rather an American villain.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the American Revolution