About the Author: Johnny Roy, PhD has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 9 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has actively been involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 4 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam. Dr. Roy has recently worked with the Ohio Department of Education to help revise the states Model Curriculum for American History.
Salutary neglect was an unofficial British policy of non-enforcement of trade regulations on their American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. The purpose was to maximize economic output amongst the colonists while maintain some form of control. By allowing some financial freedoms and self-regulation amongst colonial merchants the hope was that any British intervention would not be met with much resistance out of fear of harsher British interventions. However, with the passage of the Navigation Acts and the financial crisis created by English debt from the 7 Years War (French and Indian War) salutary neglect became more difficult to sustain. As England moved away from a policy of salutary neglect, their intervention in the colonies with taxation acts and governmental regulations eventually led to the American Revolution and the colonies declaration of independence in 1776.
As England moved away from a policy of salutary neglect, their intervention in the colonies with taxation acts and governmental regulations eventually led to the American Revolution and the colonies declaration of independence in 1776.
Economic Policies of an Empire
Beginning with the foundation of Jamestown in 1607, Britain lacked a true policy of economic control over their colonies in America. Instead English parliament operated under the guidelines of mercantilism throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Mercantilism was an economic policy designed to take advantage of the natural resources, raw materials, and the collection of gold and silver of colonized lands in order to consolidate economic power and wealth for the home country. While mercantilist policies vary by country, the basic premise is to collect gold and silver, import raw materials while exporting finished goods, and regulate the trade of your colonies goods to the home country in order to maximize their benefits.
While mercantilist policies vary by country, the basic premise is to collect gold and silver, import raw materials while exporting finished goods, and regulate the trade of your colonies goods to the home country in order to maximize their benefits.
England developed an official trade policy concerning North America in 1651 with the passage of the Navigation Acts. The Navigation Acts were some of the first parliamentary laws to more strictly regulate trade with the American colonies. Originally aimed at controlling the influence of competing European influence, cutting down on colonial smuggling, and tightening control over its imperialistic ventures, the Navigation Acts served as a protection of British business interests in North America. European competition from the French, Dutch, and Spanish challenged English opportunities on the continent. Colonial goods of sugar, indigo, rice, and tobacco were specifically targeted under the series of Navigation Acts due to their popularity and profitability to the mother country. However, despite passing the Navigation Acts the British government rarely enforced these regulations resulting in a period of time known as ‘salutary neglect’.
Despite passing the Navigation Acts the British government rarely enforced these regulations resulting in a period of time known as ‘salutary neglect’.
A Wise Salutary Neglect
Salutary neglect was an unofficial policy of non-enforcement of the trade regulations passed by British Parliament. Along with the economic freedoms experienced by merchants came access to greater political freedoms through the development of local legislatures. This was done with the long term goal of controlling the imperial colonies in America through granting access to limited freedoms. British Prime Minister Robert Walpole (1721-1742) believed the American colonies should be let alone to export raw materials and import various manufactured goods from England. American goods such as timber, fish, tobacco, and rice were highly valuable to England and Warpole believed that American merchants should be free to export raw materials to England for needed finished products. Warpole believed that a certain degree of non-intervention was necessary to ensure the cooperation and obedience of colonists much to the benefit of England. If the colonist believed that they were able to practice some level of self-determination, then it would serve to keep them more loyal to the crown. Unlike those that may see the crown as being too authoritarian in their governance of the colonies.
However, the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ was seen as a necessary way of easing the fears of colonial merchants who were themselves afraid of royal overreach and looking to maximize economic opportunities.
Though often avoided due to increased smuggling and non-compliance, the regulations imposed by the Navigation Acts became increasingly important to the economic strength and stability of the British Empire because of the access to raw materials found in North America; resources desperately needed in England. However, the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ was seen as a necessary way of easing the fears of colonial merchants who were themselves afraid of royal overreach and looking to maximize economic opportunities. Salutary neglect was essential in allowing merchants to independently and freely determine the path of their businesses, which in turn kept them satisfied.
Salutary neglect was essential in allowing merchants to independently and freely determine the path of their businesses, which in turn kept them satisfied.
During this era the colonists began to sow the seeds of economic and governmental self-determination that would eventually set the stage for the American Revolution. Local colonial assemblies formed throughout America. The House of Burgess in Virginia, Delegates in Maryland, or Representatives in Massachusetts were chosen by popular votes. Access to the right to vote was often time restricted to land holding whites, but there was elected representatives none the less. Determining local political and economic policy due to the absence of British influence thanks to salutary neglect shaped American beliefs in self-rule and self-governance.
Following the events of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) the British Empire was left in tremendous financial debt and the continuing practice of salutary neglect was no longer an option.
More frequent conflicts with local Indian tribes due to the colonists’ efforts to push west in an attempt to acquire more land once again put Berkeley at odds with Bacon and his followers. Conflicts with local tribes were expensive and destructive and didn’t support the policies of the emerging planter elite who made up Berkeley’s base of power in Virginia. The established wealthy planters wanted to protect their interests by restricting access to land that would allow for the creation of plantations to rival their own. Bacon and his followers saw these actions as corrupt because Berkeley did not allow them to pursue their own economic interests as others maintained a stranglehold on the tobacco profits.
The established wealthy planters wanted to protect their interests by restricting access to land that would allow for the creation of plantations to rival their own.
Bacon and his followers saw these actions as corrupt.
Bacon and his followers levied charges of political corruption against both Governor Berkeley and the House of Burgesses. These charges ultimately led to a battle for political control between the two strong-willed men. Bacon wanted swift and harsh action to be taken against the native tribes for their attacks on local settlements which Berkeley refused. Berkeley urged for a more cooperative relationship with the natives and a restriction of expansion plans by those in the west. Neither of those options was satisfactory to Bacon and simply furthered the divide between the two men.
By 1670, the Virginia House of Burgesses had restricted the vote of landless free white men who now made up more than half of the population in an effort to quell the growing voices of dissent.
Road to Independence
Strong colonial voices sprang up to defend colonists against perceived British transgressions, Samuel Adams and John Hancock were some of the first to take up the mantle of independence. Debates over taxation policies, representation in government, and the ever growing presence of British soldiers knows as redcoats in the colonies, ultimately led to the formation of resistance groups like the Sons of Liberty and events such as the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. British reaction to the Tea Party were swift and harsh resulting in the passage of the Intolerable Acts. This legislation would send a clear message that England would no longer engage in any sort of hands off approach with the colonies as they attempted to reign in colonial resistance. Salutary neglect was no longer a policy that England would tolerate.
While still wishing to reconcile differences with England, the lessons and freedoms of self-governance experienced during the era of salutary neglect ran deep within the delegates to the Continental Congress.
While salutary neglect was not an official policy, it is safe to say that the enforcement of the Intolerable Acts was a clear ending to any notion of less influence by England towards the colonists. Self-government, religious freedom, and economic independence were now the talk of major port cities, small towns, and rural areas alike. To coordinate colonial resistance to the Intolerable Acts, a Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774. Revolutionary leaders George Washington, Patrick Henry, John and Samuel Adams were a few of the men present to discuss future courses of action. While still wishing to reconcile differences with England, the lessons and freedoms of self-governance experienced during the era of salutary neglect ran deep within the delegates to the Continental Congress. The seeds of Revolution were growing and British control over its North American empire were slipping away.