This is not going to be a comprehensive study of the conditions since the 1600s that have led to people running away to America. For that I could suggest nothing better than Bernard Bailyn’s masterful three books on The Peopling of British North America:
(https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781850430384&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780394515700&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780394757797&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used).
What Bailyn wrote on the origins of the American population is remarkable in not just its comprehensiveness, but in its benign political fairness. His works do not take a side. They only tell us how America came into being, and how it rapidly developed into a major world power.
But I will not be anywhere nearly as objective, feeling the need, as I do, to challenge some of the current, popular conceptions of those running away to America. It truly is appalling, given the history of how our nation formed, of how we rose, and of how we became strong enough to challenge the English crown for our sacred independence. For now we will focus on just a few groups of travelers who helped start America on the road to greatness.
The Scottish were once a loathed race of people. Constantly at war for their independence from England, they had been repeatedly and severely punished for daring to claim themselves free. There had been bloody wars between the Scottish clans and the Colonial Empire for hundreds of years. By the 1600s the Crown decided it was in their best interest to break up the clan system that had kept the Highlanders fierce and the Lowlanders angry, and more than willing to put aside their differences to fight for a common cause.
After the clans were outlawed, and many of the fiercest supporters of the old ways were executed, the population of Scotland scattered, roaming around the countryside in search of any gainful employment that might help them care for their families.
But there was no work, or at least none that was consistent. There may be a few days of clearing brush out of fields, or a couple of early mornings scooping up the cow and pig shit from their pens (bring your own tools or use your hands!) And many of these people were starving. Most of the provincial Scottish found themselves desperate and willing to do nearly anything to survive.
Great Britain, in this era, was by far the most powerful empire in the world. This was because of their navy, a vast flotilla of warships and caravans that could move soldiers to the farthest corners of the world. Their only competition was France and Spain, and all three nations had a passion for slaughtering natives, planting their flags in the new world and proclaiming it their own. This was every continent: England in Africa, Australia, into parts of Southern mainland Europe, a huge chunk of North America, and the bulk of Asia too. Spain went to the Americas, devouring most of South America (except for Brazil, which Portugal dominated), and grabbed the southern land of North America all the way down to Panama, which was their bridge to South America.
The French, already in decline in those days, made their triumph in Canada, as well as a few scattered Asian countries, and a blight in Africa too. As for the islands in between the great pieces of land, they too were scattered between the three great powers, promoting the slave trade and producing most of the salable materials (sugar, tea, various herbs and building materials) that kept each nation solvent.
The general population of these nations was nomadic, a constant stream of migrants going at first around their own country and then, when there was no other option, they would sell themselves for four years of indentured servitude, being paid with food and a place to live, to a wealthy company with large plots of land in the new world. And there, alongside newly transported slaves and debased, terrified aborigines who had given up hope for the future after watching their children being raped and murdered, they worked oppressively in the cotton and tobacco fields, sometimes being whipped and often dying in those same fields from sheer exhaustion.
But this was a better life, for most, than the hopelessness back at home. It was not just the vicious rulers and the gangs or hordes of people back in Great Britain who were the threat. It was the emptiness, the lack of opportunity to ever claw your way out of poverty. In those days people in debt were sent to prison until their families could raise enough money to bail their husbands and fathers out. This led to small children being crushed in coal mines, and a drastic rise in prostitution among women and small girls. The nascent drug trade coming over from China was also a way to make a little money, as was outright thievery. The punishment for any of these crimes was usually death by hanging. Additionally, since every penny had to be saved to get the men out of jail, there was hardly ever anything to eat, and diseases spread destructively throughout the hovels, slums, and tent cities where the people had no choice but to live.
By the 1630s the crown noticed a troubling reality: the population of their nation was growing more slowly than that of the New World. This was perceived as a potential threat to England, for those politicians wise enough to notice the general dissatisfaction of most of the citizenry. As a primary example of this trend we can look at population growth in 1650: London, the largest city in the world, was at that time overflowing with a population of more than 350,000. The new world, by this time the hope for the future of the crown, was growing by nearly 3% every year, the population consistently doubling every 25 years. By the 1650s there were as many people in New England as there were in England itself. And the slaves being imported into the New World, while bonded and treated terribly, were not counted in the overall population. By the early 1700s there were more slaves in some southern states than there were acknowledged citizens.
