Edmund Burke, Portrait

Edmund Burke was the first one to use the phrase “salutary neglect.” He did so in a speech he delivered to the House of Commons on March 22, 1775. This portrait of Burke was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Source: Public Domain).

Salutary Neglect

ca. 1651–ca. 1764

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Definition and Summary

Salutary Neglect is defined as an unofficial policy of the British government under which trade laws and government supervision were not strictly enforced on the American Colonies – they were neglected – by the government and customs officials.

It allowed the British Colonies along the east coast of North America to avoid compliance with trade laws and encouraged them to stay loyal to the King and Parliament. At the same time, it allowed British officials to concentrate on affairs in Europe as the British Empire expanded.

The idea of Salutary Neglect can also be viewed as something that happened simply because Britain was 3,000 miles — literally an ocean away — from the colonies. There was no real political or military structure in place to enforce many of the laws that Parliament passed. For the most part, Britain simply hoped the loyal subjects of the King or Queen would comply with his or her wishes.

Regardless, Salutary Neglect played a key role in the growth and development of the American Colonies until the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764.

Robert Walpole and Salutary Neglect

In 1721, Robert Walpole was named First Lord of the Treasury and also became the first Prime Minister of Britain. Walpole sought to expand the British Empire through trade and understood that American merchants were generating profits that benefitted Britain, even if they were doing so through illegal means.

Robert Walpole, Painting

Robert Walpole was the first Prime Minister of Britain (Public Domain).

Another member of the King’s cabinet, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle, supported Walpole’s vision and helped shape Britain’s policy toward the American Colonies. However, Britain still failed to establish significant methods of collecting duties and enforcing the laws in the colonies.

Salutary Neglect is often looked at as a policy that Walpole supported and promoted. However, he tried to maintain some semblance of control over the colonies by filling offices with people he knew. However, many of them ended up taking a passive role in colonial affairs, which allowed colonial assemblies to become more organized and important to the process of governing the colonies.

Salutary Neglect allowed the government to concentrate on affairs in Europe. As long as the American Colonies continued to produce raw materials for British industries and to buy finished products from British merchants they were willing to look the other way — even if they had no choice but to do so.

Edmund Burke Refers to the Policy as Salutary Neglect

Salutary Neglect was not an official policy, so it was unwritten, but it was given a name on March 22, 1775, in a speech delivered to Parliament by Edmund Burke.

Burke was a vocal critic of Britain’s treatment of the American Colonies, especially its policy of levying taxes on them. He argued that “wise and salutary neglect” was significant to the economic success of the American Colonies. He wanted Parliament to repeal many of the laws that levied taxes on the colonies, and he supported taking measures to mend the strained relationship between Britain and the colonies.

Unfortunately, Burke’s plea came too late. About a month later, on April 19, British troops fired on Americans at Lexington and Concord. The Americans retaliated and chased the British back to Boston. The Americans surrounded Boston and trapped the British forces on the peninsula.

Benefits of Salutary Neglect in Britain’s Mercantile System

There were many benefits to both the American Colonies and Britain as a result of Salutary Neglect.

Salutary Neglect and British Mercantilism

The colonies were essential to Britain’s economic system, known as Mercantilism. Under this system, the colonies were vital for the raw materials they provided, like lumber and whale oil, for British manufacturers, and also as a market for British merchants to sell finished products to. As far as Britain was concerned, the American Colonies existed primarily for the economic benefit — the profit — of the Mother Country.

Salutary Neglect allowed colonial merchants to flourish, which also benefited British merchants. As Americans prospered, they were able to purchase more products from British merchants.

Jamestown, Loading Tobacco, Painting

Under the Mercantile System, colonies were vital because they provided raw materials, like tobacco, to the Mother Country.

Salutary Neglect Helped Keep the Peace

The last thing Britain wanted was for the American Colonies to turn on it and side with the French, who held substantial territory to the north and west of the colonies.

Any uprisings were a serious concern and Britain wanted to avoid situations like Bacon’s Rebellion, which took place in Virginia from 1676–1677, or the Culpeper Rebellion, which took place in North Carolina in 1677.

