- Historic Sites
Does A Freeborn Englishman Have A Right To Emigrate?
Just before the Revolution, newly studied documents reveal, the flight of British subjects to the New World forced a panicky English government to wrestle with this question
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
In 1774 local journals predicted that continued emigration would make the west of Scotland a grass park, “the resort of owls and dragons.”
In 1768 Hillsborough assumed the key post of secretary of state for the colonies. In that influential oosition. he stepped up his opposition to Western settlements and to emigration from Britain, but the tide was running strongly against him. The massive array of land speculators and Western trading interests working through an intricate network of lobbyists in London was overpowering. Not only were these interests powerful in themselves, and not only were they connected with every important agency of government, but they had among their leaders Benjamin Franklin—a figure of international renown, a publicist of genius, and a political manipulator of experience and skill.
Franklin, who was in effect ambassador from America at the Court of St. James’s, was the spearhead of the most ambitious plans for Western settlement and for the development of American society generally. He had long been fascinated by the remarkable growth and diversity of the American population, and he sensed the potential strength of the American economy. He knew that America’s economic and demographic growth meant power—all the power needed, ultimately, to assert the colonies’ rights against Britain without bloodshed. The enemy, to him, both symbolically and personally, was Hillsborough.
Franklin had disliked the Irish nobleman—whom George Washington too disliked for his “malignant disposition towards Americans”—when he first met him in the mid-1760s, and by the early 177Os his distaste had turned to hatred. Hillsborough’s character, Franklin wrote, was a compound of “conceit, wrongheadedness, obstinancy and passion”; he was “as double and deceitful as any man I ever met with”; “the most unequal in his treatment of people, the most insincere, and the most wrongheaded.” Hillsborough had rejected Franklin’s credentials as agent for Massachusetts “with something,” Franklin wrote, “between a smile and a sneer,” and although Hillsborough had at first lavished hospitality on him, he later instructed his servants not to let Franklin inside the door. To the American, Hillsborough embodied all the corruption of an aristocratic society and the infuriating arrogance of its privileged leaders.
But Franklin’s conflict with Hillsborough also had more immediate and less personal roots. Franklin knew of the Irishman’s fear of emigration; and he knew that Hillsborough had delayed and was attempting to destroy the proposed Vandalia colony, the greatest effort of the postwar years to colonize the trans-Appalachian West. That plan of a squadron of the most powerful political and commercial operators in Britain and America to turn a twenty-million-acre grant on the Ohio into a huge inland colony fell into the maelstrom of factional fighting among Britain’s leading politicians. The Privy Council finally approved the project, and Hillsborough, refusing to enforce a decision he so strongly opposed, resigned as secretary of state for the colonies in 1772.
Lord North was amazed by it all. Attempting to hold his fragile ministry together, the prime minister viewed the struggle over the petition for the Ohio lands as a “foolish business.” “I am myself incapable of reason,” he wrote, “for upon the maturest consideration … I can not help thinking all the parties in the wrong.” But North’s cynical and amused bewilderment did him no credit. Hillsborough on the one side and the Vandalia speculators on the other correctly grasped the immensity of the stakes involved. By the time Hillsborough resigned, in August 1772, the problems of emigration and expansion into the American West had become dangerously inflamed, and the connection between them was beginning to be widely understood.
By 1773 it was commonly believed that emigration was leading to virtual depopulation in certain regions of the British Isles. Reports from Ireland were particularly ominous. An authoritative summary that circulated widely contained startling figures. It stated, first, that between July 1769 and March 1771, as much as 5,870 tons of emigrant shipping had departed from five main Irish ports, which meant, by the traditional calculation, the same number of emigrant departures. Then, in the two years that followed, the report said, the figure had tripled, to 17,400; and in the course of the next fifteen months (March 1773 through May 1774) no fewer than 20,450 emigrants had left. The monthly average, therefore, had almost quintupled in four years. And another report, of 1773, estimated the freight cost of what were believed to be 16,250 departures from northern Ireland to America in 1771 and 1772 at 60,725; it stated, too, that in the previous five or six years, Ulster had been “drained of one fourth of its trading cash and the like proportion of the manufacturing people” by the emigration. Now no longer composed of the “very meanest of the people” but of industrial workers, farmers, and people of “some property,” the removals were “sensibly felt in this country.… Where the evil will end, remains in the womb of time to determine.”