British law stipulated that the American colonies could only trade with the mother country. 

Overview

  • The Navigation Acts were a series of laws passed by the British Parliament that imposed restrictions on colonial trade.
  • British economic policy was based on mercantilism, which aimed to use the American colonies to bolster British state power and finances.
  • The Navigation Acts inflamed the hostilities of American colonists and proved a significant contributing event leading up to the revolution.

What is mercantilism?

Mercantilism was an economic theory that encouraged government regulation of the economy for the purpose of enhancing state power. The primary goal was to run trade surpluses and thereby fill the state’s coffers with silver and gold. The predominant school of economic thought from the 15th through the 18th centuries, mercantilism rejected free trade and fueled European imperialism.
Mercantilism led to wars between European powers for control of maritime trade routes—such as the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. It also created the triangular trade in the North Atlantic, which involved the export of raw materials from the colonies to Britain, the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas, and the subsequent importation of manufactured goods from Britain to the colonies.1^1
British economic policy was mercantilist in nature. The British Parliament enacted such mechanisms as protectionist trade barriers, governmental regulations, and subsidies to domestic industries for the purpose of augmenting British finances at the expense of colonial territories and other European imperial powers. England also sought to prevent its colonies in North America from trading with other European countries and from developing a robust manufacturing industry. To this end, beginning in 1651, the British Parliament adopted a series of legislation known as the Navigation Acts.2^2
Image of a three-masted ship.
The Navigation Acts prevented British colonies from trading with nations other than Britain. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution

With the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the North American colonies’ supply lines to metropolitan Britain were disrupted. This led the colonies to establish trade relations with the Dutch and the French in order to encourage the flow of manufactured goods into North America. As the English Civil War drew to a close, the British sought to reimpose control over colonial trade relations.3^3
In 1651, the British Parliament, in the first of what became known as the Navigation Acts, declared that only English ships would be allowed to bring goods into England, and that the North American colonies could only export its commodities, such as tobacco and sugar, to England. This effectively prevented the colonies from trading with other European countries. The act was followed by several others that imposed additional limitations on colonial trade and increased customs duties.
Although their overall economic impact was minimal, the Navigation Acts imposed burdens on those segments of American colonial society best positioned to foment a rebellion. The groups most negatively affected by the Navigation Acts—colonial manufacturers and merchants; tobacco, rice, and sugar planters; and artisans and mechanics—were all central actors in prerevolutionary anti-British agitation. Merchants were especially active in colonial politics, and they responded to the acts with hostility. The passage of the Navigation Acts thus contributed to rising anti-British sentiment and the eventual outbreak of the American Revolution.4^4

What do you think?

Describe mercantilism in your own words. Was it a just economic policy? Were the foundations of mercantilist theory sound?
Can you imagine a policy the British could have adopted that would have bolstered British finances without incurring the wrath of the colonists?
How important do you think the Navigation Acts were in solidifying anti-British sentiment in the North American colonies?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on mercantilism, see Lars Magnusson, The Political Economy of Mercantilism (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  2. See Lawrence A. Harper, English Navigation Laws: A Seventeenth-Century Experiment in Social Engineering (London: Octagon Books, 1964).
  3. For more on the English Civil War, see Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).
  4. See Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974).
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