Group of Historians Challenges Woody Holton's Interpretation of the Significance of Dunmore's Proclamation

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, American Revolution, 1619 Project

In July 2021, Professor Woody Holton claimed in the Washington Post that until 1775, most White Americans had shown little interest in independence. He went on to argue that the break from Britain was strongly motivated by the November 1775 proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, which called on Blacks enslaved by patriot colonists to flee and join the Crown and fight for their freedom. Roughly 300 out of 300,000 slaves in Virginia joined Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment.” Professor Holton says that “Whites’ fury at the British for casting their lot with enslaved people drove many to the fateful step of endorsing independence.”

With this account Professor Holton supports the argument of the 1619 Project of the New York Times. This project aims “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” Doing so, the Times said, would commence a revision that, in fact, Black and White historians have been pursuing for decades, putting “slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” The Times presents a very particular version of that history, which it has offered to schools throughout the nation.

A central claim in the 1619 Project’s attempted reframing is that the colonists (subsequently altered to “some of the colonists”) sought to declare independence because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. Professor Holton’s essay seeks to bolster that unusual claim. Although Dunmore certainly infuriated some planters and emboldened some enslaved persons, his proclamation emphatically did not convince Virginia to break from the British Empire. By November 1775 Virginia, like most of the other colonies, had already radically moved toward virtual independence from British authority. Dunmore issued his proclamation motivated by military desperation, not abolitionist ideals. By November 1775 his authority, like that of nearly all royal governors, had been usurped by local patriot revolutionary committees.

In 1774, the colonists had already become effectively independent of British authority, as former American Historical Association president Mary Beth Norton exhaustively demonstrates in her recent book on that fateful year. It was Parliament’s extraordinary series of Coercive Acts punishing the colony of Massachusetts for the December 1773 Boston Tea Party that clinched the case for eventual independence. This repressive legislation, which the colonists regarded as “intolerable,” closed the port of Boston and took several dramatic steps to expand royal power in the colony.

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The Revolution was a complicated event, subject to different interpretations; but the idea that the colonists — or even, in the Times’s amended version, “some of the colonists” — revolted in order to protect slavery is beyond farfetched.

Why should all these long-ago facts matter today? Historians forcefully emphasize the fundamental importance of slavery to American history and the Revolution, including the compliance with slavery at the Federal Convention in 1787. Yet the Revolution also became a major event in the history of antislavery in the Western world. Not only did the first society with antislavery aims in modern history originate in Revolutionary Philadelphia in 1775, but during the war some northern states became the first slave-holding political entities in world history to abolish slavery by law. Blacks, enslaved and free, were crucial leaders and actors in these antislavery movements. But no one then believed the colonists precipitated the Revolution out of fear that Britain was going to free the slaves in its empire; and no one should believe it now.

Editor's note: HNN has offered Woody Holton the opportunity to publish a rejoinder to this letter, which he has accepted

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