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Dunmore’s New World by James Corbett David

James Corbett David

Reviewed by:
On May 18, 2015
Last modified:May 17, 2015


The Earl of Dunmore, aka John Murray doesn't often get a fair hearing when reading histories of the American Revolution. Author James Corbett David does much to rectify that.

Dunmore's New WorldThe Earl of Dunmore, aka John Murray doesn’t often get a fair hearing when reading histories of the American Revolution.  Author James Corbett David does much to rectify that.  Dunmore was a somewhat typical British aristocrat struggling to assure his place and secure sinecure for himself and his family.  But, perhaps sinecure isn’t quite the correct word in Dunmore’s case.  What many readers of British history, and be extension early American history fail to recognize is the mix between “place” and “responsibility.”  Frequently, members of the elite were expected to have private means to subsidize governmental positions.  While taxes may not have been directly levied, there were expectations of what a gentleman should do in the service of his country.  That service frequently included spending one’s own money to achieve governmental aims.

On the other hand, Murray certainly did seek to enrich himself through the positions he held.  From the perspective of his personal balance sheet, however, he wasn’t terribly successful.  Murray married well, and was later able to benefit from the patronage of his wife’s sister’s family.  This was a remarkably good thing for Murray considering that his father had been a Jacobite supporter of Bonnie Prince Charles.  When his uncle, the third earl of Dunmore died without heirs, Murray became the fourth.  It was a title with little in the way of income, however.

His wife, Lady Dunmore, lobbied tirelessly on his behalf and was eventually able to have Dunmore appointed to the governorship of New York.

Aside from mentioning Dunmore’s burgeoning family, three daughters and four sons, the author does not speculate on the “interior life” of his subject.  One only gets a sense of who Dunmore was by the actions he took. From those actions, David paints a picture of a man seeking to provide for his family by acquiring a sizable estate and land holdings, a man driven to expunge the stain on his family that his father had placed upon it, and finally, a man bent on pursuing the interests of his government as forcefully as he could.

These three motivations were admittedly blurred and alternated in priority.

In New York, Dunmore obtained the rights to substantial tracts of land by using his office and the emoluments thereof.  However, he was by no means unique in this regard.  One of the ways that royal governors were able to exercise power was through the ability to dispense land grants.  A percentage of the fees obtained from such grants were due to the governor and helped make up his salary.  A grant was not necessarily gratis.  Much to Dunmore’s chagrin, his majesty’s government saw fit to transfer him to Virginia, rendering his lands inaccessible and remote.


After failing to get the government to reconsider his transfer, and dawdling as long as possible, Dunmore finally went to Virginia.

To his credit, he did his best to further the interests of the crown, harnessing his own ambitions with those of his constituents.  While in Virginia, Dunmore had to deal with a variety of thinly veiled demands and expectations.  The colonists professed admiration for the crown, but made it contingent upon having their expectations met.  Dunmore found himself in a quandary as to how deal with rampant counterfeiting, even when the perpetrators were apprehended. But,  in David’s account, Dunmore navigated the political waters of colonial Virginia fairly well in the early 1770’s and did his best to fight for the rights of Virginia land speculators in a dispute with Pennsylvania over lands to which both colonies laid claim.  He successfully prosecuted Virginia interests in what became known as Dunmore’s War.

At this point in the book, Arthur St. Clair made an appearance. It was an interesting connection for this reviewer, having read about St. Clair in another book, The Battle of Hubbardton, reviewed here. But Lord Dunmore’s War took place in 1774. In this dispute, St. Clair, not yet an American general, was still at odds with British power, this time in the form of Dunmore’s Virginia militia.  At one point St. Clair issued an order for the arrest of the officer leading the Virginia troops.

Dunmore’s successful resolution of the conflict brought brief acclaim, both by the British government, the Virginia speculators. But it wasn’t to last, things were heating up in Virginia, and the colonists soon decided they had bigger fish to fry.

When the situation became untenable for loyalist in Virginia, Dunmore and large numbers of Tories were forced to flee, taking refuge in a “floating city” of British ships moored within in a succession of harbors in the Chesapeake Bay.

It was during this time when Dunmore issued his famous emancipation proclamation, offering freedom to any slaves who could join his flotilla.  This action was done on his own recognizance and raised eyebrows in Whitehall, but was tacitly approved of.  It earned Dunmore some respect for his vigorous actions by those in government, as well as the hatred of the Virginia slaveholders.

Dunmore was a product of his times.  He saw no contradiction between holding slaves himself, and emancipating those held by others.  In his view, it was about depriving the enemy of property and manpower, while simultaneously augmenting British forces.  David makes the point that slavery was a fact of life and had very little to do with race.  Dunmore even went so far as to arm the ex-slaves and attempt to turn them into soldiers.  Indentured servants also benefited by Dunmore’s actions.  Later, when governor of Bahama, Dunmore dealt with Indian slaves as well.  As David illustrates, in Dunmore’s world, slavery was thing in and of itself, and not necessarily contingent upon race.

Dunmore stayed in his floating city far longer than the government expect him to do, working tirelessly, trying to find any avenues for recouping his position, and the interests of the crown.  Even after returning to England, Dunmore didn’t give up on his plans and schemes.  He was en route back to Virginia when the news of Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown reached him. The jig was up.  He headed back to England.

There he became an advocate for loyalists seeking compensation for their losses.  He was instrumental in vouching for numerous displaced Tories petitioning for payment.  His own claims were viewed as unseemly and improper – a public servant in his position was assumed to be of sufficient means to absorb such difficulties. The fact that he had continued to draw his salary for some time after he was forced out of Virginia was deemed sufficient and more than fair.  The author points out that it probably was.  Most of the loyalist claimants only received a fraction of the amount asked for.

