Salutary Neglect


Salutary neglect was Britain’s unofficial policy, initiated by prime minister Robert Walpole, to relax the enforcement of strict regulations, particularly trade laws, imposed on the American colonies late in the seventeenth and early in the eighteenth centuries. Walpole and other proponents of this approach hoped that Britain, by easing its grip on colonial trade, could focus its attention on European politics and further cement its role as a world power. Because the policy was unwritten, it went unnamed until March 22, 1775, when Edmund Burke, addressing Parliament, cited British officials’ “wise and salutary neglect” as the prime factor in the booming commercial success of the country’s North American holdings. Indeed, salutary neglect enabled the American colonies to prosper by trading with non-British entities, and then to spend that wealth on British-made goods, while at the same time providing Britain with raw materials for manufacture. But the policy had an unintended side effect: it enabled the colonies to operate independently of Britain, both economically and politically, and to forge an American identity. Some historians argue that this loose hold on the colonies, which George III and his ministers tightened in 1760, gave them the freedom to pull away from Britain and start down the path to revolution.


While historians agree that administrative neglect facilitated the rise of autonomous political and legal institutions in the American colonies, they also point out that this liberty operated within a broader, coercive system of economic rules imposed by the Crown. In the seventeenth century, England invested in domestic manufacturing, hoping to decrease the number of imported goods and increase exports. The American colonies were valuable as providers of raw materials and as a market for English goods—even more so after Parliament passed the Navigation Acts, a series of laws limiting colonial trade for England’s benefit. The Navigation Act of 1651, which required all goods shipped to and from the American colonies to travel in English ships, excluded Dutch vessels from American ports, thereby denying Virginia planters their best trading partners. The Staple Act of 1663 limited the exportation of certain goods—including tobacco, indigo, and sugar—to England only. In addition, goods from non-English entities had to pass through England on their way to America, which raised their prices and made it financially unfeasible for colonists to buy anything but English goods. The Revenue Act of 1673 imposed a “plantation duty” on exports of those valuable staple crops. In May 1696 King William III created the Board of Trade to administer these laws and supervise colonial trade.

Still, many Virginia planters ignored these mercantilist restrictions and continued to trade with Dutch merchants. Then a series of wars between England and France disrupted Atlantic commerce, and planters were forced to ship tobacco in convoys escorted by the Royal Navy. Illegal trade with the Dutch waned; after 1700, most Chesapeake planters shipped their tobacco to England and, following the Act of Union in 1707, increasingly to Scotland. English and Scottish merchants grew rich by processing half of Virginia’s tobacco for domestic consumption and legally reexporting the rest to Dutch manufacturers.

Britain imposed its will on colonial manufacturing as well. As warfare cut the tobacco trade, Virginians began to raise more sheep, grow cotton, and weave their own cotton and woolen cloth. To maintain a market for English cloth and preserve tobacco production, which yielded huge excise taxes for Britain, Parliament enacted the Woolen Act of 1699. The act allowed the colonists to manufacture cloth but not to export it, even to other colonies. As this legislation, and the subsequent Hat Act (1732) and Iron Act (1750), constrained colonial industry, British laws taxing foreign goods shaped colonial consumption.

The Rise of Self-Government in America

In 1721, Sir Robert Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and became Britain’s first prime minister. He and Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle—the cabinet officer who most influenced American policy during Walpole’s tenure—favored expansion of trade, and were willing to relax enforcement of the Navigation Acts if doing so helped to advance trade and increase the flow of money among Britain and its colonies. For example, New England merchants profited greatly from illegally trading fish and lumber to French possessions in the Caribbean, which sent rum, sugar, and molasses to the west coast of Africa, which then sent slaves to America; as a result, New England merchants could purchase a higher quantity of British goods. As long as American exports fueled British prosperity, the Crown would focus its attention elsewhere.

However, some historians argue that salutary neglect was less a deliberate policy and more a product of administrative inefficiency, financial stringency, and political incompetence. To help ensure his tenure, Walpole developed a patronage network in America. He filled vacant colonial offices with his friends and political allies, who, more often than not, were ineffective leaders willing to overlook complicated problems for their own financial gain. As a result, colonial assemblies grew more powerful, and those British officers who were determined to uphold the king’s authority were often simply overruled.

The Age of Imperial Administration

The British government was more vigilant when overseeing matters involving contracts, debts, and the rates of currency exchange. In 1732, in response to British merchants’ complaints that Virginia planters refused to pay their debts, Parliament enacted the Debt Recovery Act, which allowed creditors to seize land and slaves. As their debt mounted in the 1740s, planters won relief from the House of Burgesses in the form of a law exempting land from seizure unless pledged by mortgage and setting an artificially low rate of currency exchange. The law allowed residents to pay sterling debts in Virginia currency at a favorable rate, to be set by local courts. “It would be dangerous to trust Your Claim to the Decision of a jury,” the Virginia agent for the Scottish firm James Buchanon and Company told his employers.

The biased verdicts rendered by Virginia juries were one of many developments that exposed the contradictions between the colonists’ control of local political and legal institutions and the coercive imperial laws of trade and navigation and sparked a change in policy. Another factor was the mounting expense of the wars England was fighting with France and Spain. Even before the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, British ministers (under the reign of a new king, George III) began to replace salutary neglect with a new system, imperial administration, which focused on parliamentary taxation and bureaucratic regulation.

