In 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, was in a terribly desperate position. Hundreds of armed patriots controlled the streets and fields of Virginia. Lord Dunmore had been forced to flee the capital of Williamsburg to the town of Norfolk. Williamsburg was heavily populated by Patriots, and Dunmore felt that it was no longer safe for him to stay there. His loyalist forces had been reduced by desertion and harassment to about 300 troops. This event set the stage for a profound decision on Dunmore’s part.
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 patriots. 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 were afraid of a slave rebellion. Some thought Dunmore had lost his mind. Still, his strategy was extremely successful. Within a month, Dunmore had raised 800 soldiers. .
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The Virginia Congress immediately replied to Dunmore’s Proclamation with the Virginia Declaration. The Declaration denounced his offer of freedom as striking at the foundations of Virginia’s society. After chastising Dunmore for filling slaves with false hope and causing them greater suffering, it threatened escaping slaves with the death penalty. .
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. Comprised of many notable American leaders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, most were prominent slaveholders, and many Blacks saw the British opportunity as their only chance for freedom and consequently joined the British in large numbers. George Washington told Congress that Dunmore’s Proclamation established him as America’s most formidable enemy. He felt that if they continued to denounce the Proclamation, there would be no way to win the war. American slaveholders were still unwilling to arm their slaves until all other countermeasures were tried.