Editor’s note: This is part one of a series on the Philipsburg Proclamation. Our staff are working on further research about the issuance of the proclamation and its impact on Westchester County, New York City, and the Revolutionary War itself.
By 1779, General Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of the entire British Army engaged in the struggle to put down the rebellion of the American colonies, was frustrated. He felt the Army lacked manpower and the recent entry of France into the war on the side of the rebels had exacerbated the issue. Over the last two years London had reallocated over 15,000 of his troops to the Caribbean; less than 5,000 new troops had arrived to replace them.1 Clinton had requested several times to be recalled to England and replaced, to no avail. He was expected to conquer rebellious South Carolina, take the Hudson Valley from George Washington, and harry the coast of New England all at once.2 It was enough to hamstring any commander.
Although the British had taken New York City two years earlier, the rebel forces, led by General George Washington, remained entrenched in the Hudson River Valley. Feints up the Hudson River in 1777, skirmishes through out the Westchester County “neutral zone,” and attacks on New Jersey had failed to lure Washington and his army out into the open. On June 1, 1779, the British Army had easily taken Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point. Clinton then sent a force to attack Connecticut in hopes of drawing Washington away from his Middletown, New Jersey camp in order to capture it, but his feint had failed – Washington did not rise to the bait. In frustration, on June 30, 1779, General Clinton issued a proclamation from his headquarters at Philipse Manor designed to hurt the rebel cause militarily and economically, by reducing the available labor force.
Known as the Philipsburg Proclamation, it read:
By His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, K. B. General and Commander in Chief of all this Majesty’s Forces, within the Colonies laying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to West-Florida, inclusive, &c., &c., &c.
Whereas the Enemy have adopted a practice of enrolling Negroes among their Troops; I do hereby give Notice, That all Negroes taken in Arms, or upon any military Duty, shall be purchased for a stated Price; the Money to be paid to the Captors.
But I do 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 this Army; and I do promise to every Negroe Who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full Security to follow within these Lines; any Occupation which he shall think proper.
Given under my Hand at Head-Quarters, Philipsburgh, the 30th Day of June, 1779. H. Clinton.
By his Excellency’s Command, John Smith, Secretary.
The first section targeted the Patriot use of Black men in their regiments. The American army as a whole was relatively integrated, and some enslavers sent enslaved men for militia service in their places. But some, like the Rhode Island Regiment, had promised freedom for any enslaved man who took up arms on behalf of the cause. Although this policy was later rescinded and reinstated several times over the course of the war, it resulted in several hundred men of African descent fighting as soldiers in Patriot regiments across the colonies. To prevent more enslaved men from joining the American cause in exchange for their freedom, Clinton specified that any Black rebel soldiers taken as prisoners of war could be turned in for a bounty and re-enslaved.
However, the Philipsburg Proclamation is most famous for the second paragraph, which frees any person of African descent enslaved by a Patriot who escapes to British lines. This had perhaps the largest impact on slavery in the American colonies of any of the proclamations on either side of the war.
Four years earlier, Lord Dunmore, governor of the colony of Virginia, declared in his own proclamation that any indentured servant or slave willing to bear arms in on the British side were to be free – but only if they were held by rebels. For single men, including one man enslaved by George Washington, the chance to escape to freedom was too strong to resist.3 Hundreds joined Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, whose slogan was “Liberty to Slaves.”4 But for those with families, whose wives and children would remain in bondage and subject to punishment for the escape of their husbands and fathers, Dunmore’s Proclamation was often not incentive enough. And for those outside of the colony of Virginia, or too far away to make it to Dunmore’s lines, his proclamation offered hope of freedom with the British, but little more.
Dunmore did inspire other British military brass to follow suit. Captain William Dalrymple of the Twentieth Regiment of Foot, stationed in the Chesapeake, recruited slaves, indentured servants, and even prisoners in late 1775 as a way to swell the ranks of the British Army while awaiting reinforcements from England.5 Other British military leaders followed suit, albeit on a smaller scale. Enslaved people born in the colonies in particular were viewed by British military leaders like Dalrymple as good fighters, and the British assumed that revenge against their former masters would prove nearly as potent as the promise of freedom in encouraging prowess on the battlefield.6 Replenishing their ranks with trained British soldiers was often slow going – even the fastest ships took months to cross the Atlantic. And while Loyalist militias were important local allies, they often had farms, businesses, and families to attend to. Many of those who self-emancipated to British lines had nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.
But while military service proved an important avenue to freedom, Clinton’s proclamation went a step further, writing that “every Negroe” who deserted a rebel household or the rebel forces, would automatically befreed upon escaping to British-controlled territory. This was interpreted to include women, children, and men unable to enlist as troops as well as those able to fight. It also covered all of the American colonies, not just Virginia. Whole families could escape bondage if they made it to British lines.
Clinton’s proclamation was more pragmatic than idealistic. Sir Henry knew that many of those committed to the Patriot cause relied heavily on enslaved labor – not only in their households and businesses in the north, but especially on plantations in the south producing food and other raw materials needed for the war effort. With the blockade of important ports like Boston, Newport, and New York by the British, the Americans had to rely increasingly on domestic supplies. By encouraging the enslaved to escape to freedom, commanders like Clinton were not only swelling the ranks of available labor to support the British military, including in non-combat roles, they were also shrinking the labor (and military) force available to the rebels.
