“Princes’ don’t immigrate” opined the 19th Century American magazine, Puck. The topic in question concerned the waves of immigrants flooding onto both American coastlines. Newcomers hailing from Asia and Southern Europe had alarmed Nativists who viewed the influx as nothing more than riffraff, and a threat to good order. Unfortunately that view of the desperate still endures today.
News footage over the last few years has chronicled the plight of the desperate amassing along southern tiers of Europe and the US. Victims of repressive governments, criminal factions and crippling poverty risk violence, refugee camps, and even cages to escape oppression .
The earliest immigrants to American shores shared similar pressures to escape the familiar to face the unknown. A brief look at colonial examples illustrate this timeless dynamic.
16th and 17th Century England targeted some groups in much the same manner, pushing out nonconformists, while other Brits were pulled by the lure of new beginnings. But all newcomers from Britain set sail because staying was not an option.
Religious challenges to the Catholic Church set the stage for the flood of refugees who ultimately escaped England. As the Protestant Reformation blazed from the Continent to the British Isles, the transformation to the English Church commenced. In the 1535 English Reformation, King Henry VIII replaced the Pope as head of the Church. Henry’s motivation came from a range of objectives, concerning money, and succession.
Social unrest followed the schism with Rome, eventually to stabilize under Elizabeth I. Yet factions of true believers felt that Henry’s interpretation of reform too closely resembled Catholicism, and had not gone far enough in simple devotion to God. The largest faction, intent on deeper reforms, earned the name “Puritans.”
The religious struggle in the British Isles was long, bloody, and complicated, ultimately resulting in systematic persecution of Puritans.
Two phases of reformed believers departed Great Britain. First, was a small sect of Separatists led by William Bradford. These Protestants believed England damned beyond redemption, and washed their hands entirely of the mother country. This group settled first in Holland, then solicited funding for a journey to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as Pilgrims. (Happy Thanksgiving.)
Nearly a decade later another, larger faction made landfall near Boston, and subsequently southward to the sugar islands of the Caribbean. This wave, the Great Puritan Migration, unlike the trickle to Plymouth, poured by the thousands seeking sanctuary in the New World. These Puritans had suffered terribly, repressed and harassed by an intolerant Anglican Church.
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, made up another group hounded out of England. Britain’s enforcement of titled aristocracy and required class deference ran counter to this group’s simple belief in the divine equality of all people. Quakers, for example, refused to fight for the crown, nor swear oaths, and refused to ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of their “betters.” That impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.
William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. After a series of internal struggles, King Charles II ridded England of this group by granting Penn a large tract of land in the New World. Settling in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the colony upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.
The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity troublesome to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who had resisted British hegemony for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of pugnacious survivors, made their way to America. Not the most sociable, or friendly bunch, these refugees found their path inland, settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from British exiles to backcountry folk.
Virginia, the earliest claimed colony, came to existence with a two-fold aim; establish an outpost against Spanish and French claims in North America, and seek profits. At first a decidedly male society, tobacco cultivation earned adventurers and their patrons great wealth, and drained excess malcontents from religious wars and dynastic struggles. Ships navigated the James and York Rivers carrying full cargoes of indentured servants, to clear the poverty and oppression of English cities.
James Oglethorpe, a social reformer, aspired to found a place for criminals to begin anew. The Crown and Parliament liked the experiment, for it cleared those same cities of jailbirds. *
Lord Baltimore was granted a haven for English Catholics when that faith fell under the ever swinging pendulum of acceptability. Maryland had been established for religious toleration, though that was short lived.
All of this transport held the same mission-flush a metaphoric toilet of undesirables from Great Britain. The solution to the issue of socially unacceptable people, the dregs, if you will, was to send them to the New World.
Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.
Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to govern.
*The original charter for Georgia outlawed slavery. The Middle Passage is the glaring exception of those wishing to emigrate.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles available on Kindle.