the order that led to the american revolution -- 9/17/19

Today's selection -- from Voyagers to the West by Bernard Bailyn. By the late 1700s, the trickle of immigrants from Britain to America had turned into a flood, depopulating many British villages and adversely impacting the rental income of powerful British landowners. The British blamed the availability of so much land in America, which brought the Privy Council's order of April 7, 1773, sharply curtailing land grants in America. While scarcely denting the flow of immigrants, this order provoked the resentment of powerful colonials, including George Washington and Patrick Henry, since it was viewed as constraining the advancement and opportunities of colonials. It may have been one of the single most important in that series of acts which galvanized colonial opposition to the British:

"The southern colonies were especially effective in offering inducements to prospective immigrants. As early as 1731 South Carolina had embarked on a program of assisted immigration, directing bounties and other benefits specifically to emigrants from Ireland, and the colony maintained that policy for over forty years. Georgia had followed South Carolina in 1766 and in this connection, increasingly, the British government had asserted itself. In 1767 it vetoed Georgia's immigration-assistance act as inadmissible at a time 'when so great a number of useful inhabitants of these islands ... are daily emigrating to the American colonies,' and in doing so simply asserted what it took to be self-evident, its superior authority, if not its settled policy, in the area of regulating emigration. And Hillsborough, for the British government, never doubted that he had the administrative au­thority to act in such matters. He saw to it that a North Carolina act of 1771 providing special benefits for Scottish emigrants was vetoed in England, along with a huge North Carolina land grant for intending emigrants from Skye. And the Board of Trade, under Hillsborough's direction, began writing into new American land grants a clause limiting settlers in newly opened lands to foreign Protestants and Americans.

"It was in this area -- the policy and procedures for granting land in America -- that the British government felt confident it could move, even if only indirectly, to constrain the outflow of people. The motivation behind the Privy Council's order of April 7, 1773, flatly prohibiting all crown governors or other officers from granting land in America until a new policy could be devised, was complex. One element was the desire to increase the crown's income from quit rents, but the major element in that decision was the hope that limiting land grants would limit emigration. Hillsborough's view that the extension of land settlement was a key stimulus to the soaring rate of emigration was now given official sanction, nine months after his resignation, though in a way he had not anticipated.

A map of the British and French settlements in North America

"There was great reason to believe, the colonial undersecretary John Pownall wrote in explaining the prohibition of colonial land grants, that 'the great emigration of the inhabitants' of Great Britain and Ireland, so prejudicial to the landed interests, the commerce, and the manufactures of the kingdom, 'may have been induced ... by delusive proposals of encour­agement ... held out by persons who have obtained gratuitous grants of lands in His Majesty's colonies in America.' The temporary prohibition of such grants, it was hoped, and a revamped policy that would restrain the profligate land grabbing, would help curb the emigration. The revised policy, issued in February 1774, altered the process of land distribution in the royal colonies fundamentally. It prohibited the engrossing of land by the recipients of the governors' favors by ordering all crown land to be surveyed and sold -- not granted -- and sold at public and well-advertised auctions in small lots, of from one hundred to one thousand acres. The fees involved were fixed to keep the governors and their cronies from seeking profits through enlarged land sales, and the whole system, which also aimed to guarantee to the crown the quit rents due on all newly purchased land, was to be kept under the strict scrutiny of the Board of Trade.

"But restricting and regulating land grants, clearly within the jurisdic­tion of the crown, was at best a weak and indirect way of restricting emigration. The basic problem remained: there was no agreement that the British government could legally prohibit or restrict the movement of British subjects from one British territory to another. Even the wartime prohibition of emigration, put into effect after America had been declared to be in rebellion and hence when emigration to America could be con­strued as supporting treason, touched off violent objections. One justice of the peace and member of Parliament, at a regional meeting of magistrates called to enforce the ban on emigration, spoke 'most violently,' a witness reported, against any such action -- in wartime or otherwise -- declaring to his colleagues that 'such a stop would be illegal -- that we had no power. He said he wished there were more of the Common People there that he might inform them that they were their own masters, and might emigrate if they chose it.' Despite all these confusions and doubts, the pressure on the government to restrain emigration grew stronger in the years just before the American rebellion."



Bernard Bailyn


Voyagers to the West


Vintage Books


Copyright 1986 by Bernard Bailyn


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