Bryan Caplan  

Emigration and Revolution

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Actions speak louder than words - and exiting your country - emigration - is the loudest action most people will ever take.  Mass emigration swiftly exposed the horrors of communism.  The French Revolution is also notorious for provoking flight.  How does the American Revolution compare?  From Rothbard's Conceived In Liberty, vol. 4:
The eminent historian Robert R. Palmer has offered a critically important comparison of the degree of radicalism in the American and French revolutions: the number of emigres who felt compelled to flee the country during the revolution.  The French Revolution created 129,000 exiles out of a total population of about 25 million: an emigre ratio of 5 per 1000.  The American Tory emigres amounted to what Palmer very conservatively sets at 60,000 in a population of about 2.5 million: 24 emigres per 1,000.  But at least half a million of the American population were slaves, who could hardly be considered in the same category as other inhabitants of the colonies.  A more likely estimate for Tory emigration in the Revolution is 100,000.  At this corrected rate, 50 Americans out of every 1,000 were emigres during the Revolution, a rate fully tenfold of the exile rate in the supposedly more radical French Revolution.
I've found discrepancies in Rothbard's historical citations before, but I tracked down his source (Robert Palmer's Age of Democratic Revolutions) and everything checks out.  You could say that moving from the U.S. to Canada was a lot easier than moving from France to any neighboring country, but that's hardly clear.  Most obviously, French counter-revolutionaries could move to Belgium without learning a new tongue.  And transportation was probably a lot better in France than colonial America.  So while it's tempting to dismiss reports of anti-Tory atrocities as isolated incidents, the Tories' emigration rate tells a truly frightening story.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

An interesting post, Bryan. But, in addition to the one you point out, differences between the two cases need to be noted.

First, for the French revolution, there was no way to emigrate and preserve the subject-hood that one had been accustomed or attached to. Not so for emigrating from the American colonies. The American case is one of secession. The French case is a real revolution.

Second, I can well imagine, and identify with, one valuing being British a lot more than being French. Ask Montesquieu or Voltaire.

BC writes:

Is it gross emigration or net migration that matters? By 1801, US population had more than doubled to 5.5M while France's population had grown only to 29M. Obviously, there has been even more net immigration to the US in the ensuing decades and centuries.

If the Tories were emigrating due to conditions in the US rather than out of a desire to remain British, then why were so many non-Tories immigrating into this supposedly "frightening" country? Out of curiosity, did the French Revolution inspire many peasants to move to France in search of egalite?

lupis42 writes:

That would suggest that the election of Lincoln, which caused ~4 million southerners (not counting the slaves) to leave the country, out of a population of ~27 million, (148 per thousand) would suggest that the horrors of the US circa 1861 were as much worse than the American Revolution as the American Revolution was worse than the French Revolution.

Or we could say that "voting to secede" is not directly commensurable with "moving to another region/territory within the empire", which is also not really commensurable with "emigration requiring a change of at least some of: citizenship/law/currency/language/etc."

For all the abuses visited on Tories during the revolution, I can't find an estimate of the victims that even comes close to the 40,000 people executed in the reign of terror ( 625/million). I can't find anything on organized executions of Loyalists after the American revolution, let alone the ~4000 that would be comparable.
That makes me think that, comparing them, the French revolution was probably worse, and a metric that says otherwise, but is less clearly comparable, is probably not helpful.

Zeke5123 writes:

Isn't the change in the rate of emigration more important than the spot rate of emigration? It seems in reading histories of the US ca 1780 that people often left one part of the New World for another in hopes of riches.

James Hanley writes:

I don't think it's true that French people could move to Belgium without learning a new language. The area now called France had a variety of dialects whose mutual intelligibility varied, and what was spoken in Belgium was at least one more, that may have been readily understandable by some French, but not by others.

Bob Knaus writes:

Circumstances were different at the end of the American Revolution. As part of the peace settlement, Tories with sufficient land and connections were offered resettlement elsewhere in the British dominions, with a Crown subsidy. Many in the northeastern colonies chose Canada. Southern plantation owners tended to choose Caribbean islands where they could transport their slaves. For a well-written historical novel of those who made the disastrous choice of the Bahamas, read "Wind from the Carolinas".

Gavin Sullivan writes:

After America's Revolutionary War--and after our sincere Tories had already left--Canada sweetened the deal offering land and exemption from conscription to formerly neutral (and even anti-Brit) Americans who'd emigrate northward. These ('the largest group to settle Upper Canada before the War of 1812') are known, amusingly, as The Late Loyalists.

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