The Navigation Acts

1651–1774

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws that controlled trade and shipping between Great Britain and the American Colonies. The laws were expanded to restrict manufacturing in America and enforce the Mercantile System. Enforcement of the Navigation Acts was a direct cause of the American Revolution.

George Grenville, Prime Minister, Portrait

George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Navigation Acts Summary

The Navigation Acts – also known as the Acts of Trade and Navigation — were a series of laws enacted by the British Parliament between 1651 and 1774 to regulate trade in Colonial America.

Rooted in the principles of Mercantilism, the Navigation Acts aimed to strengthen the British economy by utilizing the colonies as a source of raw materials and a market for finished goods. Initially, the Navigation Acts focused on challenging Dutch competition in overseas trade, requiring that most American goods be transported in English or colonial ships with a significant British crew presence.

Over time, additional Navigation Acts were passed to tighten imperial control and protect British merchants and manufacturers from colonial competition. The Revenues Act of 1663 imposed a “plantation duty” on certain colonial goods not delivered to England, while customs officials were assigned to colonial port cities. Despite these measures, enforcement proved challenging due to limited personnel and the distance between Great Britain and the colonies.

In an attempt to further protect British interests, subsequent acts, often referred to as the Trade Acts, targeted specific industries and restricted manufacturing in America. The 1699 Woolen Act and the 1732 Hat Act prohibited the export and intercolonial sales of certain textiles and colonial-made hats.

The 1733 Molasses Act, a Navigation Act, was designed to protect West Indian planters and merchants and imposed a high tax on molasses imported to the colonies from non-British ports.

While the Navigation Acs achieved their mercantilist goals, such as a favorable balance of trade and reduced dependence on foreign markets, they had notable consequences for the American colonies. Surprisingly, the acts stimulated the colonial economy by providing guaranteed markets and incentives for producing specific commodities. Some acts even helped increase shipbuilding in New England.

However, not all acts were strictly followed, with colonial merchants freely trading restricted goods such as rum, molasses, and sugar. The limitations and restrictions imposed by the Navigation Acts began to be felt by some colonists in the mid-18th century when Great Britain ended the policy of Salutary Neglect.

Over time, the Navigation Acts played an important role in shaping colonial trade and British economic dominance. While initially beneficial to both the British Empire and the American Colonies, the long-term effects would ultimately contribute to tensions and discontent in the colonies, leading to the American Revolution.

Oliver Cromwell, Portrait
The first Navigation Act was passed by Oliver Cromwell and the Rump Parliament. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Navigation Acts Facts

The Navigation Acts Regulated Trade in the British Empire

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws passed by Parliament between 1651 and 1733 to regulate trade in colonial America.

The purpose of these acts was to enforce the principles of mercantilism, which stated that colonies existed to benefit the mother country’s economy.

While the Navigation Acts were not always strictly enforced, they did contribute to the British economy by controlling American trade and safeguarding the interests of British merchants and manufacturers.

The policies unintentionally stimulated the economic growth of colonial North America, particularly before the mid-18th century.

England Needed to Control Trade to Maintain Its Mercantile System

England aimed to enhance its economy and viewed its colonies as a strategic resource to achieve this objective, which was part of the Mercantile System.

The colonies were perceived as providers of raw materials and potential consumers of finished goods.

English manufacturers would process the raw materials obtained from the colonies.

The goal was for England to export more goods than it imported, reducing reliance on resources from rival European nations.

The Trade and Navigation Acts were implemented to facilitate the achievement of these economic goals.

The Navigation Act of 1651

The Navigation Acts of 1651 were primarily concerned with shipping and aimed to counter the dominance of Dutch traders in overseas trade.

According to the law, the majority of American goods had to be transported using English or colonial ships.

Additionally, at least half of the crew onboard these ships needed to be citizens of the British Empire, including colonists.

This provision helped promote the expansion of England’s merchant marine.

By enforcing these regulations, the Acts ensured that revenue generated from colonial trade stayed within the British Empire instead of paying the Dutch to transport colonial goods.

Enforcement of the Navigation Act of 1651 was a cause of the First Anglo-Dutch War.

The Navigation Act of 1660

In 1660, Parliament passed a second navigation act to modify the previous policy.

The new act mandated that all colonial trade must be conducted using English or colonial ships.

The master of the ship and three-fourths of the crew had to be British.

The act granted England greater control over colonial exports and facilitated the imposition of taxes on these products.

Specific valuable commodities like tobacco, sugar, indigo, and cotton were required to be shipped exclusively to England or other British ports.

These goods could then be sold within the British Empire or sent to other European ports.

