The freedom lawsuit of a mixed-race woman named Elizabeth Key in 1655 brought before a colonial court drove Virginia’s House of Burgesses, its legislative assembly to purport to enact a law that authorized slavery in the 1660s. History supports, Key relied upon England’s common law principal of partus sequitur patrem to substantiate her legal status and condition of being a freeborn English subject under English law. The colonial court’s verdict in favor of this Afro-Englishwoman and failure of any higher court to overturn the decision caused Virginia’s House of Burgesses to pass the hereditary slave law of partus sequitur ventrem in 1662. This colonial statute purported to establish a matrilineal descent system for enslaved black women. However, at no time was Virginia’s hereditary slave statute of 1662 “positive law” because (1) only England’s Parliament held plenary authority to enact positive law to approve slavery within the British Empire; (2) Virginia’s House of Burgesses did not have plenary authority to enact a hereditary slave statute in 1662 and (3) Virginia’s House of Burgesses did not secure the King’s assent with respect to its hereditary slave law in 1662. Further, Virginia’s colonial slave statutes became void once the Court of the King’s Bench ruled in the Somerset case in June 1772… slavery was not “allowed and approved by the laws of this Kingdom” and that “[T]he state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political: it must take its rise from positive law.” Slavery became a criminal act within the North American colonies in 1772.
Doubtlessly, the Somerset Decision rendered all colonial statutes and slave practices void ab initio… returned all slaves to their legal status and condition pre-colonial slave statutes and unconstitutional in 1772, as a matter of English law. Further, as the Somerset Decision was self-executing… slavery within the North American colonies became a crime under English law. However, England’s Prime Minister Lord North feared destabilization of the North American colonies and he prevented his colonial governors from enforcing the Somerset Decision. Lord North’s policy and actions forestalled physical freedom for enslaved Afro-Englishmen, women, and children. He concurrently, while he advanced a directive to colonial governors to not enforce or recognize the Somerset Decision… he was urging slaveholding colonials to stay the course. However, these slaveholding colonials were unwilling to stay the course. These learned men knew slavery in colonial America had been exposed as being criminal… staying the course placed them in direct legal jeopardy. They knew that claiming ignorance of the law or relying upon representations of corrupt British lawgivers would prove to be a feckless defense for them breaking the law. The slaveholding colonials had little faith, trust, or confidence in Lord North’s plan or the British government. They secretly initiated back channeled communications… had dealings with leadership in other colonies and they formed a Congress. These men were fully aware of the risk they faced if their activities were discovered or exposed to the British. Thus, it was foreseeable… when amicable relations between Lord North and slaveholding colonials came to a tumultuous halt in late 1774… once King George III, Lord North and others British officials discovered the slaveholding colonials secreted involvement and financing of rebel and anti-British activities in the northern colonies. Slaveholding colonists within the North American colonies braced for a response… and did contemplate chaos, civil unrest, and wide-spread slave rebellions at the hands of the British; fears were heightened.
In 1712, a violent African slave insurrection in the colony of New York. It was called the New York Slave Revolt of 1712 and it caused England’s North American colonies to suspend the importation of Africans and in an unprecedented action, southern colonies came to devote and expand chattel slavery. The colonies of Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland for its slave pool came to rely nearly exclusively upon chattel slaves. This accounted for the dramatic rise in the natural-born black population within these southern colonies, as by the year 1772… ninety-per cent of all slaves in Virginia were colonial-born. Also, breeding colonial-born blacks to be slaves caused their population to exceed the white population and in some regions of the southern colonies by two-to-one. In addition, by the 1770s… a “free-negro” by the name of Crispus Attucks held a revered status, as a martyr to the cause of independence from the British. Attucks… a black Englishman was the first to die during the Boston Massacre of 1770. The Boston Massacre marked the turning point in relations between the British and her northern colonies within North America. Many northern patriots linked the death of Attucks and oppression of Afro-Englishmen to the patriots’ own oppressed condition under British rule.
