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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
These are gross figures for the recorded migration as a whole—informative, but not very surprising—and difficult to fit together into a meaningful pattern. The more significant figures are masked by these overall totals and emerge only from successive stages of computer analysis. In the end, the picture as a whole proves to be highly differentiated. This was no singular migration from the British Isles to North America; there were two migrations—separate, quite distinctive, and in motion at the same time. One consisted of emigrants who traveled outward to America from the main population center of Britain in the Thames valley; the other group was drawn from the northern British provinces. At the extremities—London on the one hand, Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands on the other —there were two patterns, which may be designated metropolitan on the one hand and provincial on the other. And these differences profoundly shaped the way these emigrants would enter into American life and the impact they would have in the new land.
The metropolitan pattern, which characterizes the central migration from the Thames valley, is typified by a young man, in his early twenties, acting individually. He is not, characteristically, drawn from among London’s most desperate, destitute slum dwellers; nor is he from the more stable or substantial segments of the population. He is, rather, an impecunious young artisan or craftsman who has served all or some part of his apprenticeship, or in a less formal way, learned something of a trade, found employment irregular or nonexistent, and, still unmarried and without family encumbrances, has decided to head out to the colonies alone. In doing so, whether to preserve a small modicum of savings for settlement in the new land or out of sheer necessity, he has assumed a burden of debt for his transportation, to be paid off by four years of bonded labor. There are few children in this metropolitan migration, few women, and few families. The families that can be found are of the simplest possible structure—almost all of them only husband and wife or siblings traveling together.
Such is the “ideal type” of the metropolitan emigrant. At the other extreme, there is a different pattern altogether. In this provincial pattern the characteristic unit is not an isolated male worker in his early twenties, a bondsman for several years of unlimited servitude. It is not even a person. It is, rather, a family, and a family that contains not only mature women but also small children, including a remarkable number of young girls. There are 7 males for every female in the metropolitan migration, but only 1.6 males for every female in the provincial migration. The size of these families emigrating from northern England and from Scotland is surprising. The average was almost as large as the average English family in the nonemigrating population, and hence it would appear that these family units were moving essentially intact. Consistent with this fact is the economic condition of these migrating families. Few of these family members were indentured servants; in one way or another—often by liquidating all their possessions, real and personalthey had raised enough money, often just enough, to retain their freedom.
The provincial emigration was predominantly the transfer of farming families that were still in the process of growth, hence likely to contribute quickly to the increase of the American population. And they would contribute quickly, too, to the growth of the American economy, not only by their con- structive enterprise but by the demand they created, the markets they enlarged, as consumers. Above all, they were eager from the start to take advantage of opportunities created by the opening up of new land in America. They were likely to seek out new settlements and to move quickly into the most attractive areas available in the backcountry. They, and not the majority of the emigrants—isolated artisans bound to serve any master who could buy their services from the ship captain or merchant who owned them—were destined to be the frontiersmen.
Such, in briefest form, is what the British government would have discovered if it had carefully analyzed the emigration data its customs officials had so laboriously collected. Would it have been the basis for Parliamentary regulation of emigration? Would it have calmed or further excited the fears of the time? There is no way of knowing. The turmoil of the Revolution completely buried the problem, which resurfaced for the British only once, when, after the end of the War for Independence, the Loyalist Claims Commissioners considered the Loyalists’ applications for repayment for the losses they had suffered during the war. The board systematically struck down those who were known to have promoted or assisted in the migration of the pre-Revolutionary years. These promoters were even suspected, to some degree, of treason, for whether they had intended to or not, they had in fact helped man a disastrous civil insurrection and so assisted in the dismemberment of the Empire. Why should they be rewarded for that?
Eventually the old problem was forgotten. But for historians, the inquiry set in motion in December 1773 is a priceless resource that helps immeasurably in understanding who the American people were in these early years, how they were recruited, and how they helped form the fabric of American life.