WHILE patriots boast and poets sing that kingdoms were sifted to find choice grain for the virgin soil of America, the truth must be told that many tares from the social life of Europe were sown . . . and that the rankling thorn of black slavery was planted in the colonies. Some students reckon that almost one-half of all who came before the Revolution were indentured servants or slaves.
Crowded to suffocation with captives in chains, slave ships poured their evil immigration into the colonies, until the blacks outnumbered the whites two to one in South Carolina and almost equalled them even in Virginia. They were numerous in Maryland and Pennsylvania also, and as far north as New York.
Except as house servants for wealthy families in the towns, New England had less need of slaves than the colonies with more fertile soil and larger estates. Nevertheless, many of her ship owners profiteered in the importing and selling of this "black ivory." Faneuil Hall itself, "the cradle of liberty," was built out of a fortune tainted with gains from that commerce in humanity. The Newport elder only voiced the opinion of the times when he piously returned thanks for the safe arrival in that Rhode Island port of another load of benighted heathen whom Divine Providence had brought here to enjoy the blessings of the Gospel.
While black slave catchers, their blood afire with New England rum, prowled the jungles of the Dark Continent hunting down their brothers to sell them into West Indian and American slavery, English kidnapers snatched boys and girls from the slums of London and the lesser ports of England and Ireland to sell them into colonial bondage for a term of years.
The very name "America" became a terror in the hovels of the poor. Fathers were knocked down in the streets and dragged away from their families. Parents sold their children to obtain a little money for food or drink. Thieves, tramps and "sturdy beggars" were taken from jails and work houses and shipped to the colonies.
England still was in a painful transition from feudalism to capitalism, with the rich growing richer by the change, and the poor sunk to the lowest level of misery in the frightful history of English poverty. The bold peasantry, which had been England's pride, was being uprooted from the soil and doomed to destruction. Multitudes had lost their ancient moorings to the land, and literally were cast adrift on the highways. The law dealt cruelly with those homeless people, limiting their wage to a pittance, and flogging, branding and driving from town to town all the many who could find no work at all. If any yielded to their desperate struts and stole 11 pence worth of anything they could be imprisoned for life, and hanging was the penalty for stealing anything worth so much as a shilling.
No one knows how many there were in that compulsory emigration. It is guessed that from 15,000 to 20,000 were landed in Maryland alone before 1763. When Virginia and Pennsylvania objected to being converted into a dumping ground for English criminals, the protesting colonists cheerfully were assured that the jail birds and workhouse inmates probably would reform in new surroundings. Franklin retorted with a proposal to ship a return cargo of American rattlesnakes to see if those reptiles would not change their evil ways in England!
Still even this seed of the Nation was not as bad as the label on the package would indicate. Most of the exiles were less criminal than the laws that condemned them, sometimes for killing a rabbit or catching a fish that was reserved only for the lord of the manor. A lady's maid chose America in preference to jail for stealing her ladyship's handkerchief. A down-at-the-heel baronet, who stole a ring, and a barrister of the Middle Temple, who took a book from the library of Trinity College, also were among the so-called criminals.
Often the deportees were educated persons, with Oxford and Cambridge graduates among them. These found themselves at a premium in the colonies. The second, third and fourth generations of the colonists had little time to spare for the needs of the mind. Illiteracy had grown like a weed, until a majority of even the landowners in some parts of the country could not write their names and had to make a mark when they gave a deed.
Convicts with a good English schooling were eagerly welcomed as tutors and clerks. Was Hobby, the man who taught George Washington to read and write, among them? Tradition has it so. A newspaper advertisement offered "a likely servant man's time for four years, who is very well qualified for a clerk or to teach school; he reads, writes, understands well." Many of the schoolteachers of Maryland were drawn from this class. One immigrant who had run afoul the law of England became the guardian of the law of proud Virginia, where he rose to the Attorney Generalship.
Frankly some of the first seed of the Nation could have been better chosen. But all our useful grans were only weeds until they received a new chance in a new soil to improve their quality.
The elements that took the lead in the colonies were a sifted people. They were the holder spirits who had shaken off the trammels of Old World creeds or castes or poverty to answer the call of the Great Adventure . . . to make a hazard of new fortunes in a new world . . . to rear the monuments of man, as Shelly sang, beneath the dome of a new Heaven.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Nov 22 1927, p. 18