On this date in June 1775, 24-year-old James Madison gave voice to the great fear of many free Virginians: that the pernicious institution of slavery would some day, in some way, be their undoing. That day seemed, at least to Madison in far off Orange County, to be at hand with the collapse of the royal government in Williamsburg and rumors that the governor, Lord Dunmore, was intent on arming the slaves against their masters. Enslaved men and women, after all, made up more than a third of the population across the colony, and were a distinct majority in some places, like the Tidewater. The fear of slaves with guns was the subtext of the “Gunpowder Incident” in Williamsburg in April, when sailors under Dunmore’s command seized 15 half-barrels of powder from the local magazine. The town rose up against him claiming that they needed the powder to defend themselves against rumored slave insurrections, while Dunmore countered–at least publicly–with the same claim, that he needed to secure the powder to keep it from falling into the hands of slaves. In the immediate aftermath of the face-off between the governor and the town, Dunmore fed the flames of fear by threatening to “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes” if even a hint of powder was fired at him or his officers.
Enslaved men and women, too, heard the whispers and appeared at the Governor’s Palace, only to be turned away with the news that Dunmore and his family had fled to a warship anchored off Yorktown. As if to punctuate the matter, two Norfolk slaves were executed for participating in a conspiracy to raise an insurrection there. Dunmore would eventually fulfill his promise, with his famous proclamation issued in November. But for the time being, both free and enslaved Virginians would grow increasingly aware of “the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable.”
“It is imagined our Governor has been tampering with the Slaves & that he has it in contemplation to make great Use of them in case of a civil war in this province. To say the truth, that is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable; & if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret. But we have a good cause & great Courage which are a great support.”