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What is Salutary Neglect?

Salutary Neglect was a British policy in the 17th and 18th centuries that allowed its American colonies to flourish by loosely enforcing trade laws. This hands-off approach fostered an independent spirit and economic growth. But what happened when Britain changed its stance? Discover how this period set the stage for revolution and shaped a nation's destiny. What might we learn from this historical approach?
Henry Gaudet
Henry Gaudet

From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect. Under this policy, enforcement of parliamentary law was deliberately lax, with the stated objective of encouraging colonial prosperity. Colonists were, for the most part, left to look after their own affairs. The fact that the practice lasted for generations, along with the attempt to end this policy and reassert British authority in the 18th century, are identified as important factors leading to the American Revolution.

According to the laws of the day, trade between the American colonists and other nations was heavily restricted, and colonists were to trade exclusively with England, Scotland and Ireland. Salutary neglect allowed Great Britain to turn a blind eye to illegal trade activities with other countries, which were difficult and expensive to enforce. As stated by Sir Robert Walpole, viewed by most as Britain’s first prime minister, “If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish.” Walpole also is credited with advising authorities to “let sleeping dogs lie.”

Salutary neglect was a large contributing factor to the American Revoultion.
Salutary neglect was a large contributing factor to the American Revoultion.

During this time, the colonists largely were self-governing. Beginning with the House of Burgesses in Virginia, each of the 13 colonies developed its own legislative body, and by the 18th century, they were functioning as independent, autonomous governments.

Americans enjoyed personal and religious freedoms not shared by other British subjects. Maryland passed the Act Concerning Religion, or the Maryland Toleration Act, in 1649 to protect religious freedoms and promote tolerance. Similar legislation in Pennsylvania attracted settlers from the Quaker community.

Quaker colonists moved to Pennsylvania in order to practice religious freedom.
Quaker colonists moved to Pennsylvania in order to practice religious freedom.

Under salutary neglect, colonists did not feel the influence of the British government and culture. These developments led to a growing sense of American identity, distinct from Britain. People in the colonies had become used to the idea of self-governance and began to think of themselves as British subjects in name only.

After these freedoms were granted, they proved difficult to take back. When the expenses of the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War, began to take their toll, Britain reasserted its control over the colonies. Supplies were seized, and men were drafted into the war effort. These policies eased in response to colonial resistance, but the Americans continued to resent the attempt.

From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect.
From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect.

Further steps marking the end of the policy of neglect followed, including the dissolution of the House of Burgesses in 1769. Tighter enforcement of British law and an increase in taxes further upset the colonists. These actions are considered directly responsible for the American Revolutionary War.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is salutary neglect?

Salutary neglect was an unofficial British policy in the early 18th century that allowed its North American colonies to largely govern themselves, as long as such autonomy did not negatively affect the economic prosperity of Britain. This hands-off approach facilitated the growth of American self-government and commerce, as the colonies operated with minimal interference from the British Parliament. The term was first coined by Edmund Burke, a British statesman, reflecting the idea that benign neglect could be beneficial.

How did salutary neglect contribute to the American Revolution?

Salutary neglect inadvertently sowed the seeds of the American Revolution by allowing the colonies to develop independent political structures and a strong sense of autonomy. When Britain ended this policy and imposed stricter controls and taxes in the 1760s, such as the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, the colonists were unaccustomed to direct interference and resisted, leading to a rise in revolutionary sentiment. This resistance eventually culminated in the quest for independence.

When did salutary neglect end, and why?

Salutary neglect effectively ended with the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763. Britain, facing a massive war debt, began to enforce stricter control over its colonies and sought to generate revenue through direct taxation. The passage of the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765 marked the shift from neglect to intervention, as Britain aimed to manage its empire more closely and recover from the financial strains of war.

What were the economic effects of salutary neglect on the colonies?

The policy of salutary neglect had a profoundly positive impact on the colonial economy. It allowed for the development of colonial legislatures that regulated local commerce, and the lack of strict enforcement of trade laws (like the Navigation Acts) led to a thriving smuggling industry. This economic freedom enabled the colonies to diversify their economies, foster trade with non-British entities, and experience significant growth in both agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

Did salutary neglect have any lasting impacts on the United States?

Yes, the legacy of salutary neglect had lasting impacts on the United States. It established a tradition of self-governance and democratic principles that would shape the political foundation of the nation. The experience of relative autonomy helped cultivate a political identity separate from Britain, which was instrumental in the development of American revolutionary thought and the eventual drafting of the Constitution, embedding a culture of liberty and self-determination in the American ethos.

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Discussion Comments

anon993247

To a small extent, however, American do have to take some responsibility for Britain's "greediness". Britain during the Seven Years War muscled in a lot of soldiers to help the colonists. It was the colonists who started the Seven Years War by moving onto French and Indian land. Britain saw the opportunity to clear France off the map. Along with providing a huge backing in the war, Britain accumulated some much debt that it had to find a way to pay the money back to its debtors. They looked to the colonies because they were prosperous and they were not as eager to help contribute to the war cause. In all truth, the taxes were not even that much. After The Proclamation of 1763, colonists were upset that the King would not let them move past the Appalachian Mountains, even though the king was trying to say "I can't let you go out there, I can't protect you". When the colonists were trying to move out, against their kings orders, he needed to send his troops over to stop them. They had no place to go and they needed shelter, becoming the Quartering Act.

Obviously this is not an in depth analysis, and doesn't talk about the abuse in the colonies. But this gives a second opinion to most.

TimeTheorist

@Perforations - I don't think a modern British super-empire could have happened, even if the British Empire didn't reinstate strict control of the colonies. The Revolutionary War as we know it probably wouldn't have happened. Eventually though, the ambitions of the United States (trading with more than three countries, for example) would have caused it to desire it's own government. If the lax policies of the 17th British Empire had remained in place, it would have only delayed an inevitable revolution.

Perforations

Although it is only possible to speculate on the subject, it's interesting to think that the United States could still be a colony if the British hadn't gotten greedy after the Seven Years War. Had Walpole's attitude persisted on through the generations of British government, the global superpower could have been Britain, with the United States under its control. Only by instating oppressive policies long after the founding of the colonies did the English transplants start to become dissatisfied with their government.

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    • Salutary neglect was a large contributing factor to the American Revoultion.
      By: Dana S. Rothstein
      Salutary neglect was a large contributing factor to the American Revoultion.
    • Quaker colonists moved to Pennsylvania in order to practice religious freedom.
      By: George Eastman House
      Quaker colonists moved to Pennsylvania in order to practice religious freedom.
    • From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect.
      By: kameonline
      From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect.