Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:

THE 1948  ELECTION

The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

January 10, 2013

Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Britain,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

Lord Dunmore: the great emancipator

Yesterday I posted a link to an article titled 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ to the Marxism mailing list written by Imara Jones, who has a BA in political science from Columbia University and an MA in economics from the London School of Economics.

Item 5 in Jones’s list (“Defense of slavery, more than taxes, was pivotal to America’s declaration of independence”) might have not sit well with some of our subscribers. Most are veteran Marxists and partial to the classical definition of 1776 as a bourgeois revolution, or what is sometimes referred to as “the first American revolution” that would be fulfilled—like Jesus’s second coming—by Lincoln’s Civil War.

One old hand said this:

I think this is a very questionable essay on the “Things” the essay lays out. I would proceed with caution on some of this stuff, especially on the economics and the ‘reason’ the colonies pushed for independence.

As it so happens, I keep a copy of Gary B. Nash’s “The Unknown American Revolution”, a “revisionist” study of the type I am particularly keen on in reserve for occasions like this. For those who have been following my analysis of the bourgeois revolution over the years, I am more than a bit skeptical of the “revolutionary” bourgeoisie—particularly when it comes to slavery. When the Communist Party was in the giddying heights of its pro-America populism during the New Deal, I wonder why nobody with both feet on the ground and a grasp of American history would have advised against the idea of naming the party’s school in New York after the slave-master Thomas Jefferson. But, hey, that’s just me.

Here are Nash’s credentials, while we are at it:

Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (1974-Present); Associate Professor (1968-1974), Assistant Professor (1966-1968)

Co-chaired the National History Standards Project from 1992-1996.

Past positions include: Dean of Undergraduate and Intercollege Curricular Development; University of California, Los Angeles; President, Organization of American Historians; Dean, Council on Educational Development, University of California, Los Angeles.

Complete CV is at http://www.history.ucla.edu/people/faculty?lid=953

What you see below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of Nash’s history, most of which deals with Lord Dunmore’s raising of the Ethiopian Regiment, something far scarier than the Nat Turner revolt since it was backed by British muscle. Immediately following it is Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation of 1775. (Long live feudalism?) I encourage you to read the two in their entirety, but want to make sure that you don’t miss the last two paragraphs that substantiate Imara Jones’s point:

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

Gary B. Nash full excerpt:

A few weeks after the Second Continental Congress authorized a Continental army, white Carolinians uncovered the insurrectionary slave plot they anticipated. The leader was not a slave but a free black man. Jeremiah, a fisherman and boat pilot who knew the shallow waters of Charleston’s harbor, hoped to be the agent of deliverance for thousands of slaves. Several months earlier, he had spread the word that “there is a great war coming soon” and that the British would “come to help the poor negroes.” After arresting him, white authorities charged Jeremiah with plotting an insurrection and intending to pilot the Royal Navy over the treacherous sandbar that blocked the entrance to Charleston’s harbor. On August 18, 1775, white authorities hanged Jeremiah and burned him at the stake, despite the efforts of  William Campbell, the newly arrived royal governor, to save his life. Believing that the evidence against Jeremiah was very thin, the governor wrote home that “my blood ran cold when I read what ground they had doomed a low creature to death.” His efforts to save Jeremiah “raised such a clamor amongst the people, as is incredible,” wrote Campbell, “and they openly and loudly declared, if I granted the man a pardon they would hang him at my door.” Executions and burnings at the stake were acts of terror to keep rebellion-minded slaves intimidated. But reducing Jeremiah to ashes or cropping the ears of slaves did not hold back the waves of slave unrest in the summer of 1775.

The wave crested in late fall when Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, made official what everyone had known he intended for months. On November 7, 1775, aboard the William, anchored in Norfolk harbor, he drafted a royal proclamation declaring martial law and labeling as traitors to the king any colonist who refused “to resort to his Majesty’s standard.” The proclamation included the dreaded words: “I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

Lord Dunmore did not publish the proclamation for another week. But the timing and place of the public proclamation were poignant. On November 14, a contingent of British soldiers under Dunmore’s command, supplemented by escaped slaves, thrashed a Virginia militia unit at Kemp’s Landing, on the Elizabeth River south of Norfolk. Dunmore’s force killed several militiamen, captured both militia colonels, and put the rest of the Virginians to flight. One of the colonels, Joseph Hutchings, was captured by two of his own escaped slaves. Flush with this victory, Dunmore issued his proclamation.

Among the first to flee to Dunmore were eight of the twenty-seven slaves who toiled at the stately Williamsburg dwelling of Peyton Randolph, Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress. Hearing almost simultaneously of Randolph’s sudden death in Philadelphia and Dunmore’s Proclamation, Aggy, Billy, Eve, Sam, Lucy, George, Henry, and Peter slipped away from Randolph’s house. Eluding the slave patrols walking Williamsburg’s streets, they reached the British forces not far from town. Three weeks after Dunmore issued his proclamation, Lund Washington, manager of his cousin George’s Mount Vernon estate, warned the general that among the slaves “there is not a man of them but would leave us, if they could make their escape. . . . Liberty is sweet.”

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

Dunmore retreated to Norfolk and ventured out on December 9, 1775, with six hundred troops, half of them escaped slaves, to take on the Virginians at Great Bridge on the Elizabeth River. The Ethiopian Regiment fought “‘with the intrepidity of lions,” according to one observer; but the Americans vanquished Dunmore’s forces, convincing the governor to withdraw from Norfolk and board his contingent on ships in the harbor.20 Slaves seeking sanctuary now had to commandeer boats and slip down the rivers emptying into Chesapeake Bay in order to clamber aboard the British ships. Cruising the Chesapeake Bay on Dunmore’s ships, they went out in foraging parties to procure provisions for the British.

Escaping slaves augmented Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment day by day. But an outbreak of smallpox soon reversed these gains. Crowded together on small ships, black men and women who had tasted freedom only briefly contracted the infection rapidly. By June 1776, Dunmore admitted that the killer disease had “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially blacks.” Dunmore briefly occupied Gwynn’s Island, near the mouth of the Piankatank River, but here, too, smallpox tore through his ranks. By July, he withdrew his disease-riddled forces, sending part of them to Saint Augustine and the Bermudas and others, including three hundred of the strongest and healthiest black soldiers, northward to New York City, then to be sent south-ward a year later for a land assault through Maryland to Pennsylvania.

The dread of slave insurrection that swept South Carolina and Virginia in 1775—76 also engulfed North Carolina. Especially in the coastal towns of Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington, patrols searched slave huts for hidden weapons. In the Cape Fear region, where slavery was extensive, white officials nipped a slave insurrection in the bud just before July 8, 1775, when slave leaders, according to the Pitt County Safety Committee chairman, planned “to fall on and destroy the family where they lived, then proceed from house to house (burning as they went) until they arrived in the back country where they were to be received with open arms by a number of persons there appointed and armed by government for their protection, and as a further reward they were to be settled in a free government of their own.” “Armed by government” meant that Governor Josiah Martin, who had recently deplored the military force used by his predecessor to crush the Regulators, was the instigator of this slave insurrection. About forty slaves who had fled their plantations were found with arms and arrested. Many were whipped and had their ears severed; one was executed. Governor Martin fled to Fort Johnston, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and tried to recruit Loyalists to strengthen the small royal garrison there. Unwilling to keep this serpent in their nest, the Wilmington Committee of Safety, infuriated by the governor’s “base encouragement of slaves eloped from their masters, feeding and employing them, and his atrocious and horrid declaration that he would incite them to an insurrection,” raised a militia to attack Fort Johnston on July 17, 1775.

Destroying the fort was easy enough, since Governor Martin and his small contingent withdrew without a fight to a Royal Navy ship in the Cape Fear River. When Martin recruited immigrant Scottish Highlanders, especially those who had just arrived in North Carolina and whose land grants depended upon their willingness to uphold the king’s authority, the patriot cause became more difficult. But in a pitched battle at Moore’s Creek on March 27, 1776, the Americans routed the charging Loyalist Scots and dashed the slaves’ hopes for a British victory. However, a powerful British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the spring of 1776. This opened the door of opportunity for Cape Fear slaves once again.

One such slave, who has been forgotten in the fog of historical amnesia, was Thomas Peters. Captured in what is now Nigeria in about 1760, he had been brought to New Orleans on a French slave ship. Shortly thereafter, this Egba African of the Yoruba tribe started his own revolution in America, be-cause he had been deprived of what he considered to be his natural rights. He needed neither a written language nor constitutional treatises to convince himself of that. And no amount of harsh treatment persuaded him to accept his lot meekly. This personal rebellion was to span three decades, cover five countries, and entail three more transatlantic voyages.

Peters never adapted well to slavery. He may have been put to work in the sugarcane fields in Louisiana, where heavy labor drained life away from plantation laborers almost as fast as in the Caribbean sugar islands. Whatever his work role, he tried to escape three times from the grasp of bondage. Three times, legend has it, he paid the price of being an unsuccessful black rebel: First he was whipped severely, then branded, and finally fitted with ankle shackles. But his French master could not snuff out his yearning for freedom and seems to have eventually given up on trying to pacify the resistant slave. Sometime after 1760, he sold Peters north. By 1770, Peters was the property of William Campbell, an immigrant Scotsman who had settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River.