Dunmore’s Proclamation freed several thousand people, but with the issuance of the Philipsburg Proclamation, which was reprinted in Loyalist newspapers throughout the colonies, as many as 100,000 enslaved people escaped to British lines.7 But while the Philipsburg Proclamation is often heralded as an avenue to freedom of thousands of people, and rightly so, it also reinforced the strictures of slavery common at the time.
Its promise of freedom did not include those enslaved by Loyalists, or Black rebel troops captured in battle. The former remained in bondage, subject to recapture and punishment if they ran away and able to be sold at a moment’s notice. Those enslaved by Loyalists near Patriot territory may have been able to pretend rebel owners or escape to Patriot lines. Patriot troops, who may have gained freedom through military service with the Patriots thanks to proclamations early in the war, were subject to re-enslavement if captured. Their captors would be paid “a stated price,” implying that the British Army itself was dealing in slaves.
The reality of escape and proving who owned who was also complicated. Even if those enslaved by Patriots made it to British lines (and vice versa), they were nearly as likely to sold into slavery for profit as they were to be freed.
After issuing the Philipsburg Proclamation in Westchester County on June 30, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton headed south to South Carolina, where he made impressive inroads. Although some South Carolina Patriots like John Laurens had tried to convince the rebel governments to free and arm slaves to swell the ranks of the otherwise sparse American troops, the economic and social strictures of slave society in the south were too strong. Laurens even made an argument that by sending slaves into military service, insurrections at home would be less likely, but his arguments ultimately failed. Charleston fell to the British, in part because Black pilots helped the British navy navigate the waters around the city. When he was captured by the British with the fall of Charleston, Laurens blamed the Patriots’ failure to use Black soldiers for the loss.8 His compatriots, deeply committed to upholding a slave society even as they fought for “freedom” from “slavery” by the British, offered Loyalist slaves as rewards or in lieu of payment to Patriot soldiers.9
Clinton was relatively unique in his fair treatment of former (and current) slaves. Although he maintained the status quo by putting down slave rebellions, allowing Loyalists to keep their slaves, and re-enslaving captured rebels, he also tried to protect those who had made it to British lines and been freed, especially the Black Pioneers, a regiment of Black soldiers he had organized.10 To that end, he instructed his successor in the south, Lord Cornwallis, to treat current and former enslaved people with more care than the commander might have otherwise used.
He instructed that those enslaved people who had left Loyalist plantations be returned only if their masters promised not to punish the runaways, and if they should anyway, “he or she shall consent to forfeit their claim to the Negro.” For those who had escaped rebel enslavement, they were “entitled to their freedom” along with pay, provision, and clothing. He even posited that after the war (which he assumed the British would win) that these former slaves be given forfeited land.11 Of course, who exactly would be policing Loyalist enslavers and ensuring rebel runaways were paid and provisioned after Clinton returned north to New York was debatable. But he had given an order and expected it to be followed.
Clinton remained in command of the British Army in North America until after the Battle of Yorktown in which his subordinate, General Cornwallis, surrendered on October 19, 1781. It was one of the last major land battles in North America. In the summer of 1782, Clinton gave up his post and returned to England, replaced by Sir Guy Carleton, who oversaw the cessation of hostilities and coordinated the evacuation of British troops in 1783. With them went thousands of Loyalists, including Black Loyalists, most of them bound for Nova Scotia. To his credit, although the Treaty of Paris specified that those who had escaped rebel enslavement were to be returned to their former owners, Carleton refused to re-enslave any of the Black Loyalists. This resulted in an in-person argument with General George Washington in May of 1783. Washington wanted the people he viewed as property returned, as the treaty had promised. Carleton refused to break the promise of the Philipsburg Proclamation and those that came before it. He oversaw the evacuation of thousands of Black Loyalists, and it is through his efforts that the Book of Negroes was recorded and survives as one of the best primary sources on Black Loyalists in the period.12
Like Carleton, Clinton continued to advocate for the plight of Loyalists in Canada, including Black Loyalists. In particular, he aided Thomas Peters, who had served in the Black Pioneers, in advocating for the fair treatment of Black Loyalists.13 Peters was trying to get the British Crown to make good on Clinton’s promise that all Loyalist troops would receive land and provisions after the war. Clinton had promised “freedom and a farm” to the Black Loyalists. But conditions in Nova Scotia were poor, even for White Loyalists, and they were worse for Black Loyalists. A third of them, including Thomas Peters, eventually emigrated to Sierra Leone.
Although the British ultimately lost the war, and slavery would continue in New York as late as the 1840s, the Philipsburg Proclamation, and other wartime efforts like it, remains one of the earliest examples of large-scale emancipation in the colonies. For the rebellious colonists, the Revolutionary War was the first - and last - time American military regiments were integrated until President Truman desegregated the military in 1948.
Stay tuned for the next installment in our series on the Philipsburg Proclamation!
 O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. Yale University Press (2013), p. 447-448.
 Gilbert, Alan. Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, University of Chicago Press (2012), p. 58.
 Walker, James W. St. G. The Black Loyalists: The Search for A Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. University of Toronto Press (1999), p. 3.
 Schama, Simon. Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves, and The American Revolution, New York: Ecco (2006), p.141-145.
 Schama, Rough Crossings, p. p. 145.
 In military terms, a “pioneer” is a soldier employed in construction or engineering tasks. The Black Pioneers were formed by Clinton after Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment was disbanded in 1776. The regiment was led by Colonel Beverly Robinson, husband of Susannah Philipse.
 Schama, Rough Crossings, p. 149.