The Colonial Economy

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What was the British policy of salutary neglect and its consequences for the North American colonies?

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Salutary neglect was the practice by which Parliament essentially left the colonies to their own self-government. Parliament still passed tax laws and navigation acts, but it did not exert any real pressure on the colonists to follow them; rather, it was just understood that patriotic colonists would pay and support British government. This practice existed for about one hundred years, from the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1660 to the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

The British followed this policy because it was assumed that loyal British subjects would support Parliament. Also, it was not cost-effective to persecute a few tax dodgers who lived thousands of miles away.

As a result of salutary neglect, local governments took on a great deal more power, and people in the colonies expected to manage their own governance and taxation. Many in the British colonies flouted navigation acts by trading with whichever nation could provide the best deal—even if that nation was France, Spain, or the Netherlands. Some merchants openly did not pay their full British taxes. Some colonists even moved away from major population centers on the coastline in order to avoid paying taxes altogether. This led to an independent streak in American political thought that Parliament deemed disrespectful.

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Salutary neglect was the policy by which England was largely non-interventionist with its colonies in North America. This did not mean that mercantile laws and regulations were nonexistent, however (consider the Navigation Acts, which were certainly designed under mercantilist principles). However, execution of these laws remained rather lax, and in practice, the colonies were left to govern and oversee themselves.

The reason for this policy was largely a result of distance and technology. In many respects, trying to control colonial behavior did not really make sense for Britain when viewed from a cost-benefit perspective. The colonies were too far away (on the other side of the Atlantic), and it took too long for communications to travel from one side to the other. In the end, the British government recognized the impracticality of maintaining any kind of strict oversight.

In the long term, this history had a profound influence on the origins of the American Revolution. The colonies had, for a long time, enjoyed these policies of lax oversight, and when (after the French and Indian War had left Britain in debt) the British chose to reverse course on these policies, it came as a rude awakening and created a great deal of anger within the colonies. Salutary neglect, therefore, was critical in the history of the American Revolution.

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Salutary neglect refers to Britain's unofficial policy of not strictly enforcing Parliamentary laws in the colonies. Britain practised salutary neglect throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and for practical reasons: America's distance from Britain made it impossible for the government to keep a constant eye on the colonists. They knew, for example, that the colonists bought goods from France and Spain and did nothing to stop it - even though it was technically against British law. Quite simply, it was too expensive for Britain to maintain a full and constant presence in America when it had so many other affairs to tend to. 

As a result of salutary neglect, the colonists enjoyed a degree of self-government which, over time, they cherished and would fiercely protect. They were not accustomed to Britain enforcing trade laws in the colonies so, when this began to happen in the 1763 with the passing of the Navigation Act, they felt that Britain's actions were a direct threat to their liberties and freedoms. Britain continued to pass and enforce restrictive trade laws throughout the 1760s, like the Intolerable Acts, which set many Americans thinking strongly about independence. 

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