By the 1660s new laws were put into place–in particular in Scotland–which outlawed emigration to America. The Scottish were further divided and set to war with one another, the Highlanders told stories of incest and cannibalism about the Lowlanders, while in the Lowlands the image of the Highland was of the wealthy (which they generally were not) treating people like slaves (which they did), and resuming on a socio-economic scale the inner clan warfare that had been dormant for the past fifty years.
In Germany there was also a massive movement of escape into the New World. This was officially illegal from both sides, to leave and to arrive. Most of these German immigrants, too, sold themselves into four years of slavery in order to be accepted in the land of opportunity. Most of these immigrants fully accepted this condition, believing that a future change was more important than the brutal hard labor they were forced to endure. This also led to the rise of abolitionist movements as these Europeans would work alongside the slaves and the natives and realize their mutual humanity.
Down in Mexico there were far more native slaves. Where the British and the French generally slaughtered the Indians and Eskimos, Spain realized it was far more economically sound to enslave the people en masse. Production costs could be kept to a minimum. Spain forced their language on the people, and soon a new cultural identity developed, no longer Indian tribes, very little influenced by the mild connection of the Asian explorers who had landed there hundreds of years before, and now a whole new nation of people: true Mexicans.
The illegal immigration of the Scots and the Irish and the Germans continued, the New Worlders mostly turning a blind eye in favor of cheap labor. Many of the Germans moved into the middle of the Pennsylvania valley, being mistakenly called Dutch (The Pennsylvania Dutch), and fully accepting this new identity. Germans were looked upon as potentially dangerous. Weren’t they Catholics? This was the time of Puritanism, of course, and any religious view outside of this narrow scope was considered in league with Satan. And since people from the Netherlands were known to be malleable in their Christianity, the misunderstanding of the German language (the Deutsche) allowed them to prosper. The new puritanical faith that arose in this region was inspired by William Penn’s Quakerism, which continued to recruit members for the coming revolution.
Illegal immigration became the chief concern of the wealthy landowners in the new world, and so African slavery became the preferred option. Those people from Europe looking for a better life were now considered ‘invaders,’ people seeking to take over the nation and pollute it with their foreign ways. It was a danger. The borders needed to be closed. This led to vicious border wars between the new Americans, the British, the French and Spanish. By 1688, when The Great Revolution exploded in Great Britain and all across Europe, the land war in America spread and began forming patriotic movements. The primary soldiers in this war were the new illegal immigrants, recruited by the ruling powers and filled with ideas of individual freedom.
This has been the impact of immigration (legal and otherwise) on the growth and improvement of America. The circumstances today in Mexico and Central America, where there is no work, where the idea of America as The Land of Opportunity is far more precious to those migrants seeking a better future, than it is to the frustrated, angry and crowded citizens whose families ran away to America several generations before, to seek a better life.
Of course there are dangerous people among such caravans. In the times long ago there were Irish and Italian and Jewish gangsters who founded criminal empires; there were plenty of desperate people who were running away from lives of thievery and murder, who could not help but fall back into their old ways when reality set in and America proved to be just another place where hard work was required to make anything of yourself. This is still true today. Of course there are a handful of monsters scattered throughout the so-called caravan walking toward Texas and California, but it is far from an invasion. It is a struggle for hope, a large group of desperate people running away not just from terror and oppression at home, but fleeing hopelessness, fleeing to the land that childhood fairy tales once described as paradise.
America is a nation of immigrants. We are all immigrants, because we murdered the bulk of the natives. And even the natives, sometime in the distant past, are descended from immigrants, peacefully burrowing in, trying make a new life for themselves, and the founding of a great nation.
©2018, 2020 Lance Polin