New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

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Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature 1500-1700, ed. Lorna Hutson (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), Chapter 38


We tend to think of global migration and the problem of which legal rights people enjoy as they cross borders as modern phenomena. They are not. The question of emigrant rights was one of the foundational issues in what can be called the constitution of the English empire at the beginning of transatlantic colonization in the seventeenth century. This essay analyzes one strand of this constitutionalism, a strand captured by the resonant term, ‘the liberties and privileges of Englishmen’. Almost every colonial grant – whether corporate charter, royal charter, or proprietary grant – for roughly two dozen imagined, projected, failed, and realized overseas ventures contained a clause stating that the emigrants would enjoy the liberties, privileges and immunities of English subjects. The clause was not invented for transatlantic colonization. Instead, it had medieval roots. Accordingly, royal drafters, colonial grantees, and settlers penned and read these guarantees against the background of traditional interpretations about what they meant.

Soon, however, the language of English liberties and privileges escaped the founding documents, and contests over these keywords permeated legal debates on the meaning and effects of colonization. Just as the formula of English liberties and privileges became a cornerstone of England’s constitutional monarchy, it also became a foundation of the imperial constitution. As English people brought the formula west, they gave it new meanings, and then they returned with it to England and created entirely new problems.

Liberties and privileges claims fell into five functional categories. First, the claim that colonists abroad and their descendants enjoyed English liberties functioned as an open door, allowing overseas colonists to return home to England and be treated as equal English subjects. Second, the king or his colonial deputies might make positive grants of English liberties to subjects in a royal territory outside England as an inducement for English subjects to migrate there. Here, the grant of English liberties and privileges functioned as a window, a transparent promise of familiar and cherished rights to encourage settlement. Third, already by the time of the English Civil War and more frequently by century’s end, the colonists themselves sometimes claimed English liberties, privileges, and immunities abroad as a floor below which governors could not push. Fourth, in the reverse of the second, the claim that overseas subjects had to be governed according to English standards, including English liberties and privileges, could function as a ceiling on colonial innovation. It was a ceiling measured by metropolitan officials, especially the Privy Council as it reviewed colonial statutes and judicial cases to ensure that they were, in the familiar language of colonial grants, ‘agreeable’ with and ‘not repugnant’ to the laws of England. Finally, colonial assumptions of English liberties functioned as a mirror through which colonists could see themselves as English, even when their colonial rights, such as their property rights, were viewed at home as peculiar. If for example a subject of the English king in an overseas dominion owned slaves in that dominion and wished to sojourn home, could he bring his slaves? Could he carry the rights of a Virginian or Jamaican with him to England and enjoy those rights there? Collapsing English and local liberties, slaveholders argued affirmatively. As Englishmen they should, they thought, be able to move around the empire with their property, including human property.

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