British Commander-in-Chief, General Henry Clinton issued The Phillipsburg Proclamation on June 30, 1779… an iteration of England’s Southern Strategy of 1775. The proclamation declared liberty and subjecthood for all enslaved Afro-Englishmen and Africans within England’s North American colonies. Patents of liberty and subjecthood by England’s military leaders, supported by the British government were authorized by English law. The main rationale behind The Phillipsburg Proclamation was to further stimulate mass desertion of Afro-Englishmen and other enslaved people within the North American colonies. From the British point of view… Clinton was encouraging enslaved people within His Majesty’s realm… the North American colonies to come over to the British. He promised them liberty, subjecthood and gainful employment… by allowing them to pursue “any occupation which he think proper”. The Proclamation applied to everyone, including children and it was estimated that 100,000 enslaved Afro-Englishmen and Africans deserted to the British. Clinton was certain that this unconditional and unambiguous proclamation of liberation of all enslaved people within colonial North America would turn the lagging war effort around… if countless slaves fled captivity and their masters. The British knew that this would strike a strong blow at the plantation economy and force southern Patriots to use their men guarding slaves, rather than fighting His Majesty’s armed forces. Clinton’s Phillipsburg Proclamation granted subjecthood and liberation to all 500,000 Afro-Englishmen and other enslaved people within colonial North America during colonial times.
Then by late fall of 1779, with a massive British invasion eminent… defense of the colonies fell upon their militias. In practice, all white men (except Irishmen) between the ages of 16 and 60 were responsible for militia duty, but by this time, the willingness to respond to the call to arms had waned, leaving the colony itself vulnerable. Many Patriots claimed the protracted war took them away from their fields and families, creating severe financial hardships. For example, Virginia’s legislature was swamped with remonstrance and petitions that complained of the burdens the war was placing upon common farmers. Many other petitions charged America’s elite with armchair patriotism, evidenced by their reluctance to take the field of battle and that the wealthy were not bearing an equal responsibility in the war effort. The Continental Army faced manpower issues and in knowing that less wealthy colonists saw this revolution against England as a rich man’s war, Patriot General Thomas Sumter promised a bonus for ten months of military service… “one grown negro” for recruits and “three large and one small negro” for officers enlisting in the Continental Army. Revolutionary War-era blacks found themselves commodified, even more than in peacetime, as promising slaves for military service became endemic within the thirteen colonies, now the United States of America.
Further, adding to Patriots’ problems… by January 1781, with the supply system crumbling and a devalued Colonial paper dollar, which served to pay colonial soldiers, a large-scaled mutiny erupted. Without doubt… this military uprising framed the wartime mobilization challenge faced by the United States, as being economics and money. The United States was teetering on bankruptcy and collapse by early 1782, as the treasury was empty and France… the major ally had withdrawn her army and navy. Possible anarchy seemed likely, as the United States sued for peace choosing Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens as Peace Commissioners to negotiate agreeable terms and conditions in Paris. But Jefferson did not leave the United States in time to take part in the negotiations, but his presence was felt… as the other members soon recognized that the legal state and standing of Afro-Englishmen and other enslaved persons freed by England under English law was a major hurdle to finalizing a peace treaty.
The British were insisting on honoring English law and proclamations of liberty and subjecthood for enslaved blacks by its military. England’s Southern Strategy… where Lord Dunmore and General Clinton granted liberty to enslaved people within North American colonies were quite worrisome. Additionally, the Somerset Decision of 1772… since the High court ruled slavery was not “allowed or approved by the laws of this Kingdom”. This Somerset Decision issued four years before the Declaration of Independence had the legal effect of rendering all colonial slave statutes void. Also, as the Congress adopted English law in July 1776 after the Declaration of Independence… this Somerset Decision was extremely vexing and problematic, as slavery and the exploitation of Revolutionary War-era blacks (already enslaved since the decision) figured prominently into a post-war U. S. economy… once a treaty was ratified. These things made negotiating terms for peace very difficult for the United States… but preliminary articles of peace terms were finally agreed to on November 30, 1782. The sides agreed to cease all “hostilities” and guaranteed the release of all prisoners once a final treaty was ratified. There were major economic implications to releasing prisoners for the United States… as the American Revolution was a civil war, not a war between two different nations and all Afro-Englishmen and others enslaved Africans were British subjects by birth within colonial America or by a British letter of patent under English law. Releasing prisoners had become an accepted practice during the 17th century, establishing the international tradition that prisoners would be released without ransom and allowed to return to their homeland.