Over time, additional items such as rice, molasses, furs, and naval stores were included in the list of “enumerated” goods.

The act introduced intermediaries in the transportation process, which increased costs but also generated income for England.

During the 1660s, the import duties on tobacco from Maryland and Virginia accounted for 25 percent of English customs revenue.

The Staples Act of 1663

In 1663, Parliament enacted the Staples Act, which established a requirement that all European exports destined for British colonial America had to be first shipped to England.

This policy resulted in an increase in prices for these goods.

As a consequence, many British products became the most affordable option for American consumers in the colonies.

The colonists responded to these policies in diverse ways.

Tobacco planters, who were heavily impacted by the customs duties, contended that these additional expenses significantly reduced their profits.

Small planters, in particular, were adversely affected by the increased costs associated with the policies.

Merchants and shippers from New England frequently disregarded the Navigation Acts and continued trading with the Dutch or sought alternative methods, such as smuggling, to evade the new regulations.

King Charles II, Crowned at Westminster Abbey
King Charles II was the English monarch in 1663. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Revenue Act of 1663

In an effort to strengthen its control over the colonies, Parliament enacted the Revenues Act of 1663.

This act required ship captains transporting specific colonial goods to pay a “plantation duty” on any enumerated items that were not delivered to England.

Furthermore, a team of customs officials was appointed to oversee trade in colonial port cities.

Despite these measures, their success was limited due to insufficient numbers of customs officials to effectively monitor all trade activities.

Parliament made another attempt in 1696 to address loopholes in previous acts and established vice-admiralty courts to handle cases related to smuggling and other trade offenses.

Restrictions on Manufacturing in America

Between 1699 and 1733, Parliament introduced additional legislation with the aim of safeguarding the interests of British merchants and manufacturers from colonial competition.

The 1699 Woolen Act and the 1732 Hat Act were enacted to prohibit the export and intercolonial sales of specific textiles and hats produced in the colonies.

The Molasses Act of 1733

The 1733 Molasses Act was designed to protect planters and merchants in the West Indies and imposed a high tax on molasses imported to the colonies from non-British ports.

Despite these measures, New England merchants and distillers largely disregarded the Molasses Act and often resorted to bribing customs officials to avoid paying the tariff.

Benefits of the Navigation Acts

Overall, the policies implemented by England through the Navigation Acts achieved their mercantilist objectives.

England successfully established a favorable balance of trade and reduced reliance on foreign markets.

The British treasury benefited from the customs duties imposed on colonists.

Contrary to the intentions of mercantilist theory, these acts actually facilitated the economic development of the American colonies.

The colonists gained advantages from guaranteed markets and incentives offered for producing certain commodities.

Some acts stimulated the shipbuilding industry in New England.

These trade regulations were mutually beneficial, at least until the mid-18th century, when some colonists began to feel the limitations and constraints imposed by certain restrictions.

Salutary Neglect

Certain acts, however, were largely disregarded, and colonial merchants freely traded rum, molasses, and sugar with minimal interference from customs officials.

For a time, customs officials were encouraged to allow Americans to violate the laws, which was technically considered smuggling. Customs officials were also known to accept bribes from merchants.

The unwritten policy, known as Salutary Neglect, was supported by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, as a way to keep the colonies in line while he dealt with issues in Europe.

Robert Walpole, Painting
Prime Minister Robert Walpole implemented the unwritten policy known as Salutary Neglect. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Navigation Acts Were a Direct Cause of the American Revolution

When Prime Minister George Grenville decided to enforce the Molasses Act, Salutary Neglect ended.

He instructed British Customs Officials to enforce the laws, collect taxes, and crack down on smuggling.

Grenville followed by implementing the Sugar Act, Currency Act, and Stamp Act.

The end of Salutary Neglect and the new taxes led to political and public opposition in America, marking the start of the American Revolution.

Navigation Acts Significance to American History

The Navigation Acts are important to United States history because of the role they played in enforcing the Mercantil System on the American Colonies from 1651 to 1773. Although the colonies benefitted from some of the laws, the Navigation Acts as a whole restricted the freedoms and liberties of Americans and became a direct cause of the American Revolution.

Navigation Acts APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the Navigation Acts, Mercantilism, and Colonial America for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Navigation Acts APUSH Definition

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws passed by the British Parliament between 1651 and 1733, aiming to regulate colonial trade and enforce mercantilist principles. These acts required that most American goods be transported on English or colonial ships, boosted British merchant marines, and restricted trade with other nations.

Navigation Acts APUSH Video

This video from Heimler’s History discusses Taxation Without Representation for the AP US History exam, including the Navigation Acts.