The switch in policy caught Americans off guard. To make matters more confusing, British policies vacillated as different political factions within Parliament gained or lost power. In 1753, the Privy Council instructed governors to appoint judges contingent “upon the pleasure of the crown,” so they could easily be removed from office. In 1764, the Sugar Act imposed new taxes on mainland imports and expanded the authority of the vice admiralty courts, where decisions on maritime crimes, including smuggling, were handed down without consulting a jury; in 1766 the act was repealed. In 1765, after news of the Stamp Act made its way to colonial America, the House of Burgesses began to employ language that would become familiar during the American Revolution (1775–1783), declaring in the Virginia Resolves that the act had “a manifest Tendency to Destroy American freedom.” The Stamp Act, too, was repealed after a massive outcry of protest from the American colonies, including Virginia.

The pattern of administrative neglect, forceful lawmaking, and repeal set by the British government had an indelible effect on the minds of American colonists. Years after the American Revolution, when asked why he supported the republican-minded Patriot movement in 1776, Maryland planter-aristocrat Charles Carroll replied that he believed the British would “make up with us” as they had in decades past.

Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America

In a long address to Parliament on March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke marveled at the twelve-fold expansion of Britain’s commerce with its North American possessions since 1700. These happy circumstances, he suggested, derived from the “spirit of liberty” among the two million residents of “European blood and color,” the labor of 500,000 enslaved Africans, and, most important, “a wise and salutary neglect” by British officials that allowed the colonies to make their “own way to perfection.”

Burke’s choice of the word “salutary” was also meant to criticize the stricter controls on the colonies imposed by George III and his reform-minded ministers. Like other conservative members of the Whig party, Burke had opposed the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, arguing that Britain’s North American possessions had already contributed mightily to her prosperity. Colonists had purchased vast quantities of British manufactures and provided huge crops of tobacco and rice, which yielded both substantial excise duties and valuable exports. “If America gives you taxable objects on which you lay your duties here, and gives you, at the same time, a surplus by a foreign sale of her commodities … she has performed her part to the British revenue.”

“Let the Colonists always keep the idea of their civil rights,” including the power to lay their own taxes, Burke advised Frederick North, earl of Guilford‘s ministry, and “no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance.”

October 9, 1651
Parliament passes the Navigation Act, which requires all goods shipped to and from the American colonies to travel in English ships and excludes Dutch vessels from American ports, thereby denying Virginia planters their best trading partners.
Parliament passes the Staple Act, limiting the export of certain enumerated crops, most prominently Chesapeake tobacco and West Indian sugar, to England.
May 1696
King William III appoints a body of eight commissioners, known as the Board of Trade, to supervise colonial laws, particularly those that might contradict imperial trade policy.
Parliament passes the Woolen Act, which prohibits the export of American-made cloth from its colony of origin.
Alexander Spotswood seeks to enhance imperial authority during his tenure as governor of Virginia, but is met with resistance from the General Assembly.
April 1721
British statesman Robert Walpole is appointed to the offices of First Lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, effectively becoming Britain's first prime minister. During his tenure, Walpole will promote a relaxed attitude toward enforcement of colonial trade laws.
Parliament passes the Hat Act, preventing the trade of American-made hats, and the Debt Recovery Act, which declares land and slaves to be the equivalent of property for the purpose of satisfying debts owed by colonists.
In response to Parliament's Debt Recovery Act, which permits British creditors to seize land and slaves, the House of Burgesses enacts legislation that exempts lands from seizure unless they are pledged by mortgage.
Parliament passes the Iron Act, which restricts the American manufacture of finished iron goods, but allows iron ore in America to be mined, smelted, and exported to Britain.
The Seven Years' War among Britain, France, and Spain for control of North America sparks British efforts to strengthen imperial institutions and authority and exposes discrepancies between British trade policies and their enforcement in the colonies.
April 5, 1764
Parliament passes the Sugar Act, which imposes new taxes on mainland imports, and increases the authority of vice admiralty courts to hand down decisions regarding customs violations without a jury.
March 22, 1765
Parliament passes the "Duties in American Colonies Act 1765," better known as the Stamp Act, a piece of legislation introduced by George Grenville, the British prime minister. It requires all printed materials in the American colonies to be produced on specially stamped paper manufactured in London, England.
May 29, 1765
Patrick Henry persuades a sparsely attended House of Burgesses to adopt five resolutions condemning the Stamp Act as a violation of the ancient rights of Englishmen in Virginia, known as the "Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act." Burgesses rescind one resolution and never formally propose or vote on two others.
March 17, 1766
Under pressure from Charles Watson-Wentworth, marquess of Rockingham, King George III agrees to repeal the Stamp Act.
March 22, 1775
In an address to Parliament, Edmund Burke cites British officials' "wise and salutary neglect" as the prime factor in the booming commercial success of Britain's North American holdings.
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APA Citation:
Henretta, James. Salutary Neglect. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/salutary-neglect.
MLA Citation:
Henretta, James. "Salutary Neglect" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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