The Philipsburg Proclamation (June 30, 1779)

The year 1779 is often overlooked by historians of the American Revolution because the war seemed to have been put on hold. But while there were few noteworthy battles in America in that year, the conflict continued to reshape lives on both sides of the Atlantic. That can be clearly seen in Sir Henry Clinton's issuance, on June 30, 1779, of what has come to be known as the Philipsburg Proclamation — a document that freed thousands of enslaved African Americans. Clinton was George Washington's British counterpart as the "General and Commander in Chief of all his Majesty's Forces" in North America and, in 1779, was looking for any way to increase his army's advantage before embarking on a campaign to win the war by invading the southern states. One way of doing that would be to weaken his patriot enemies by attacking the main supply of labor for their plantations and an important one for their military: slaves.

John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, Virginia's last royal governor, attempted to do the same thing in November 1775 when he issued a proclamation that granted freedom to any rebel-owned slave who would take up arms for the King. Clinton's carefully worded proclamation went much further. Although not once mentioning the word "slave," Clinton "most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim Right over any NEGROE, the property of a Rebel, who may take Refuge with any part" of the British army. Furthermore, he promised "to every NEGROE Who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full Security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper." In other words, once a slave reached British lines anywhere in North America, his or her status as property ended; no one could claim that he or she belonged to someone else. Also, former slaves did not have to fight in the army to gain freedom; they could do whatever they chose to do. And as British commander-in-chief in America, Clinton's order applied to the entire country as official policy.

Of course, the proclamation also included a counterpoint to undermine the patriots' use of slaves to support their armies and therefore encouraged — if not demanded — that slaves make a choice between staying with their masters and joining the British. It threatened that "any NEGROES taken in Arms or upon any military Duty, shall be purchased for a stated price" and then sold, perhaps to the West Indies or some other such place where conditions for slaves were much worse than they were in America.

First published in loyalist printer James Rivington's New York Gazette of July 21, 1779, news of the proclamation — subsequently named for Philipsburg Manor in what's now Sleepy Hollow, New York, where Clinton had his headquarters — quickly spread through the colonies. When British troops captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780, thousands of slaves joined them. The same pattern was replicated in Virginia in 1781, where thousands more joined the British armies and naval warships that were freely operating on its land and rivers. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lost slaves to Clinton's strategy as British commanders such as Charles Cornwallis upheld its provisions. In August 1781, Cornwallis reported to Virginia governor Thomas Nelson that "great numbers" of blacks "have come to us from different parts of the country" and reiterated that they were therefore no longer the property of anyone else. Any Virginian, Cornwallis told Nelson, was free "to search the [British] camp for his Negroes" but could only leave "if they are willing to go with him." They also proved a burden, however, as Cornwallis found it increasingly difficult to feed them or to treat the smallpox that ravaged their ranks. In the end, Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 returned many of the former slaves into bondage as a condition of his capitulation.

At the end of the war, the terms of the Philipsburg Proclamation were continued as official British policy. In 1783, as peace talks neared their conclusion, Sir Guy Carleton, Clinton's successor as commander-in-chief, established, with the full support of the British government in London, the policy that all former slaves who reached the British lines before November 30, 1782 (when an initial peace agreement was signed) were free and therefore could not be considered as property under the terms of any peace treaty. Carleton restated the policy directly to George Washington in a meeting on May 6, 1783, telling the Virginia plantation owner that he had no intention of returning any black who had gained freedom behind British lines and, in fact, was already in the process of evacuating them to "Nova Scotia or wherever else he [or she] may think proper." Almost 4,000 former slaves left New York with the British in 1783. Furthermore, loyalists could not claim any compensation for slaves as property left behind or seized by patriots.

While the Philipsburg Proclamation might not have been issued by Clinton with an altruistic eye towards ending slavery, the effect of its terms was undeniable. It offered slaves a credible choice between the aspirational language of American liberty and the practical policy of British freedom. It should come as no surprise that thousands of enslaved peoples found in the Philipsburg Proclamation their own declaration of independence.

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