Although British troops were occasionally sent to North America, there was no standing army to deal with colonial unrest or conflicts with the French or Native Tribes. It was expensive to send troops to the colonies and simply more cost-effective to give the colonies a long leash and let them govern themselves and to conduct business — for the most part — as they saw fit.

The lack of customs officials in the colonies or a standing army made it difficult to enforce the laws, which tended to upset the colonists. Salutary Neglect eased tensions, which helped to keep the peace while both the American Colonies and the British Empire flourished.

Disadvantages of Salutary Neglect

There were some disadvantages to Britain’s policy of Salutary Neglect.

Salutary Neglect Encouraged Americans to Ignore the Navigation Acts

Salutary Neglect was almost necessary because there was very little Britain could do to enforce compliance with trade laws like the Navigation Acts. For several hundreds of years, British monarchs had enforced trade laws that placed regulations on trade and industry. At first, those laws applied to England. As England grew and became Great Britain, the laws were expanded and applied throughout the British Empire.

The Navigation Acts were a series of laws that regulated shipping throughout the Empire. They went so far as to define who could own ships that transported goods and products, who could be on the crew of those ships, and where the ships could load and unload cargo. The first official Navigation Act was passed in 1651.

Compliance with the Navigation Acts was done largely by charging customs duties, or taxes, on shipments, which had to be paid when ships docked in England. If the ship was carrying certain products, which were usually from foreign countries, the taxes were higher. A good example of this is how the Sugar Act levied taxes on imported molasses. If molasses was imported from the French West Indies, then the tax was higher than if the molasses was imported from the British West Indies.

Under Salutary Neglect, the Navigation Acts were basically ignored in the American Colonies. Technically, this led to an increase in smuggling — the illegal shipment of goods. However, since the laws and consequences were not enforced, American merchants simply conducted business as they saw fit.

Salutary Neglect Contributed to Triangular Trade, Restrictions on Manufacturing, and the Trade of Enslaved People

Triangular Trade was brought about through the adherence to Mercantilism. The Navigation Acts and other laws that restricted manufacturing in the colonies forced merchants to trade goods with other regions throughout the Empire, whether they wanted to or not. Thanks to Mercantilism, the system was still set up to benefit the Mother Country.

The idea of Triangular Trade was that regions of the Empire would trade materials and goods they had a surplus of to regions that needed those materials and goods. For example, the New England colonies would trade wood and whale oil to England in return for finished goods, like hats and dresses.

Although hats and dresses could be made in the colonies, manufacturing was discouraged. In some cases, it was restricted by laws like the Hat Act, which placed restrictions on the manufacturing of hats in the colonies and prohibited the export of American-made hats to foreign countries.

Americans complied with many of the laws that restricted manufacturing because they could still acquire what they needed from British merchants. However, when it came to the trade laws, they ignored those because it kept their cost of doing business lower and no one was really enforcing them anyway due to Salutary Neglect.

The low cost of doing businesses encouraged plantation owners, especially in the south, to find the cheapest labor they could. It came to them in the form of enslaved people, who were first brought to Virginia in 1619 by Dutch merchants. One of the key Triangular Trade Routes was the Middle Passage, which ran from Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean, to the American Colonies and colonies in the Caribbean.

Salutary Neglect as a Cause of the American Revolution

It is accurate that Salutary Neglect contributed to the prosperity of the American Colonies, but Britain also enjoyed the fruits of that prosperity. What Britain did not understand was that the colonies had not only gained a semblance of economic dependence, but also political independence.

The idea of Salutary Neglect was not a cause of the American Revolution or the War for Independence. The cause was the reversal of the policy and the attempts by Parliament, the Ministry, and the Crown to impose the will of Britain on the colonies.

Prior to the French and Indian War, Americans simply ignored most of the laws and Britain had no means of enforcing them. After the war, Britain decided to reverse the policy and start enforcing the Navigation Acts and new laws, and then the trouble began.

