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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
At times concern in Ireland seems to have turned to panic. The “incredible” emigration there was said to threaten the future of Ireland’s industry as well as its agriculture; in the end, it could only lead to a forced reduction of both rents and taxes. Ireland’s excise revenues, the secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland declared, were as drastically reduced by emigration as by poverty. The Irish poor, who emigrate “in swarms to America,” must be allowed at least enough sustenance to be able to pay taxes: “if the cow is to be milked, she must be fed.” Belfast newspapers teemed with letters from recent emigrants, many of them instructive, cautionary, warning of the lies and avarice of shipmasters, the swindling advertisements of American land speculators, and of savagery on the wild Indian frontiers.
But frightening stories could not stay the exodus. “The spirit of emigration hath seized our people,” a much reprinted letter from Dublin stated, “and the several counties hitherto famous for the residence of the linen manufacturers, are now almost dwindled into dreary wastes. The land lies uncultivated; and … scarcely a vessel sails from Ireland bound to any of the plantations but what is filled with multitudes of useful artisans. … It is to be hoped that some method may be taken to put a stop to so alarming an evil; for if the numbers of inhabitants constitute the riches of a state, Heaven knows, Ireland will soon be the poorest country under the canopy of Heaven.”
The reports from Scotland were even more alarming. In 1771 a land agent on the Isle of Skye reported such losses and such elaborate plans for further emigration that if nothing were done, major estates would become “wastelands” and land would go begging for buyers. Observers of the exodus from the Western Isles of Scotland noted in 1772 that in the course of the previous four years, 10,000 had been taken out of Britain by the emigrants to America, and “unless some speedy remedy is fallen upon by the government and landholders,” Scotland would be fatally depleted, economically as well as demographically. And more than that: “the continual emigrations from Ireland and Scotland will soon render our [American] colonies independent on the mother-country.”
But it was Dr. Johnson, after his famous tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles with Boswell in 1773, who sounded the most eloquent alarm. He was shocked by what he termed the “epidemick disease of wandering” that he found in his travels. The exodus of whole neighborhoods, moving in such numbers that departure scarcely seemed an exile at all, threatened, he wrote, “a total secession” of the Highlanders. And the loss of even one person in such an inhospitable place as the Hebrides “leaves a lasting vacuity, for nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence, and an island once depopulated will remain a desert as long as the present facility of travel gives every one who is discontented and unsettled the choice of his abode.”
The tragedy of the emigrations, Johnson believed, lay not simply in the demographic and economic losses. The subtler and deeper catastrophe was cultural; and he evoked a haunting image of people scattered in the wilderness spaces of America where their culture, their spiritual and moral integument, and their familiar, time-sanctioned ways of life simply dissolved, leaving them bereft and primitive, and Britain reduced. The thousands who were leaving for the colonies, he wrote, were forever lost, “for a nation scattered in the boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain, but the heat is gone. Their power consisted in their concentration: when they are dispersed, they have no effect.”
Later this profound remark would find echoes, but at the time, it was the manifest demographic and economic losses involved that created the general public fear, a concern that grew wildly as the crisis in Anglo-American political relations swelled to the point of explosion. Between 700 and 800 people were reported to have left the port of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides on a single day in June 1773, a month in which 800 emigrants on the Isle of Skye completed arrangements for their voyage to North Carolina. A month later, 775 more were known to have left Stromness in the Orkneys.
In June 1774, local journals predicted that continued emigration would make the west of Scotland a grass park; in October, that the deserted kingdom would come to be the resort of owls and dragons. But the most dramatic expression came late in 1773 from a writer in Yorkshire. “The emigration of people from all parts of England,” he wrote, “is very amazing indeed, and if no stop is put to it England will really be drained of multitudes of mechanics of all sorts, also people of considerable property; ships are daily taken up for this purpose, and the spirit of emigration daily encreases:—America that land of promise, is their cry.”