Tensions between the British and the North American colonies erupted into armed conflict on the night of April 18, 1775. That night… hundreds of British troops marched from Boston to nearby Concord, Massachusetts… in order to seize an arms cache. Paul Revere and other riders sounded the alarm, and colonial militiamen began mobilizing to intercept British Redcoats. The following day, April 19th local militiamen clashed with British soldiers in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, marking the start of the Revolutionary War. And the following day, April 20th in Williamsburg, Virginia… Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia sought to secure all the gunpowder at Williamsburg’s magazines, by ordering Lieutenant Henry Colins to remove the gunpowder. The military officer removed fifteen half barrels and as directed… he transported it to a warship.
Subsequently, Lord Dunmore was confronted by an outraged citizenry… who believed he had acted in order to expose them to the mercy of slaves and native Americans. Having been governor of New York before taking his post in Virginia… Lord Dunmore knew the fears colonists held with respect to slave rebellions. Yet, Lord Dunmore did threaten the citizenry with a slave rebellion and improvidently inflame passions by announcing… that any retaliation would cause him to free Virginia’s slaves and arm his own slaves and others who joined them. Lord Dunmore thought that the notion of armed former slaves running throughout Virginia made the concession of a few barrels of gunpowder much less upsetting to the colonists. However, the slaveholding colonists in Virginia held some 180,000 people enslaved and having anticipated belated enforcement of the Somerset Decision sooner or later by the British… he was terribly wrong. Lord Dunmore’s suggestion of such a thing turned out to be a gross miscalculation on his part.
On May 3, 1775… the Hanover militia led by Patrick Henry arrived outside of Williamsburg. This caused Lord Dunmore to abandon the Governor’s Palace for his hunting lodge in Porto Bello in nearby York County. Lord Dunmore then issued a proclamation on May 6th against “a certain Patrick Henry […] and a Number of deluded Followers” who had organized “an Independent Company… and put themselves in a Posture of War”. Subsequently, members of Virginia’s militia laid siege to Lord Dunmore’s hunting lodge and he was wounded in the leg, forcing him to flee and take refuge aboard the man-of-war Fowey at Yorktown. Once aboard, Lord Dunmore began to assemble a squadron to strike back at rebellious Virginians, welcoming any runaways that were able to make their way across to his fleet. Slave masters in response engaged Tidewater slave patrols and heighten punishment directed towards runaways.
The enslaved Afro-Englishmen understood that the terrible risks involved in running away had never been greater… yet still they went. About 500 reached Lord Dunmore’s fleet by November 1775. Then on November 7, 1775, following King George III’s directive Lord Dunmore freed Afro-Englishmen and others within the North American colonies, and he did so, by proclamation… exercising executive authority under English law. This was exactly the kind of “tampering with the slaves” that James Madison had most feared. “To say the truth,” he stated to a friend, “that is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable… we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.” King George III knew that secret, as Lord Dunmore’s proclamation was the first iteration of England’s Southern Strategy. This initiative was planned and envisioned by King George III’s ministers to quell the rebellion and to cripple the southern colonies’ economies; thereby weaken and splinter the coalition of North American colonies.
Under English law, Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation was a letter of patent and it had the legal effect and consequence of being a colonial American-wide writ of clemency and liberation. Under English law… Lord Dunmore’s executive proclamation liberated everyone suffering as slaves under English law on the 7th of November 1775 within colonial North America. Colonial America’s enslaved population were conferred their liberty. They were returned to status quo ante and the legal consequence was that it rendered all trappings of legal ownership of black colonists and others void ab initio, by operation of English law. And it did so… eight months before the Declaration of Independence of July 1776. Within a month 300 Afro-Englishmen had signed up with Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment. While Dunmore’s proclamation of liberation inspired thousands of enslaved people to seek freedom behind British lines throughout the Revolutionary War.
Dubbed England’s Southern Strategy… Lord Dunmore’s executive proclamation in November 1775 freed enslaved Afro-Englishmen and all people suffering in a state of involuntary servitude within the North American colonies. Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of liberation was conclusive as he had plenary authority to free enslaved Afro-Englishmen and all kidnapped Africans under English law. Afro-Englishmen and kidnapped Africans were unlawfully suffering as slaves. The status and conditions of slave and slave master were unlawful within the North American colonies. Thus, all trappings, interest, and claims of ownership of black people were nullified and rendered void under English law. This was eight months before slaveholding Patriots declared themselves independence of British Rule in July 1776.