Dunmore’s New World: The Extraordinary Life of a Royal Governor in Revolutionary America—with Jacobites, Counterfeiters, Land Schemes, Shipwrecks, Scalping, Indian Politics, Runaway Slaves, and Two Illegal Royal Weddings by James Corbett David (review)
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John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, Loyalists

Dunmore’s New World: The Extraordinary Life of a Royal Governor in Revolutionary America—with Jacobites, Counterfeiters, Land Schemes, Shipwrecks, Scalping, Indian Politics, Runaway Slaves, and Two Illegal Royal Weddings. By James Corbett David. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. Pp. 270. Cloth, $29.95.)

Dunmore’s New World is less a book about John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, than it is about the incongruities and weaknesses of British rule in North America. Author James Corbett David attempts to give Dunmore a starring role in his “new world,” but the Scottish lord instead becomes a minor actor due to a paucity of primary sources, his own eccentricities and imperious behavior, and—eventually—the changing priorities of foreign policy planners in London. In the absence of a protagonist, the author’s stories of Indians, slaves, backwoodsmen, and hosts of adventurers cannot sustain his overall view of Dunmore and similar-minded Loyalists.

Throughout the book, one expects Dunmore to take center stage at any moment. Despite his father’s Jacobite attachments, his uncle remained loyal to George II, and young Dunmore received a commission in the British army through his uncle’s influence. Unlike the experiences of his relatives, however, “[w]hether from his attainted parentage, his limitations as an officer, or other forces outside his control” Dunmore’s service in the army failed to secure advancement, and he left the army “in a state of profound frustration” (15). In February 1759, his fortunes improved when he married Charlotte Stewart, the daughter of Alexander [End Page 481] Stewart, 6th Earl of Galloway. Although Lady Dunmore’s “birth exceeded her fortune,” her sister’s marriage in 1768 to Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl of Gower and president of the Privy Council, facilitated Dunmore’s appointment as governor of New York the following year (16). Through this appointment, along with the governorship of Virginia and—after the American Revolution—the Bahamas, Dunmore hoped to secure the landed wealth that his family lacked in Scotland, but he proved to be “high-handed, headstrong, and occasionally unscrupulous in his quest for fortune” (4; see also 38, 44, 56, 63, 69, 85, and 163–64).

Historians have long chronicled the difficult position royal governors faced when trying to assert British imperial presence in the American colonies. Dunmore’s behavior in all of his appointments further complicated the situation, leading the author to concede that the Scot’s personality made him “not especially well-suited to the role of governor” due to the fact that he was “ambitious, loyal, adventurous, and supremely impractical,” not to mention his penchant—chronicled by his associates—for drunkenness and womanizing (21, 24). Even his three most notable initiatives—his war against the Shawnees; his proclamation offering freedom to servants and slaves in Virginia who would fight for the king; and his fortifications in Nassau harbor—contain their full measure of conflicting motives and questionable outcomes.

Despite the author’s assertion that “Dunmore’s War” was widely praised on both sides of the Atlantic, it resulted less from Dunmore’s efforts than from conflicting colonial land claims beyond the Ohio River and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) brokered by Sir William Johnson. The author characterizes Dunmore’s Proclamation as “unique” and “br[eaking] new ground,” but he also concedes that Dunmore was hardly antislavery; when Dunmore became governor of Virginia, he “embraced the institution [of slavery] with new vigor,” and as late as January 1789, he “purchased nine slaves . . . in the very section of Abaco where he had sent twenty-nine runaways back to slavery the previous year” (2, 107, 44, 154). Finally, Dunmore’s re-building of Fort Nassau and his construction of two other forts in the harbor—all without imperial sanction—testify less to “his considerable skill in the game of imperial politics and the force of his will to make a mark in the world” than to creating “monuments to the futility of metropolitan authority in America” (159).

Although the author chose to add “A Note on Method” at the end of the book, readers who begin with it will...


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