Does A Freeborn Englishman Have A Right To Emigrate?


In the early 1770s it still seemed likely that the struggle between Britain and her American colonies would be peacefully resolved. If it had been, history would have recorded far more clearly a remarkable development that was temporarily cut off by the Revolution. This development was a flood of immigration to British mainland North America and a sudden and immense spread of settlement in the backcountry of the coastal colonies and in the trans-Appalachian West. Both the immigration and the spread of settlement had been in motion before the last of the Anglo-French wars in America, the French and Indian War of 1754-63; but the magnitude was so much greater after the war than it had been before, the scale and range of migration and settlement so greatly enlarged, that the essential character of the peopling process seems to have been transformed, and with it some basic elements in American life.

Just how this transformation took place is revealed in an extraordinary document, a Register of Emigrants, long known to scholars but only now subjected to exhaustive analysis. The origins of this register, arising out of the turmoil in transatlantic population movements just before the Revolution, is as dramatic a story as the information it reveals, and it involves a huge range of British and North American territory, stretching from the Outer Hebrides to the Mississippi, from London to Savannah, and from Yorkshire to Nova Scotia. The key to it all was the relation between the great land acquisitions that came to Britain as a consequence of the war—the whole of Canada, Florida, and the territories as far west as the Mississippi—and the surging flow of emigration to the North American colonies.

This relation was not, at first, perceived by most British officials, but at least one of the leading politicians understood the implications of expansion in the American West for British emigration, and his influence on these matters was destined to be powerful, at certain points decisive.

The Earl of Hillsborough was an Anglo-Irish landowner with properties in Ireland so extensive that they constituted a world in themselves. Ever concerned for the stability and welfare of a large agricultural laboring class in Britain, Hillsborough had seen, long before most other landlords, the dangers of mass emigration to America. In 1753 he had entered fervently into a parliamentary debate on a bill to create a national census, a debate that in large part centered on whether such an enumeration, revealing annual increases and decreases in the population, would “instruct us when to encourage and when to restrain people from going to settle in our American colonies.” Multitudes of people flock to America, Hillsborough declared, “for no other reason but because they hope to live better, or to earn more money in those countries than they can do at home,” and in this they are “encouraged by hearing every day of poor people having in a few years got great estates there.” Many eventually regret their decisions, and therefore no sensible person can deny, Hillsborough concluded, in a phrase that epitomized landlord paternalism, that “it would be doing them a service to lay them under some restraint.” With a census, the magistracy would know “when we should encourage or restrain the transmigration of people from any one part of the British dominions to another, or when we should at the public expence encourage foreigners to go and settle in our colonies, which we certainly ought to do if it should appear that the number of our people is upon the decline at home.”

But there were others who saw dangers in the census bill: the regimentation implicit in any national register; the possible revelation to Britain’s enemies of its demographic strengths and weaknesses; the undue power the scheme might give to local officials; the cost of administering the census; and the likelihood that the act would be opposed “in a riotous manner, and … may raise such a popular flame as will endanger the peace if not the existence of our present government.”

The bill was defeated, but Hillsborough’s commitment to restraining the exodus from his homeland grew firmer. The purpose of the colonies, he argued in the British cabinet, where he served as president of the Board of Trade, was to benefit “this kingdom.” The North American colonies were expected to contribute to the benefit of the kingdom through commerce and the production of goods closely related to commerce. Therefore, the American fisheries should be enlarged, the naval-stores industry encouraged, lumber production increased, and agricultural yields suitable for consumption in the sugar islands should be improved. But as for settling the Western lands, he wrote, what sense did it make to encourage the dispersion of the population into inland communities that would not further the primary goals of empire—that would in fact conflict with imperial policy? Not only would it be difficult to keep such remote settlements “in just subordination to and dependence upon this kingdom,” but they would inevitably draw settlers both from the productive seaboard colonies and, indirectly if not directly, from Britain and Ireland.