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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
There was no mystery about the causes of the emigration, as the lord lieutenant of Ireland wrote in the summer of 1773: rack renting, landlords’ absenteeism, and the collapse of the linen industry. Much evidence was available to support this explanation. The years from 1770 to 1772 were known to have marked the climax of fifty years of increasing rents in Ireland. In 1770, for instance, the absentee Earl of Donegal demanded fees for renewing leases on his estate in County Antrim that were three or four times annual rents, an innovation that touched off a wave of rioting not only in Antrim but also in Counties Down, Londonderry, Tyrone, and Armagh. And in the midst of this sudden escalation of rents—by which, it was said, “the very marrow is screwed out of our bones, and our lives are even become so burdensome to us … that we do not care whether we live or die”—the linen industry collapsed as a result of a sudden drop in foreign demand. The cost of bread rose to famine levels, and the laboring population suffered severely.
Accounts from Scotland, and to a lesser extent from Yorkshire and elsewhere in northern England, stressed many of the same causes of emigration. But there were special conditions in Scotland that challenged the analytical powers of some of the keenest minds in Britain.
Dr. Johnson, contemplating deserted lands on the Isle of Skye, saw greed everywhere: he cursed the avarice both of the landlords and of the emigration agents who enticed away the desperate Highlanders by false representations of America as the “fortunate islands,” luring them into a life of endless toil in the wilderness. But the ultimate cause of the threatening depopulation, he believed, lay in the destruction of the ancient structure of the clans, the social cohesion that had united lairds and the meanest cottagers in quasi-feudal relationships that had been systematically destroyed by the punitive laws that had followed the Scottish rebellion of 1745. These laws abolished private jurisdictions, exiled the rebellious Highland chiefs who had survived the slaughter, handed over their estates to a commission of modernizing Lowland gentry, banned the wearing of the traditional dress, and outlawed all weapons in private hands. The laws not only stripped the chiefs of their public functions but destroyed the social organization of the old clan system. This was the main problem, Johnson said; and somehow it had to be solved—somehow the lost social cohesion had to be re-stored if the exodus was to be contained.
The most elaborate analysis of the roots and cost of the Highland emigration was that of Henry Dundas, the lord advocate of Scotland, member of Parliament, and at age thirty-three well on his way to becoming the most powerful political figure in Scotland and for some years in England as well. Dundas, a rigorous, unbending imperialist in the Anglo-American political crisis, agreed that a “precipitant and injudicious rise of rents” was a cause of emigration, but only in certain parts of Scotland, not everywhere. The “universality of the disease” affecting areas where rents had not been raised required a deeper explanation. Like Dr. Johnson, Dundas believed the origins lay in the legislation that followed the rebellion of 1745, but he traced a different path from cause to effect. In the old days, the self-respect of the Highland chieftains had lain not in the monetary rents they produced but in “what I call a rent in men.” “Idle men” on these estates were considered in the years before the rebellion to be valuable, for “in proportion as his clan was numerous and his estate covered with inhabitants, [the chieftain] felt himself great and respectable.”
This close binding of chieftain and de- pendent, Dundas believed, was particularly important because the Highlands had always had a surplus population. When the new legislation stripped the chieftains of their autonomous authority —their “interest and connection”—and hence their prestige, they lost the veneration and respect of their dependents, whose spirits in turn became covered with “gloom and damp.” More important, the chieftains, no longer motivated to “have their estates covered with inhabitants” who were to serve as retainers and personal troops, had begun to think of their dependents simply as tenants and of themselves as landlords rather than as chiefs, and they had turned to making the most of the commercial value of their lands. Thus mutual respect and responsibility had been destroyed, and there had developed on the one hand profiteering in rents and, on the other, a mass exodus from the land.
Whatever the explanation offered, by 1773 almost everyone who commented on the rising tide of emigration saw it as a severe problem that required drastic solutions. Some recommended reduction of rents and radical improvements in the living conditions of the tenants. Dr. Johnson urged the repeal of the punitive laws passed after the 1745 Rebellion. If wearing native costume would “disincline [the Scots] from coalescing with the Pennsylvanians or people of Connecticut,” he wrote, let them keep their native dress. If retaining arms would keep them on their ancient lands, let them have arms as before. If rents were too high, force landlords to lower them and compensate them for their loss by pensions. One way or another the cohesion of the old society must be recovered and the depopulation stopped.