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Period of Salutary Neglect: Definition & Effects

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:43 Historical Background
  • 4:00 Impact on Colonial Development
  • 7:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

This lesson will help you define the term 'salutary neglect,' learn about its historical origins, and understand both why this policy was ended and how it led to the beginning of the American Revolution.

Salutary Neglect: Definition

Salutary neglect is the unofficial British policy of lenient or lax enforcement of parliamentary laws regarding the American colonies during the 1600s and 1700s. This policy was followed to keep colonial allegiance while allowing Britain to focus its attention on European policies. The phrase 'salutary neglect' was coined by Edmund Burke in an address to Parliament in 1775 when he tried to reconcile the divisions between Britain and the American colonies that occurred after salutary neglect ended in 1763.

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke

Historical Background

The common way to describe Britain's relationship with the American colonies is to refer to Britain as the 'mother country' and the colonies as dependent children. The mother country offers protection and helps the colonies grow while expecting loyalty and reverence in return. This description is crucial in understanding salutary neglect. During this policy, Britain (the mother country) was a very relaxed parent and let the American colonies (her children) live very independent lives. But like all parents, Britain had instituted certain rules that needed to be followed.

During the 17th century, or 1600s, Britain hoped to institute mercantilism, whereby the American colonies would serve as the source of raw materials for Britain's expanding manufacturing and also serve as a market for Britain's manufactured goods. Therefore, the colonies were ensuring Britain's prosperity by creating a favorable balance of trade where Britain exported more goods to her colonies and received raw materials at a favorable price. This policy was instituted officially with the passage of the Navigation Acts in 1651, which restricted colonial trade solely with Britain, requiring all goods shipped to and from the colonies to be transported on British ships.

While the Navigation Acts became the backbone for this mercantilist policy, they proved difficult and costly to enforce. Most colonial merchants found it easy to bypass these laws and rampant smuggling occurred. The colonies traded frequently with the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch.

This illegal smuggling became the foundation of the triangular trade routes between the North American colonies, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. For example, New England merchants often sold fish and timber to French traders in the Caribbean, which in turn sent rum and molasses to the west coast of Africa, which then sold slaves back to the American colonies. This trade made New England merchants very wealthy. Much of that wealth was used to purchase tremendous amounts of British manufactured goods. Therefore, Britain still benefited from this illegal trade network even though it violated the Navigation Acts.

Triangular Trade Routes
Triangular Trade Routes

Britain's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, assumed his position in 1721 and quickly realized that Britain was benefiting economically from this illegal trade. Walpole wanted to expand Britain's economic power and used salutary neglect, the lax enforcement of the Navigation Acts, to achieve this goal. In addition to economic gain, Walpole also filled colonial governing positions, such as colonial governors, customs officials, etc., with those who were loyal to him politically.

Sir Robert Walpole
Sir Robert Walpole

Many of these individuals were inefficient and used their positions for their own political and economic advancement, which only furthered the lax enforcement of laws. For example, many of these officials accepted bribes from merchants who wanted to get their cargoes past inspectors.

Salutary Neglect's Impact on Colonial Development

Being a lenient parent can create very independent and sometimes rebellious children. In this particular case, as the mother country turned a blind eye to enforcing the law, the colonial children set their own course for independent development. While technically under the authority of the British crown and the crown-appointed governors, the American colonies developed very independent-minded legislatures that passed laws for their own governance. Many of these legislatures, especially in Massachusetts and Virginia, were accustomed to passing their own laws regarding taxation. Economically, the colonies prospered under salutary neglect, trading extensively with the French, the Dutch, and the Spanish in the Caribbean, New Orleans, and New France, which is present-day Canada.

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