The independent political and economic nature of Americans came to the forefront. At first, they resisted with pamphlets and letters, which helped develop the ideology of the American Revolution. However, as Britain continued to press the issue and assert its authority by sending troops to the colonies the Americans resented how they were being treated. In turn, the troops that were sent to America resented the colonists for how they were treated, especially when colonial legislatures refused to provide funds for food and housing.

Eventually, the resentment led to fighting between soldiers and colonists that resulted in riots at the Battle of Golden Hill in New York City and the death of five colonists in the Boston Massacre. These incidents and others made it clear to the colonists that British officials and soldiers were ready and willing to use violence to bend them to their will.

Boston Tea Party, Engraving

Illustration of the Boston Tea Party, which took place on December 16, 1773.

Although tensions eased somewhat after the Boston Massacre, they rose again when Parliament passed the Tea Act and gave the British East India Company a monopoly on the selling of tea in the colonies. The Sons of Liberty in Boston responded by throwing roughly 340 chests of tea into the harbor in the Boston Tea Party. By then, Parliament was fed up with Boston’s contentious nature and the Coercive Acts were passed to punish Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony for its behavior.

Within a year of implementing the Coercive Acts, fighting between British regulars and American militiamen broke out at Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775.

Facts About Salutary Neglect

Salutary Neglect is a simple concept but had a complex impact on the political and economic relationship between Britain and the American Colonies. These facts about Salutary Neglect provide insight into how it affected the relationship and helped lead to the American Revolution and the War for Independence.

When did Salutary Neglect start?

It is unclear as to when Salutary Neglect began. Since it was difficult for Britain to enforce laws on the American Colonies, it can be argued that it began in 1607, when Jamestown was founded. It can also be argued that it began in 1651 when the Navigation Act of 1651 was passed.

When did Salutary Neglect End?

After the end of the French and Indian War, Britain was deep in debt and gained a significant amount of new territory in North America. British officials looked for ways to reverse Salutary Neglect and still retain control of the American Colonies.

From a political perspective, Salutary Neglect began to end with the Proclamation of 1763. After the French and Indian War, France ceded most of its territory in North America — what was called New France — to Britain. Soon after, Native Tribes led by Pontiac conducted raids against British forts and settlements on the western frontier. It is known as Pontiac’s Rebellion or Pontiac’s War. In order to keep the peace between Britain and the Native Tribes, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains.

However, it was clear that Britain needed to do something to protect the new territory in North America. The decision was made to place a standing army in the colonies to garrison forts along the frontier. Parliament decided that the colonies needed to provide a portion of the funds needed for the new army, and passed the Sugar Act. George Grenville, the Exchequer, was responsible for the Sugar Act, which began to reverse the long-standing policy of Salutary Neglect.

Unlike previous laws, the Sugar Act specifically stated part of its purpose was to raise revenue. In order to collect the revenue, Britain began enforcing the provisions of the Navigation Acts and the Sugar Act by using the Royal Navy to police the oceans and waterways and by expanding the number of customs officials and Admiralty Courts.

James Otis, Portrait

James Otis was a vocal critic of the Sugar Act and other British policies.

Salutary Neglect still continued after the passage of the Sugar Act, because Britain still had very little means of enforcing the laws. Americans simply smuggled more and paid bribes to customs officials to look the other way. On top of that, anyone who was accused of smuggling and was tried in a court in the colonies was usually found innocent of the charges.

Parliament continued to look for ways to tighten its control over the colonies and to raise revenue from them by passing more laws:

How did Salutary Neglect make the colonists feel?

Salutary Neglect made the colonists feel as if they were British subjects, equal to people living in London. Despite having to operate within Britain’s Mercantile System, Americans were still able to enjoy a significant amount of freedom in regards to how they lived their lives, conducted business, and governed themselves.

What is an example of Salutary Neglect?

The classic example of Salutary Neglect is Britain’s weak enforcement of trade laws like the Navigation Acts.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Salutary Neglect
  • Coverage ca. 1651–ca. 1764
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 18, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 8, 2022
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