In all likelihood, it was in Wilmington that Peters learned his trade as millwright. Three-fifths of the slaves in the Cape Fear region worked in the production of timber products and naval stores—pine planking, turpentine, tar, and pitch. As sawyers, tar burners, stevedores, carters, and carpenters, they were essential to the regional economy’s mainstay. The details of Peters’s life in Wilmington are obscure because nobody recorded the turning points m the lives of slaves, but he appears to have found a wife and to have begun a family at this time. His wife, Sally, gave birth to a daughter in 1771. Peters may have gained a measure of autonomy because slaves in urban areas were not supervised so strictly as on plantations. Working on the docks, hauling pine trees from the forests outside town to the lumber mills, ferrying boats and rafts along the intricate waterways, and marketing various goods in the town, they achieved a degree of mobility, a knowledge of the terrain, and a taste of freedom.

Like many other slaves in the 1770s, Peters got caught up in the anticipation of what the colonial resistance movement might mean for enslaved Africans. His own master had become a leading member of Wilmington’s Sons of Liberty in 1770 and later the Committee of Safety. Peters heard much about the rhetoric of white patriots attempting to secure for themselves and dieir posterity those natural rights that they called unalienable. In a town of only about 250, it was impossible to keep anything a secret. By summer 1775, Peters was keenly aware of the rumors of British intentions to inspire a slave insurrection that would bring the cheeky white colonists to account. In that month, the town’s Committee of Safety ordered all blacks disarmed and declared martial law when they heard that Governor Martin was “collecting men, provisions, warlike stores of every kind, spiriting up the back counties and perhaps the slaves.” The visiting Janet Schaw wrote that white Carolinians in the Cape Fear region believed that the Crown had promised “every Negro that would murder his master and family that he should have his master s plantation…. The Negroes have got it amongst them and believe it to be true. Tis ten to one they may try the experiment. . . .”

When Dunmore’s Proclamation reached the ears of Thomas Peters and other slaves in Wilmington in November 1775, a buzz of excitement must surely have washed over them. But the time for self-liberation was not yet ripe, because hundreds of miles of pine barrens, swamps, and inland waterways separated Wilmington from Norfolk, where Lord Dunmore’s British forces were concentrated, and slaves knew that white patrols were on watch throughout the tidewater area from Cape Fear to the Chesapeake Bay. The opportune moment for Peters arrived four months later. On February 9, 1776, white Wilmingtonians evacuated the town as word arrived that the British sloop Cruizer was tacking up the Cape Fear River to bombard the town. A month later, four British ships arrived from Boston, including several troop transports under Sir Henry Clinton. For the next two months, the British controlled the river, plundered the countryside, and set off a wave of slave desertions. Seizing the moment, Peters and his family made their escape. Captain George Martin, an officer under Sir Henry Clinton, organized the escaped slaves from the Cape Fear region into the company of Black Pioneers, as Peters testified seven years later at the end of the war. Now, in the spring of 1776, the days of an uncertain freedom began for Peters’s family.

Regardless of the horrible death toll at the hands of smallpox, Dunmore’s Proclamation reverberated throughout the colonies and became a major factor in convincing white colonists that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Dunmore’s Proclamation, wrote South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, was more effectual in working “an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies … than any other expedient.”

Among African Americans, Dunmore remained the “African Hero,” as Richard Henry Lee, destined to be one of Washington’s generals, derisively put it. Indeed, Dunmore did seem like a biblical Moses to slaves. As far north as Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was sitting, news of the “African Hero” galvanized blacks. Encountering a white “gentlewoman” on the street, a black Philadelphian insulted her. When she reprimanded him, he shot back, “Stay you d[amne]d white bitch ’till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” “Hell itself,” wrote one Philadelphian, “could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves… . The flame runs like wild fire through the slaves.”

* * * * *

November 7, 1775

Proclamation of Lord Dunmore Offering Freedom to the Slaves Belonging to the Rebels in Virginia, November 7, 1775

“As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great Britain and this colony, without being compelled by my duty to do this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary duty, rendered so by a body of men, unlawfully assembled, firing on his majesty’s tenders, and the formation of an army, and an army now on its march to attack his majesty’s troops, and destroy the well disposed subjects of this colony. To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors, and their abettors may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law us unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my proclamation, hereby declaring that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given, by his majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as traitors to his majesty’s crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences; such as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, etc., etc. And I do hereby further declare all indented servants, negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his majesty’s troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing his colony to a proper sense of their duty to his majesty’s crown and dignity. I do further order and require all his majesty’s liege subjects, to retain their quit-rents or other taxes due, or that may become due in their own custody, till such time may again be restored to this at present most unhappy country, or demanded of them for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same.

“Given under my hand on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November in the 16th year of his majesty’s reign.

"DUNMORE,

"God save the KING."

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