Salutary neglect

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In American history, salutary neglect was the British Crown policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws, especially trade laws, as long as British colonies remained loyal to the government of, and contributed to the economic growth of their parent country, England, in the 18th century.

Up to the end of the 17th century, mercantile ideas were gaining force in England and giving general shape to trade policy through a series of Navigation Acts. After the collapse of the centralized Dominion of New England in 1689 to 1763, salutary neglect was employed. After 1763, Britain began to try to enforce stricter rules and more direct management, leading eventually to the American Revolutionary War.[1][2]


The colonies had a certain level of autonomy early on. During the Establishment of the Dominion of New England which was implemented in part to enforce the Navigation Acts, administration was centralized and the colonies were presided over by the very unpopular Edmund Andros. After the Glorious Revolution, the 1689 Boston revolt[1] and the removal of Andros, the colonies were able to return to an informal state of local ruling bodies insulated by certain boundaries from England.[3] The policy was later formalised by Robert Walpole after he took the position of Lord Commissioner of the Treasury in 1721, working with Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. In an effort to increase tax income, Walpole laxed the enforcement of trade laws and decreased regulations, stating: “if no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish”.[1]

Walpole did not believe in enforcing the Navigation Acts, established under Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, which required goods traded between the United Kingdom and her colonies had to be carried on English ships, as part of the larger economic strategy of mercantilism.[1][2]

The policy went unnamed until the term was coined in Edmund Burke's "Speech on Conciliation with America", given in the House of Commons on March 22 1775. The speech praised the governance of the British America, which "through a wise and salutary neglect", achieved great commercial success.[4][5]

When I know that the colonies in general owe little or nothing to any care of ours, and that they are not squeezed into this happy form by the constraints of watchful and suspicious government, but that, through a wise and salutary neglect, a generous nature has been suffered to take her own way to perfection; when I reflect upon these effects, when I see how profitable they have been to us, I feel all the pride of power sink, and all presumption in the wisdom of human contrivances melt and die away within me.[6]


The policy succeeded in increasing money flow from the colonies to Britain. The lack of enforcement of trading laws meant American merchants profited from illegal trading with French possessions in the Caribbean, which Britain prospered from in turn as American merchants purchased more British goods.[4]

The laissez-faire nature of the policy led to the colonies being de facto independent. The policy helped develop a sense of independence and self-sufficiency and enabled colonial assemblies to wield significant power over the royally appointed governors through their control of colony finances.[1] Additionally, Walpole's willingness to fill the unpopular colonial offices with friends and political allies led to an ineffective king's authority overseas.[4][2]

End of Policy[edit]

From 1763 Britain began to try to enforce stricter rules and more direct management, driven in part by the outcome of the Seven Years' War in which Britain had gained large swathes of new territory in North America at the Treaty of Paris. The war meant that Britain had accrued large debts and it was decided to deploy troops in the colonies to defend them from continued threats from France.[1]

Prime Minister George Grenville thus proposed additional taxes supplementing the Navigation Acts known as the Grenville Acts: the Sugar Act 1764, the Currency Act 1764 and, the Stamp Act 1765 all aimed at increasing authority in and revenue from the colonies. These were unpopular in the colonies, leading to the Stamp Act riots in August 1765 and the Boston Massacre in March 1770. The Grenville Acts, as well as the Intolerable Acts, were defining factors that led to the American Revolutionary War.[1]

Deliberateness of Policy[edit]

To what extent "salutary neglect" constituted an actual neglect of colonial affairs, as the name suggests, versus a conscious policy of the British government, is controversial among historians, and also varies with national perspective. While Americans may side with Burke on the "salutary" effect of this policy, emphasizing the economic and social development of the colonies, it was from a British imperial perspective a momentous failure, and debate remains as to its true social, economic, and political effects.

The Board of Trade, which enforced mercantilist legislation in the United Kingdom, was too weak to enforce its own laws until 1748. Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, became the relevant Secretary of State in 1724, but took time to learn the duties of his office, and even after that he was not firm in his action, causing historian James Henretta to blame salutary neglect on "administrative inefficiency, financial stringency, and political incompetence".[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "What Was the British Policy of Salutary Neglect?". Retrieved 2020-02-09.
  2. ^ a b c "salutary neglect | Definition, Significance, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-02-09.
  3. ^ Chet, Guy (2019). The Colonists' American Revolution. p. 53.
  4. ^ a b c "Salutary Neglect". Retrieved 2020-02-09.
  5. ^ "Burke's Speech, by Edmond Burke". Retrieved 2020-02-09.
  6. ^ Burke, Edmund (1834). The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke: With a Biographical and Critical Introduction, and Portrait After Sir Joshua Reynolds. Holdsworth and Ball. p. 186.