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In Praise of Lord Dunmore
March 22, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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Slavery and the American Revolution

I was raised a patriotic American. Both my parents had served in the Marines. My childhood, however, coincided broadly with the Vietnam War. In my teenage years I was influenced by the anti-war movement and had to ask myself: is this particular war justified? It took much longer to occur to me to ask whether any of the wars America fought were morally justified. And the American Revolution, with its iconography of personal liberty, continued to appeal to me. Parts of it still do.

Despite having obtained a Political Science degree, and considering myself anti-establishment by the late 1970s, I remained ignorant of many essential facts of world and American history. Graduating in the late 1970s, little in the way of employment was available. I started hanging out with punk rockers and developed a bad attitude. I drifted from city to city. After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 I drifted to New York City and stayed there a couple of years. New York City then had a lot of book stores, new and used, and they were my preferred hangouts. In one used book store, for no particular reason, I pulled out an old law book. I flipped through the pages. And what caught my eye but the Somerset Case (also spelled Somersett or Sommersett). The summary in the law book said that in 1772 a judge in England ruled that slavery was illegal on British Soil. Hence a black man from America was set at liberty.

Let me just repeat: I had studied some American history in grade school. I had a college-level text book, Bailey's American Pageant, that we studied over two years in high school. I majored in Political Science at Brown University, which included a variety of professors ranging from conservative (a former CIA bigwig) to Marxist.

I immediately realized, standing in the book store, that a ruling in 1772, that slavery was illegal on the King's soil, might provide an incentive to southern slave owners including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, to make sure the soil of the colonies was not British soil. We tend to think of the American Revolution as starting in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, but that was the end of a process that really got underway in 1773.

But surely, if that were true, some leftist or other, or academic scholar, would have pointed it out during the uproar of the 1960s. I checked the most famous of the alternative American histories, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which was then a new book. No Somerset Case. I wrote Howard Zinn a letter asking him about it, and received no reply. Having other things to worry about (like organizing civil disobedience), I let it drop. Perhaps it was not a historically important decision.

I did start mentioning it to friends, and I found occasion to drop Somerset Case into my political speeches. [I never became a famous activist, but I was once indicted by a Federal prosecutor for violating the H. Rap Brown Act. Charges were eventually dropped.] I found the case was not as obscure in English history as it was in American, imagine that. For instance, in H.G. Wells' The Outline of History, he calls it one of the causes of the American Rebellion.

Which brings us to Lord Dunmore, ordinary name John Murray. For those of you who do not recognize the name, he was the Governor of Virginia just before the American Revolution, from 1771 to 1776. Aside from the King of England and General Cornwallis, he is perhaps the most derided Enemy of Liberty Loving Americans from the revolutionary period. Upon arriving in Virginia he started a war against the Indians. In 1773 he was involved in disputes with his House Of Burgesses, which evolved into armed conflict with Patrick Henry and others. [Pop quiz: How many slaves did Patrick Henry own when he proclaimed "Give me Liberty or Give me Death."]

Really, really evil, John Murray, the bloody English Aristocrat snob known as Lord Dunmore. But the worse is yet to come: Dunmore's Proclamation. Made in November 1775, it offered freedom to slaves who left their American masters and joined the British. Some of them even joined his army as the Ethiopian Regiment.

Why is Lord Dunmore painted as evil in American history for freeing slaves, when Abraham Lincoln is painted as noble for doing the same thing under essentially the same circumstances?

So, while surely the man had faults, and I am against a hereditary aristocracy, or even an aristocracy of inherited wealth, I sing the praises of Lord Dunmore. He is a hero in my American History. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are in the same camp as Jefferson Davis, as far as I am concerned.

Attitudes towards the Somerset Case and the American Revolution have begun to change, at least among the more ethically enlightened Americans. This has been reflected and amplified in books that finally tell the truth, in increasing detail, about the era. Please read one or more. Know the facts:

The Counter-Revolution of 1776, Slave Resistance and the Origins of The United States of America by Gerald Horne [2014]

Slave Nation, How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution by Alfred W. Blumrosen & Ruth G. Blumrosen [2005]

Bury the Chains, Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild [2005]

With Liberty and Justice for All

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