J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Issue of Naturalization Laws, and What Really Mattered

Steven Pincus’s new book The Heart of the Declaration raises the question of how British imperial policy on migration into North America after 1763 pushed thirteen of the empire’s colonies toward independence. I hadn’t seen much about that issue, so I did some background reading.

There’s no question that population policy was one of the grievances against the king that the Continental Congress listed in its Declaration of Independence in 1776:
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
The phrase “obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners” refers to an instruction that the London government sent to all the royal governors over King George III’s signature on 29 Nov 1773:
Whereas We have thought fit by our Orders in our Privy Council to disallow certain Laws passed in Some of our Colonies & Plantations in America for conferring the Priviledges of Naturalization on persons being aliens, and for divorcing persons who have been legally joined together in Holy Marriage: And whereas Acts have been passed in other of our said Colonies to enable Persons who are our Liege Subjects by Birth or Naturalization to hold and inherit Lands Tenements and real Estates [which] had been originally granted to or purchased by Aliens antecedent to Naturalization; It is our expressed will and Pleasure that you do not upon any pretence whatsoever give your assent to any Bill or Bills that may have been or shall hereafter be passed by the Council and Assembly of the Province under your Government for the naturalization of Aliens, nor for the divorce of persons joined together in Holy marriage, nor for establishing a Title in any Person to Lands, Tenements & real estates in our said Province originally granted to, or purchased by Aliens antecedent to Naturalization.

G. R.
(This same instruction limited the colonies’ power to pass new divorce laws, as you can see, but that didn’t make it into the Declaration.)

Most people settling in the British colonies came from other parts of the British Empire. Another big chunk came, against their will, from Africa. Europeans affected by naturalization laws were a small portion, but colonies and landowners promoting new settlements wanted to offer them the possibility of full citizenship.

Many of the American colonies passed their own naturalization laws to give non-British settlers rights in their new communities once they were rich enough—rights to own land, vote in local elections, and so on. From the central government’s perspective, those laws were also a back door into having the privileges of a British subject under the empire’s trade laws.

Parliament wanted its Plantation Act of 1740 to be the basis for how people from outside the British Empire became subjects of the king. And by 1773 the ministers in London were wary on principle of any colonial laws that appeared to challenge the authority of Parliament’s sovereignty throughout the Empire.

How big a deal was the dispute over naturalization laws in New England? Hardly at all. Colonial New Englanders were never exactly welcoming to newcomers who weren’t Congregationalist and English, even those from within the empire. Massachusetts passed its naturalization law in 1731; it accepted all of eleven French and German men in the next year and a half, and then only four more arrivals between 1741 and 1767 under the imperial law. Connecticut’s first naturalization law came in 1773, covering a Spaniard named Don Gabriel Sistera. New Hampshire never passed such a law at all.

So that leaves Rhode Island. That colony, founded to be more open than its neighbors, was more active in naturalizing newcomers for much of its history. In 1762 its high court also ruled that the Plantation Act didn’t apply there, a direct challenge to Parliament’s authority. However, Rhode Island did so in order to exclude a couple of Jewish merchants from full rights. Thus, that colony challenged Britain’s control over naturalization to make immigration less appealing, not more.

Naturalization laws were probably a bigger deal in colonies southwest of New England, which had a more welcoming history. But of course that’s not where the Revolutionary War started. Furthermore, I think we can see the real issue behind this dispute over migration by looking at the other verbiage of the 1773 royal instruction and the Declaration’s complaint about it:
  • “Acts have been passed in other of our said Colonies to enable Persons who are our Liege Subjects by Birth or Naturalization to hold and inherit Lands Tenements and real Estates [which] had been originally granted to or purchased by Aliens antecedent to Naturalization”
  • “raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands”
The crux of this dispute was lands. The Proclamation of 1763 restricted colonial settlement to the west. The imperial government wanted to reward its Native American allies for their loyalty and to avoid disputes between them and European settlers. But colonists, especially wealthy men who invested in western claims, wanted to maximize settlement there.

As I’ve said before, that restriction wasn’t a big deal in New England since those colonies were already blocked from expanding west. But for a growing colony like Pennsylvania, or an investor with lots of land claims like George Washington, it was a big deal.

I’m interested in seeing how it was that “throughout the 1760s and 1770s the British government tries desperately to stop immigration into North America,” as Pincus says. The Declaration does indeed claim that the royal government “endeavored to prevent the population of these states,” but it looks like a lot of that endeavor was simply not passing laws which certain powerful Americans wanted “to encourage [foreigners’] migration hither.” Not trying to accelerate the movement of people isn’t the same as trying to stop it.

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