A Cock and Bull for Kitty: Lord Dunmore and the Affair that Ruined the British Cause in Virginia

Excerpts from the Preface by James Horn

Poor Lord Dunmore, frustrated by British ministers who failed to grasp the seriousness of the threat to his authority and despised by American patriots who viewed him as little more than a perfidious Scot, Dunmore is remembered today chiefly as the last royal governor of Virginia whose inept government helped push the colony into open rebellion. Was he simply unlucky to be appointed when relations between America and Great Britain were rapidly deteriorating? Or was he the author of his own misfortunes by his consistent failure to exercise discretion in both his personal and public life at a time when the fate of the British Empire in America hung in the balance?. . .

In this sparkling and wonderfully-crafted essay, George Morrow turns the spotlight on one important example of Dunmore’s tortuous relationship with Virginia: his involvement in the court proceedings of Blair v. Blair. Much to Dunmore’s annoyance, not long after settling into his position in New York he had been appointed to the governorship of Virginia to replace the highly popular Lord Botetourt, but dragged his feet and did not arrive in Williamsburg until September 1771. Under Morrow’s close reading, the new governor is revealed as a man of simple affections, loyal to his friends, who enjoyed good company and wine. For all the trappings of royal office he remained at heart a bluff, military man, most at ease with other military men, such as George Washington, with whom he often went riding, dined, and went to the theater. He disliked duplicity, although not above it himself, and detested those who he believed had abused his trust. Quick of temper, he was frequently incapable of restraining his passions, which gave the impression of an arrogant and overbearing temperament. There was little subtlety about Lord Dunmore in his political dealings. . .

Kitty Eustace Blair, the governor’s mistress, offers a perfect counterpoint, and Morrow does a wonderful job in uncovering this remarkable woman, who is virtually unknown to us. She was not the wife of a famous patriot and left no corpus of literature or letters, only faint echoes of her vivacious character and finely-tuned mind. In her marriage to the young Dr. James Blair and the subsequent scandal that blighted her first few years in Williamsburg, it is all too easy to dismiss her as a scheming gold digger, intent on securing a valuable annuity from her hapless husband. But what comes through forcefully, in Morrow’s treatment, is her strong sense of rectitude and adroitness in handling the challenges she (and other women) faced in the male- dominated society of the eighteenth century. She was an expert in sexual politics, using her charm, intelligence, and wit to overcome her severest critics. Everyone liked Kitty. . .

James Horn
Vice President of Research and Historical Interpretation
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Excerpts from "A Cock and Bull for Kitty," by George Morrow

Word of the death of Lord Botetourt, the fourteenth crown governor of Virginia, reached Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary for Colonial Affairs, sometime in November of 1770. Within a month, George III had named a successor and official notice was on its way to America: He was to be John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the 40-year-old Scotsman who was currently governor of New York.

A member of the House of Lords since 1761, his Lordship was already on record as to how to govern Americans: “if left to themselves [they] would soon be quiet,” he said. Dunmore’s comments were made during the Lords’ debate over George III’s annual speech on the state of the American colonies and immediately after a caution from Lord Chatham as to “how we invade the liberties of our fellow subjects.” But Dunmore might also have been talking about the art of governing Virginia, an art so expertly mastered by his predecessor, Botetourt, that under him Virginia’s government was said to “almost execute itself." Dunmore was never very good at doing what he preached. But perhaps the worst thing about having to succeed Botetourt in Virginia was that from the very beginning he found himself vying with a saint who made everything he did seem tainted – or worse..

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Wheedling – repeating his wishes until he got his way – was typical of Dunmore. It was the behavior of a child, endearing to a mother, but probably not to the King of England. At least as jejune was Dunmore’s June 4, 1771 suggestion that the man named to replace him in New York, Lt. Gov. William Tryon of North Carolina, should simply be sent to Virginia instead. “There can be no doubt that Mr. Tryon would be pleased with the exchange,” he told Hillsborough, forgetting that in arguing for Virginia he was weakening the case for New York. “[A] stranger to both countries [he said] . . . cannot have a reason for choosing other than that which is esteemed the most advantageous as to emolument, and I am persuaded he will be equally agreeable to the people.” So sure was Dunmore that he had found the right solution for everyone that he told Hillsborough he had now decided not to “remove from New York until he had a definite answer” to his proposal – which is to say he had gone from merely pleading his case to declaring the entire question moot. This too was typical of Dunmore: after cajolery, his favorite mode of persuasion was the artful fait accompli.