Does A Freeborn Englishman Have A Right To Emigrate?


Dundas was less impatient and a better politician. By decree of the government, he said, the Highland chiefs should be returned to their estates, restored to something like their “traditional influence,” and reinvolved with the lives of their clansmen. Far from being a military threat, these leaders could provide welcome military strength for the entire nation.

One particularly shrewd scheme was to limit the number of passengers emigrant vessels might carry and require the ships to bring more than adequate provisions and adequate crews, and also “a surgeon … [for each] 20 passengers or upwards.” All of this would raise the cost of passage so high “as to put it wholly out of the power of the greatest part of such people as have hitherto emigrated, to depart.”

Another involved a triple prohibition: a Privy Council resolution to grant no more land in North America for several years; explicit Crown “dissapprobation of these emigrations” coupled with promises of royal favor for those “who shall stay at home”; and imprisonment for any shipmaster or merchant who transported a British subject to the colonies without a special license. Some officials had no hesitation in recommending that emigration should simply be stopped “by express law.” No doubt, selfish interests will “cry out that the liberty of the subject is invaded when we can no longer remove from one part of the British dominions to another, & the cruelty of stopping the flight of oppressed tennants from their avaricious landlords will afford an ample field for declamation.” But a sufficient reply “to all this noise” is simply the maxim that the interest of the few must give way to the good of the whole, especially when the government is prepared to “set every engine at work” to render those who are discontented “richer & happier than ever.”

But such confident statements were rare and flew in the face of considered opinion. There was in fact no agreement on whether the government could legally constrain the movements of British subjects from one British territory to another, or whether it should do so. “Personal liberty,” an Edinburgh essayist observed, “and the power of loco-motion, is the undoubted privilege and birthright of every individual. … It is not at all clear that the Parliament has a right to hinder the inhabitants of Great Britain from leaving it when they think proper.” Nor could such a law be enforced. The whole idea, the writer concluded, was “impossible and absurd.” To the extent that it succeeded, it would “make the nation a prison, & the whole members of it prisoners, though not yet guilty of any crime.” Wrote another, “To hinder freeborn subjects, who are really starving, to go wheresoever they can find food & clothes! This would be contrary to all laws, human & divine; but I cannot think it will ever be arrived at by a British parliament.”

“To hinder freeborn subjects, who are really starving, to go wheresoever they can find food & clothes,” wrote an Englishman, is “contrary to all laws, human & divine.738217;

Nevertheless, the pressure on the government to restrain emigration grew stronger in the years just before the American rebellion. In mid-1773, a year that marked the climax of emigration from the British Isles, the leading officers of state at last turned seriously to the possibility of devising legislation or taking other action that would deal directly with the problem.

The immediate instigation came from Scotland, and in particular from the lord justice clerk, Thomas Miller. A member of Parliament, well known and widely respected as a lawyer and jurist in both Scotland and England, Miller had supported the Stamp Act and had opposed its repeal out of an apprehension of the growing independence of the colonies and concern for the magnetism they were exerting on the home islands. This fear grew over the years and climaxed in October 1773 when he presided over the conspiracy trial of twelve journeymen weavers in Paisley. Not only had these workers struck for higher wages and forcefully prevented their employers from using scab labor, but they had rallied thousands of other weavers to their banner and with them “threatened to goe off in a body to America” if their cause was not vindicated. This was precisely the sort of thing Miller most feared, and he reported the affair in great detail to the secretary of state for the Northern Department (effectively the home secretary), the Earl of Suffolk.

Miller handled the strikers delicately, and the particular crisis had passed, he said, but the problem of emigration remained extremely serious: “I pray God, for the sake of this countrey, that such ideas of migration to America may not become epidemical.…” He had also discovered, he said, that the traditional commutation of criminal sentences to “transportation” to the colonies was no longer either a deterrent or a meaningful reprisal: “in this part of the Kingdom transportation to America begins to lose every characteristick of punishment.”