The Period of Salutary Neglect



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The Period of Salutary Neglect

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Salutary neglect was the unofficial British policy of lenient or lax enforcement of parliamentary laws regarding the American colonies during the seventeenth (1600s) and eighteenth (1700s) centuries. This policy was followed to keep colonial allegiance while allowing Britain to focus its attention on European politics. 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 which occurred after salutary neglect ended in 1763.
The easiest 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 (children) 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. Like all parents, Britain had instituted certain rules that needed to be followed.
During the seventeenth century, 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 insuring 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 of 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 that violated the Navigation Acts.
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 to achieve this goal. In addition to economic gain, Walpole also filled colonial governing positions (colonial governors, customs officials, etc.) with those who were loyal to him politically.

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. Many of these officials accepted bribes by merchants who wanted to get their cargoes past inspectors.


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 crown-appointed governors, the American colonies developed very independent-minded legislatures which passed laws for their own governance. Many of these legislatures, especially in Massachusetts and Virginia, were accustomed to passing their 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 (present day Canada).
Despite British economic gains, salutary neglect came to an end in 1763 with the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War). During this world war, which pitted Britain against its French foe, Britain incurred millions in war debt to insure its victory. While gaining territorial control in North America added to Britain's power, the cost to maintain this expanded empire, in addition to the debt acquired to fight the war, made Britain reevaluate its colonial policy of salutary neglect. A change in policy came right on the heels of the ascension of King George III in 1760. King George reorganized colonial administration and reinvigorated an enforcement of the Navigation Acts. Colonial merchants began to be prosecuted for smuggling, and additional laws were passed. This infuriated American colonists who had become accustomed to fairly independent rule.
On March 22, 1775 (a month before Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution), Edmund Burke addressed the British Parliament in attempt to ease the tensions that had been growing since the end of salutary neglect in 1763. Burke remembered the harmonious relationship that had existed between the colonies and Britain, 'through a wise and salutary neglect.' Despite his appeal to return to that policy, the colonies and Britain drifted toward war as the rebellious colonies tried to maintain the independence they had once enjoyed with their lenient mother country under salutary neglect.
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Create a thesis statement (1-2 sentences) that explains the reason(s) that England created and accepted the policy of salutary neglect.


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