History supports that when news of a preliminary peace treaty with England was known, America’s founding generation began kidnapping Afro-Englishmen off public streets, in their homes and placed them in slavery. The kidnappings were widespread and organized and the activity within the United States violated the cessation of hostility truce between England and the United States. An Afro-Englishman loyalist named Boston King summarized the times thusly:
“… the horrors and devastation of war happily terminated and peace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties except us, who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New York, that all the slaves, in number 2,000 were to be delivered up to their masters altho’ some of them had been three or four years among the English. This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New York, or even dragging them out of their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us.”
Reacting to these events…. in May of 1783, British Commander-in-Chief, General Guy Carleton lodged a formal complaint, labelling America’s actions as being renewed “hostilities”. General Carleton then had occasion to restate his complaint to a United States delegation led by General George Washington that all Afro-Englishmen and others freed by his predecessors were subjects of King George III and under the protection of the treaty. Washington disagreed, claiming all former slaves were “property” of American citizens based upon “colonial statutes” and in being property… he requested their surrender, control, and custody. General Carleton refused Washington’s request… and he told him that by English law, all such people were the King’s subjects and under his protection. Further, “slave” was not a legal status or condition under English law during colonial times. He then went on to explain to Washington and the delegation that it would be a breach of his duty and faith to not honor England’s promises made by his predecessor General Henry Clinton or to ignore English law conferring subjecthood onto certain African born people. General Carleton announced a plan to remove all Afro-Englishmen and others enslaved people from the United States by British ships when he leaves in the fall of 1783.
Washington and the delegation appeared flummoxed… but General Carleton stated that if removing Afro-Englishmen and others proved to be a violation of the treaty, applying English law then compensation would be paid by the British government. To provide for potential legal action and redress, both he and the United States could generate a registry called Book of Negroes, listing their names, ages, and occupations, along with the names of their former masters, so that “the owners might eventually be paid for the slaves who were not entitled to their freedom by British proclamation and promises”. General Carleton then adjourned the meeting, deciding that nothing could be settled by or between the parties. However, through detention, coercion and trickery, the United States thwarted a mass exodus of Afro-Englishmen and other enslaved people to British ships. Thus… on November 28, 1783, when the British left America only 3,000 black people were able to be transported for resettlement in Nova Scotia, the Caribbean and England. The detained 500,000 black people in the United States were made the bedrock of its slave-based economy.
The Somerset Decision ruled slavery was not allowed or approved by the laws of this Kingdom and can only be legal by “positive law”. The First Congress adopted English law in July 1776 after the Declaration of Independence and rejected Thomas Jefferson’s bill to formally sever legal ties with English jurisprudence. Did British General Carlton illegally remove 3,000 black slaves from the United States in November 1783 or did the United States illegally refuse to release 500,000 British subjects in violation of the Treaty of Paris of 1783? The legal disputes, unresolved issues, and potential academic discourse and inquiry turns upon English law during colonial times. General Washington’s claim of controlling “colonial statutes” with respect to ownership of Revolutionary War-era blacks frames any legal dispute, historical question, or academic inquiry. England’s common-law prohibition against slavery of British soil—operative in 1619… North American colonial assemblies not having plenary power to enact “positive law” and being bound to England common law and English law during colonial times are dispositive