Dunmore was next appointed to be the Royal Governor of Bahama.  He would not see his wife and most of his children for another ten years.  Bahama was home to many displaced loyalists and emancipated slaves.  There was a significant amount of turbulence between the original inhabitants and the American ex-patriots.   David explains that Dunmore was thrust in the midst of a complicated political mess and managed the situation remarkably well.  Some of the very slaves Dunmore had emancipated were among his new subjects. Unfortunately, many of these were placed in bondage once more, but others managed to retain their freedom.   Dunmore did try to protect the interests of a sizable number of those who had been granted liberty. Some of these people lived in an area located behind the “government house” and received some measure of protection.

Despite his Bahama posting, Dunmore never gave up on trying to reclaim a British foothold on the American continent and outfitted several expeditions to Florida, conspiring with Indian factions there.  Ultimately, his efforts were for naught, but he didn’t stop trying.

This was one of the primary themes highlighted in the book, and it pertained to both Dunmore and the British government.

In most histories of the American Revolution, the loyalists are a principled but inert group, slow to respond to the world-changing events around them and meek in the response.  The historian Wallace Brown put it this way: “Too many loyalists simply gaped in astonishment as the Revolution ran its course, as if the sun had suddenly started to rise in the west and set in the east. Even when finally roused, they did not act boldly or decisively; they lacked the quality attributed by the Reverend Charles Inglis to Tom Paine –‘that daring, decided spirit which seldom fails.'” Reduced finally to despair, they could only ope that their reward would come “in a future life.”  Dunmore’s story should put this interpretation to rest.  The loyalists in his orbit responded to the rebellion in bold and imaginative, if not always admirable, ways.  Dunmore himself freed slaves and armed them against other Britons. He issued military commissions to some Native Americans while enslaving others.  He build unauthorized fortifications at great public expense. He helped to stage filibusters against Spain and its British partners (who happened to be fellow Scots loyalists).  That someone with Jacobite roots could do all of this and more without compromising his allegiance to the king is a testament to the elasticity of loyalty in the British Empire.  Although unsuccessful, Dunmore and his associates were undeniably dynamic.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, David does not spend much time guessing at the character of Dunmore’s internal life.  This book is not a biography in the sense of one whose sole focus is on the principal character.  It is not about the particular viewpoint of Dunmore, but rather about the connections and events surrounding his life.

No matter how extraordinary their personalities or circumstances, individuals are contact points.  To follow a name through the historical record is to encounter a prolific array of people, places, and ideas.  Dunmore’s story involves slaves, free blacks, indentured servants, poor white fishermen, frontiersmen, land speculators, Scots merchants, patriots, loyalists, princes, kings, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, Shawnees, Delawares, Cherokees, Creeks, and host of others.  He even had a vibrant symbolic life in print, with American propagandists depicting him crossing the racial and sexual boundaries within which they struggled to define the inchoate political community called “America.”  Rather than isolating and analyzing the experiences of all these groups, I have tried to treat Dunmore as the epicenter of a web of interrelations.  This strategy was dictated, in part, by available source material, for while Dunmore left an emphatic public imprint, very little of his personal correspondence survives. In many places, I have attempted to evoke the richness of the worlds he inhabited rather than speculate about his interior life.

In this, the author was successful.  Without personal correspondence of the sort left by John and Abigail Adams, it would be nearly impossible to get inside of Dunmore’s head.  And, Dunmore, while accomplished, was a human being who deserves to be looked at, not as a villain or hero, but as an interesting character who occupied and interesting place at the epicenter of New York, Virginian and Bahamian political life at various points in time.  David’s book provides a window into the world inhabited by Dunmore, not the world as seen through his eyes, but rather a world in which all the participants interacted with him.


1 Ann Herzer { 05.18.15 at 3:46 pm }

Dunmore/John Murrray looks as thought he is wearing the Scottish plad in this picture. History of the Rev. War always interest me.

I’m going to Mecklenburg Co., NC and present the Stewart/Stuart Genealogy July 25th. The Clan is gathering once again after 85 years to honor our forefather Capt. Matthew Stewart who has a 18 foot memorial at the CP Church Cem. in Mint Hill, NC. He was b in Scotland in 1720 and settled in NC as early as 1747. He and at least two or more of his sons served in the Rev. War. I descend through his son William who was wounded in the Battle of Camden and left for dead. I have eight documented Patriots that I’m very proud of. I found one on the muster roll at Valley Forge in Jan. 1778. He was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and left behind with the other wounded as Washington made his escape by marching all night. Six of my Patriots finally made their way to Livingston Co., KY.

Thomas Jefferson’s youngest sister, Lucy Jefferson Lewis, is buried near where I was born. A bridge is named in her honor. A tragic story is connected to two of her sons. I found it in the court records as I was doing research. Matthew Stewart’s grandson, Dr. Josiah Stewart was a witness to on of the Lewis boys wedding bond. Small world!

George Washington owned around 6,000 acres of land in western KY , then VA. While at Falley Forge, he told Martha that if he lost the war to take the “family” and escape to the western country. I found the acerage while doing family research.

Thank you for writing about the Rev. War and especially things I have never read.


2 martin { 05.18.15 at 8:27 pm }

Thanks Ann,

My grandparents all came from somewhere else! Sounds like an interesting trip. I’m glad you enjoy some of the more obscure stuff we scare up.


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