- 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
Immediately thereafter, Miller attended a meeting of the Ayrshire county magistracy, and it was his response to what he learned there that moved the British government to action. When the regular business of the meeting was done, Miller reported, Sir Adam Fergusson—a prominent Ayrshire landlord and politician—“took notice of the dangerous situation this country was in from the various arts used to impose upon our people and entice them to America,” and he then produced a broadside advertising in quite specific terms for settlers for St. John’s (now Prince Edward) Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The advertisement was the work of a notorious land promoter, the lieutenant governor of St. John’s, Thomas Desbrisay. This frenetic Irishman had been attempting to populate his property on the island since 1770, but his elaborate recruitment efforts, which included three published notices each month from February to May 1772, had produced very little response. By the end of 1772 he had extended his range to western Scotland, distributing enticing ads in Ayrshire, Argyllshire, and the counties to the north. It took no eloquence on Fergusson’s part to detonate the lord justice clerk’s already overheated concern. Miller immediately sent Lord Suffolk an account of the meeting together with a copy of Desbrisay’s offending advertisement. Something had to be done, specifically about Desbrisay and generally about what another concerned Scot called “the America madness” sweeping the land. Surely the problem was ripe for Parliamentary action.
Suffolk had long been plagued with such warnings and requests, but this time he, and through him the British government, responded actively. He instructed Miller to find out what effect Desbrisay’s broadside had had in Scotland—that is, “what number of people have emigrated from Scotland since the publication of it.” Despite petitions first to Scottish customs officials and then to the local clergy, Miller could only come up with incomplete figures that he felt greatly underestimated the seriousness of the situation. The spirit of emigration, he wrote Suffolk, was no longer simply a Highland problem, nor was it only a lower-class phenomenon. It had spread to the Lowlands and to “some of the better sort of farmers & mechanicks who are in good circumstances & can live very comfortably at home.” Moreover, he had discovered that land-purchasing associations had been organized. If that practice, which enabled whole communities to move with all their personal associations undisturbed, became popular among affluent Scots, “it may in time as effectually depopulate this country as the mines of Peru & Mexico have depopulated the Kingdom of Spain.”
But the ultimate danger went beyond even this. The present cause of emigration, he believed, was chiefly dire want; and that, he felt, would sooner or later fade as conditions improved. But if, by the time that happened, a new motivation had become common, namely, the hope simply “of attaining a better situation” in America than could be had in Scotland, emigration would become entirely uncontrollable. By then Miller’s efforts had borne more fruit, of various kinds, than he realized. Word that troops had been requested to stop emigration reached the newspapers and was denounced as the work of “half [-baked] politicians” and as “silly beyond measure.” Furthermore, the Highland clergy had become thoroughly alarmed, “imagining there was some design to make them tools of oppression and tyranny.” It was understood that for that reason, among others, they were systematically underreporting the number of emigrants.
At the same time that Suffolk had set Miller to collecting data, he had sent a copy of the lord justice clerk’s letter, enclosing Desbrisay’s advertisement, to the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Dartmouth, stating it as the king’s view that the emigrations referred to were “very detrimental to the general good of the state, and that every proper check, within the power of the government, should be given to plans which tend so fatally to depopulate a considerable part of his kingdom.” Dartmouth’s undersecretary, John Pownall, a canny veteran of the bureaucratic wars, opened Suffolk’s letter and read it with astonishment. One secretary of state, he advised Dartmouth within hours of receiving the letter, is hardly in a position to tell another what the king thinks and to state peremptorily what the other should do. “I am at a loss to guess what Lord Suffolk expects from us & what he means by laying such a business at our door.”
Among emigrant families, few were indentured servants. Often by liquidating all their possessions, they had raised enough money, just enough, to retain their freedom.
Pownall wasted no time in recriminations. Three days after receiving Suffolk’s stiff note, he sent Desbrisay a blistering letter reminding him that he had already been warned against illegal recruitment and telling him that the landlords in northern Britain “whose estates have suffered extremely by the emigration of their tenants” had complained. He ordered him, in the name of the king, to suppress his advertisements instantly. Desbrisay was thoroughly squelched. He withdrew the ads and swore to Pownall that he “never took any tenant out of the north of Ireland without first asking the consent of either the proprietor or agent of lands he lived upon …”