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Salutary Neglect

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Salutary Neglect

The expansion and exploitation of triangular trade networks established by the British and Europe during the 1600s created vast wealth for those nations. In England, the government was pleased the system was working and began to loosen control over the governance of the colonies in North America in a policy known as salutary neglect from 1720 to 1742.

Little did Britain know that they were sowing the seeds of revolution as the American colonists strengthened their governments and exposed themselves to lucrative trade opportunities with other nations.

Triangular trade

A colonial network in which three regions were connected; the movement of raw materials from the Americas to Europe, manufactured goods from Europe to West Africa, and slaves from Africa to the Americas.

Trade was not limited to this triangle - England also sold finished goods back to the colonies and to other European countries.

Background to the Era of Salutary Neglect

England’s mercantilism, the economic system used by England and other European countries in the late 1600s that focused on self-sufficiency, was working by the 1650s. Using the colonies as a source of raw materials for their industries created a trade network that perpetually created more wealth.


The economic theory that trade generates wealth and is stimulated by the accumulation of profitable resources, which a government should encourage by means of protection through laws strictly controlling the trade of those goods.

England had created an economic system that was making them vast wealth, and they moved to protect it from the influence of other powerful nations such as the Dutch and Spain. Mercantilism was creating a booming economy in England, and in the 1660s, they moved to protect that system from outside influences.

The Navigation Acts

England began protecting its mercantile system with the colonies through the Navigation Acts. The significant acts passed in 1660, 1663, and 1673 established three primary principles for conducting trade with England:

  • First, only English or colonial merchants and ships could trade in the colonies.
  • Second, certain valuable American products could only be imported and sold in England. These goods included wool, sugar, tobacco, indigo, ginger, and dyes. Later additions would include furs, copper, rice, and items used in shipping such as tar and masts.
  • Third, all foreign goods sold in the colonies had to be sent through England and pay British import taxes.
  • Later, other acts made it so the colonies could not make or export items that competed with English finished products.

These Acts strictly limited trade for the American colonies to only England. Though it benefited England's economy, the Americans saw their economic choices stifled. In response, American merchants created illegal markets and trade routes to smuggle goods to other nations such as France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Over time, the English practice of protecting their mercantile system changed as they reaped the economic benefits and avoided conflict with the American colonists. For a while, as long as Britain's trade networks were creating profits, they turned a blind eye to lapse governance in the colonies and colonial smuggling.

The practice of smuggling goods created during this time period would be addressed by the English government in the mid-1700s as they tightened control over a now rebellious continent.

The Period of Salutary Neglect

A Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, 1740.

Over the next few decades, following the passage of the Navigation Acts, especially under the rule of King George I (1714-1727) and King George II (1727-1760), royal officials, pleased by growing trade and increase in tax revenue, relaxed their supervision of internal colonial trade.

In 1775, Edmond Burke, a political philosopher, would coin the phrase “strategy of salutary neglect.”

The Influence of Sir Robert Walpole

Salutary neglect is by-product of the politics and policy of Sir Robert Walpole, who was the leader of the British House of Commons from 1720 to 1742. Walpole practiced giving his supporters political appointments to office and pensions, using this as a system to win parliamentary approval for his policies. However, his appointments usually put people in positions of power, such as Colonial governorship, who were unqualified or corrupt.

Walpole’s policies weakened colonial governance and the entire British political system. Other political parties in England protested that Walpole had used bribes to create a political party- the Court Party, as a means of artificially getting his policies past.

Walpole’s policies of high taxes and an expanded government authority seemed to threaten English liberties. In response, colonial legislatures complained that royal governors abused their powers. To preserve their freedom, many colonial governments strengthened the capabilities of their representative assemblies. In doing so, they laid the foundation for the movement for American independence from Britain.

That 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.

- Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, 1775 1

Examples of Salutary Neglect

  • An example of the inept governance in the colonies is the installation of Governor Gabriel Johnson in North Carolina in the 1730s. He took the position intending to limit the powers of the local colonial legislatures. But with little support, he quickly backed off the reform and decided to do nothing that would upset the current balance of power and commerce.

  • An example of colonial exploitation of the lack of enforcement of the Navigation Acts is colonial merchants controlling nearly all the trade with the British islands in the Caribbean and conducting trade with the French Caribbean islands, avoiding the higher British tax.

  • An example of smuggling markets created is after the passing of the Molasses Act in 1733, which placed a high tariff on French molasses, American merchants smuggled in French molasses by bribing officials. The Act was not rigorously enforced due to lapse oversight by the British ministry of the colonies and the rising prices of British sugar, almost negating the tariff.

The Effects of Salutary Neglect on the Colonies

The main effect of salutary neglect on the colonies was that it allowed colonial assemblies' power to grow.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 in England, when King James II was removed from the throne and replaced by his daughter Queen Mary and her husband King William, many representative assemblies began to limit the power of crown officials. American colonists saw the Glorious Revolution and the policies enacted by the Whig party following the revolution as examples of changing British attitudes towards authoritative control.

