What were the Navigation Acts? How did the colonists respond to these laws?

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mkoren | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The Navigation Acts were a series of laws designed to control trade between Great Britain and their colonies. The British established colonies for many reasons. One reason was so they could make money from the colonies. To help bring this about, the British wanted to be sure the colonists bought products from Great Britain and used British ships to conduct trade. One of the Navigation Acts said that all trading had to be done using British ships. Another law placed taxes on items that would make foreign made items more expensive. A good example of this was a law that placed high taxes on sugar coming from the French West Indies. In theory, the British believed the colonists would then buy sugar from the British West Indies.

The colonists weren’t pleased with these restrictions. They often ignored them and smuggled products in order to avoid paying the taxes. They also would use the ships of other countries to transport their products. When the British began to enforce these laws more closely after the French and Indian War, the colonial resistance was one factor that led to the Revolutionary War.

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The main colonial response to the Navigation Acts was smuggling.  They did not believe that the acts were just and so they felt justified in breaking them.  They believed that smuggling was not really a crime because the laws were unjust.

The Navigation Acts were laws that were meant to enrich England by regulating the trade of its colonies.  The English government did not want the colonies to trade directly with other countries because that would only help the colonies.  Instead, England wanted all trade from the colonies to go through England first, allowing the mother country to profit off of all the trade. 

These laws made many colonists very angry because they curtailed the colonists’ economic opportunities.  The colonists had to sell to England even when they could have gotten higher prices selling to other countries (particularly to other countries’ colonies in the Caribbean).  They felt the English government was unfairly using them to enrich itself.

Because of this, the colonists responded by smuggling.  They tried to evade the Navigation Acts and to sell directly to people from other countries.  The English eventually tried to crack down on smuggling and colonial anger over the crackdown helped to bring on the Revolutionary War.

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