The Trade and Navigation Acts for APUSH
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
The Trade and Navigation Acts
The Trade and Navigation Acts were a series of measures enacted by the English Parliament during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They were a by-product of the economic system of mercantilism designed to bolster the British economy by establishing a favorable balance of trade (i.e., exports exceeding imports so that money flows into the British economy). The Trade and Navigation Acts reflected the mercantilist philosophy that the central government of a country should have a major role in the control and regulation of the economy. To that end the acts placed restrictions on where goods could be bought and sold and in what ships those goods could be carried. The Trade and Navigation Acts both helped and hurt the economic development of the British North American colonies and would eventually become a catalyst for sparking the American Revolution.
The Trade and Navigation Acts reflected the mercantilist philosophy that the central government of a country should have a major role in the control and regulation of the economy.
The economic philosophy of mercantilism, dominant in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, held that the country which accumulated the greatest wealth, gold and silver, was the most powerful because those resources could build a military. In order to accumulate wealth, countries needed to achieve a favorable balance of trade, that is, export more than they imported so that money flowed into the country rather than out of the country. To do this the government had to play a dominant role in the regulation of the economy by establishing trade restrictions.
The economic philosophy of mercantilism held that the country which accumulated the greatest wealth, gold and silver, was the most powerful because those resources could build a military.
During the middle to late seventeenth century, a series of trade wars developed between the two dominant commercial powers (that is the two major countries that carried goods to and from other countries), the Dutch and the English. Each side sought to cripple the trade of their opponent by imposing trade restrictions on where and how their countrymen and colonists could conduct business. The English enacted Trade and Navigation Acts in 1651, the first in a series of trade acts aimed at bolstering British trade at the expense of Dutch trade. This first act, and subsequent acts, required that all goods produced in the British Empire be shipped in British ships with British crews.
The Trade and Navigation Acts also required that certain “enumerated” commodities produced in the British colonies be sold only in Great Britain, even when higher prices might be had elsewhere. British merchants were required to buy raw materials from the British colonies rather than foreign competitors. All foreign goods imported into the British colonies (because the government realized that certain products could not be obtained within the empire) had to first be shipped through England. This allowed England to monitor the consumption of these foreign goods and it also raised their cost, making their consumption less likely. Under mercantilism colonies existed for the good of the mother country.
Under mercantilism colonies existed for the good of the mother country.
Ideally, colonies were to produce needed raw materials that would fuel the development of industry in the mother country. Colonies were also designed to be markets for the manufactured goods of the mother country. Manufacturing of certain items in the colonies was prohibited to ensure that colonists consumed British made goods rather than cheaper colonial products. Thus the Trade and Navigation Acts placed severe restrictions on colonial trade.
The Trade and Navigation Acts placed severe restrictions on colonial trade.
Its Not All Bad
However, the Trade and Navigation Acts also provided considerable benefits to the colonies. The requirement that goods be carried in British ships with British crews significantly boosted colonial shipbuilding and related industries while providing additional opportunities for colonial employment. Enumerated commodities had a monopoly on the British market since British buyers could purchase those goods only from the British colonies. As well, production of certain products in great demand in the mother country (particularly naval stores) was bolstered by the payment of “bounties” (additional cash payments) to encourage increased production. Also, certain commodities (in adequate supply in Great Britain) could be sold in markets outside of the British Empire. In general, the colonists obeyed the Trade and Navigation Acts when they benefitted them and they ignored them when they ran contrary to colonial interests.
In general, the colonists obeyed the Trade and Navigation Acts when they benefitted them and they ignored them when they ran contrary to colonial interests.
In order to be effective, the Trade and Navigation Acts required continuous monitoring of colonial trade to make certain colonies were in compliance with the laws. However, a series of internal and European events prevented England from strictly enforcing the regulations. Events such as the English Civil War, the Anglo-Dutch Commercial Wars, the Glorious Revolution, Queen Anne’s War, and King George’s War diverted British attention from the colonies to more pressing concerns nearer to home. British pre-occupation with internal and European affairs, instead of enforcing the Trade and Navigation Acts in the colonies, became known as “salutary neglect” and it allowed the colonies a sense of economic independence. Smuggling goods from other nations into the colonies without passing through England was common. That sense of independence developed very early as the Massachusetts General Court asserted in 1678 in reaction to British trade restrictions:
“We humbly conceive that the laws of England are bounded within the four seas and do not reach America.”
Even earlier in 1671, the Earl of Sandwich, an Englishman visiting the colonies, noted:
“(New Englanders) are at present a numerous and thriving people…mighty rich and powerful…and not at all careful of their dependence on old England.”
British pre-occupation with internal and European affairs, instead of enforcing the Trade and Navigation Acts in the colonies, became known as “salutary neglect” and it allowed the colonies a sense of economic independence.
Then the French and Indian War…
Victory in the war left Britain dominant on the European continent and therefore no longer distracted, which in turn led to an end of salutary neglect.
The British victory in the French and Indian War was, in the words of one historian, “too complete.” Victory in the war left Britain dominant on the European continent and therefore no longer distracted, which in turn led to an end of salutary neglect. The French and Indian War dramatically altered colonial selective compliance to the Trade and Navigation Acts in two ways. First, during the war, expanded British presence in the colonies made it clear that the colonies were not behaving in a mercantilist manner. Great Britain was determined to correct that relationship. Second, the French and Indian War left Great Britain with a huge debt. With the British population already heavily taxed, Parliament looked to the colonies to pay, from the British perspective, their fair share of the war costs. Additional funds were to be raised from the colonies through a variety of taxes and through more stringent enforcement of the Trade and Navigation Acts. Particularly, the Townshend Acts of 1767 placed import duties on an expanded number of items, allowed general search warrants (known as writs of assistance) to be used to help control smuggling, and moved trials for smuggling cases to “admiralty courts” where judges were more likely to convict defendants than were colonial juries. The colonists chafed under these new restrictions and their enforcement furthered the breach between the colonies and the mother country in the lead up to the American Revolution.
The colonists chafed under these new restrictions and their enforcement furthered the breach between the colonies and the mother country in the lead up to the American Revolution.
Trade Under the Constitution of 1787
With the ratification of the Constitution, the United States government quickly assumed the authority to regulate trade just as the British government had with the Trade and Navigation Acts. At times these trade restrictions were imposed for economic reasons and at times they were imposed for political reasons. The most common trade restriction was the protective tariff designed to increase the cost of foreign goods, thus making them less desirable. Frequently trade restrictions were designed to force foreign countries to change their policies toward the United States. Jefferson’s embargo was designed to force Britain and France to respect American neutrality. During the Cold War, restrictions were placed on the sale of U.S. goods to communist countries, notably China and Cuba. Even into the 1980s, restrictions on the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union served to bolster diplomatic pressure on the U.S.S.R. to alter its foreign policy. Thus, the original intent of the Trade and Navigation Acts to bolster the economic development of nations at the expense of others has grown to include trade restrictions designed to compel reluctant countries to alter their policies or face economic consequences.
With the ratification of the Constitution, the United States government quickly assumed the authority to regulate trade just as the British government had with the Trade and Navigation Acts.
The Trade and Navigation Acts, which imposed restrictions on both English and colonial merchants in order to successfully realize the mercantilist goal of accumulating wealth for the mother country, had both positive and negative consequences for the colonies in the British Empire. In the end, however, the economic freedom that the British North American colonies enjoyed over the extended period of salutary neglect led to an unwillingness on the part of the colonists to passively accept British authority over the colonies following the end to the French and Indian War. That resentment over British control was one of the factors that led to the American Revolution.