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Modern Voices
Betty Wood on the significance of Dunmore's Proclamation
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Q: What was the significance of Dunmore's Proclamation -- how did things shift after that?
Betty Wood

A: In many ways, Dunmore's Proclamation was a turning point in relations with plantation colonies of the South. It was a turning point, I think, between enslaved people and their owners, and a turning point in the relationship between their owners, be those owners Loyalist or Patriot, and the British. For the enslaved population of Virginia, whether they belonged to Patriot or Loyalist owners, Dunmore's Proclamation offered the prospect of freedom, of liberty, even though the price attached to that liberty was that of fighting in the war.

For their Patriot owners, Dunmore's Proclamation raised the most appalling specter of racial insurrection, of black soldiers who had been armed by Britain, taking up arms against their former masters as part of the British war effort. To Patriot planters, it reflected an assault on their rights as property owners: the fact that by offering freedom, the British were, in effect, depriving them of their enslaved property. Not because Dunmore had any moral or religious objections to the institution of slavery. He needed soldiers. He needed to win the war.

For Loyalists, and bearing in mind that Dunmore's Proclamation was not intended to apply to the enslaved people of Loyalist owners, the prospect of their slaves running away raised some very, very difficult questions for Loyalists, for those slave owners who were and wished to remain loyal to Britain during the war.

Dunmore's Proclamation, then, raised a whole series of questions in the minds of Patriot and Loyalist slave owners alike. But for enslaved people, it raised different possibilities. It raised the distinct possibility of freedom.
Betty Wood
Professor of History
Oxford University

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