For instance, during the 1720s, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New Jersey repeatedly ignored royal instructions to provide their royal governors with a permanent salary. Using tactics such as these, colonial legislatures eroded power away from royal bureaucrats and gradually took control of taxation and appointments.

Members of the elite led these empowered colonial assemblies. Although white property-owning men had the right to vote, only men of wealth stood for election into the legislature. Nevertheless, even these assemblies controlled by their elite had difficulty imposing unpopular acts and laws on the members of their colonies.

Protests by crowds against unpopular laws became commonplace in colonial life. This found freedom of protest mixed with the growing influence power of representative colonial government and the salutary neglect of trade enforcement created a system that would respond to the will of the wealthy colonial elite and resist more British control.

The Significance of Salutary Neglect

  • The lack of oversight and enforcement of the Navigation Acts and other protectionist policies allowed colonial American Merchants to consolidate more control over their own markets and trade during the early decades of the 1700s.

  • Through this newly accumulated power, wealthy colonial merchants began to influence local colonial governance and policies and organize protests against policies they felt weakened or limited American trade.

  • In the era of salutary neglect, American colonists benefited from more economic freedoms and direct control of their own taxes and trade as the power and influence of their local legislatures grew.

  • After the French and Indian War (1754 - 1763), Britain began to reinforce the protectionist policies and implement new taxes due to debts from the war. These policies, taxes, acts, and enforcement came in direct conflict with the freedoms the Americans had come accustomed to during the period of salutary neglect. Thus began the political and economic turmoil that would lead to the American Revolution.

Era of Salutary Neglect - Key takeaways

  • Overall, the economic system of mercantilism was successful. England saw good profits from trade and taxation of goods imported and exported from the American colonies, so much so that they passed the Navigation Acts to protect their economic interests from rival nations.
  • Salutary neglect is a by-product of the politics and policy of Sir Robert Walpole, who was the leader of the British House of Commons from 1720 to 1742.
  • An example of this salutary neglect in the colonies through appointment is the installation of Governor Gabriel Johnson in North Carolina in the 1730s. He took the position intending to limit the powers of the local colonial legislatures. But with little support, he quickly backed off the reform and decided to do nothing that would upset the current balance of power and commerce.
  • To preserve their freedom, many colonial governments strengthened the capabilities of their representative assemblies. In doing so, they laid the foundation for the movement for American independence from Britain.
  • In the 1740s and 1750s, the English Parliament would take steps and enact laws to attempt to pull back the political power of the American colonial assemblies and reassert their authority. The conclusion of the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War) saw the “official” end of the era of salutary neglect.

1. Fundamental Documents: Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies. (n.d.). University of Chicago Press. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from

Frequently Asked Questions about Salutary Neglect

Salutary neglect is an early eighteenth-century British policy relaxing the strict enforcement of trade policies in the American colonies.

Salutary neglect is vital because the effects of the “policy” allowed for the expansion of colonial governmental power and the erosion of British central authority in the colonies, leading to the 1750s and 1760s that led to the American movement for independence. 

Salutary neglect affected the colonies by allowing merchants, plantation owners, and other wealthy elites to violate the Navigation Acts with little repercussion from the British authorities. This, in turn, weakened British authority in the colonies, allowing for local governments to consolidate governmental power and oversight to themselves. 

It is called the Era of Salutary Neglect because it lasted from the 1720s to the 1740s, coinciding with the reign of Sir Robert Walpole in the House of Commons; his appointments to office and policies led to the relaxing of strict enforcement of trade policies. 

Initially, the by-product of salutary neglect benefitted Britain by allowing colonial trade to prosper unhampered by strict regulation. However, this policy lost England's authority and control over colonial trade in the long term and attempting to correct the balance of power in the 1750s and 1760s led to the American push for independence. 

Final Salutary Neglect Quiz


The Navigation Acts did all of the following except

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All colonial merchant vessels were subject to unwarranted search and seizure for smuggled goods.

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True or false: Salutary Neglect was an official policy put in place by Sir Robert Walpole

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Which of the following groups of colonists are most likely to hold elected office?

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Wealthy and economically connected White Men

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Which of the following was NOT an effect of the Era of Salutary Neglect

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With the British shifting focus away from the American Colonies, French settlements in Canada begin to encroach on English claims

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Which of the following is true about the Era of Salutary Neglect?

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All of the following are True

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Which of the following ended the Era of Salutary Neglect?

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The end of the Seven Years War

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During the early to mid-1700s, the policy of salutary neglect toward the American colonies contributed to:

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The development of independent colonial trade practices

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Which statement about the British colonial policy of mercantilism is most accurate?

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Raw materials from the colonies were shipped to England

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The Navigation Acts influenced British mercantilism by

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Requiring that colonial trade take place with the English empire

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True or False: The Era of Salutary Neglect played an important factor in why the American colonies sought independence in the 1770s

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