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What is Salutary Neglect?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect. Under this policy, enforcement of parliamentary law was deliberately lax, with the stated objective of encouraging colonial prosperity. Colonists were, for the most part, left to look after their own affairs. The fact that the practice lasted for generations, along with the attempt to end this policy and reassert British authority in the 18th century, are identified as important factors leading to the American Revolution.

According to the laws of the day, trade between the American colonists and other nations was heavily restricted, and colonists were to trade exclusively with England, Scotland and Ireland. Salutary neglect allowed Great Britain to turn a blind eye to illegal trade activities with other countries, which were difficult and expensive to enforce. As stated by Sir Robert Walpole, viewed by most as Britain’s first prime minister, “If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish.” Walpole also is credited with advising authorities to “let sleeping dogs lie.”

During this time, the colonists largely were self-governing. Beginning with the House of Burgesses in Virginia, each of the 13 colonies developed its own legislative body, and by the 18th century, they were functioning as independent, autonomous governments.

Americans enjoyed personal and religious freedoms not shared by other British subjects. Maryland passed the Act Concerning Religion, or the Maryland Toleration Act, in 1649 to protect religious freedoms and promote tolerance. Similar legislation in Pennsylvania attracted settlers from the Quaker community.

Under salutary neglect, colonists did not feel the influence of the British government and culture. These developments led to a growing sense of American identity, distinct from Britain. People in the colonies had become used to the idea of self-governance and began to think of themselves as British subjects in name only.

After these freedoms were granted, they proved difficult to take back. When the expenses of the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War, began to take their toll, Britain reasserted its control over the colonies. Supplies were seized, and men were drafted into the war effort. These policies eased in response to colonial resistance, but the Americans continued to resent the attempt.

Further steps marking the end of the policy of neglect followed, including the dissolution of the House of Burgesses in 1769. Tighter enforcement of British law and an increase in taxes further upset the colonists. These actions are considered directly responsible for the American Revolutionary War.

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Discussion Comments
By anon993247 — On Nov 02, 2015

To a small extent, however, American do have to take some responsibility for Britain's "greediness". Britain during the Seven Years War muscled in a lot of soldiers to help the colonists. It was the colonists who started the Seven Years War by moving onto French and Indian land. Britain saw the opportunity to clear France off the map. Along with providing a huge backing in the war, Britain accumulated some much debt that it had to find a way to pay the money back to its debtors. They looked to the colonies because they were prosperous and they were not as eager to help contribute to the war cause. In all truth, the taxes were not even that much. After The Proclamation of 1763, colonists were upset that the King would not let them move past the Appalachian Mountains, even though the king was trying to say "I can't let you go out there, I can't protect you". When the colonists were trying to move out, against their kings orders, he needed to send his troops over to stop them. They had no place to go and they needed shelter, becoming the Quartering Act.

Obviously this is not an in depth analysis, and doesn't talk about the abuse in the colonies. But this gives a second opinion to most.

By TimeTheorist — On Sep 17, 2010

@Perforations - I don't think a modern British super-empire could have happened, even if the British Empire didn't reinstate strict control of the colonies. The Revolutionary War as we know it probably wouldn't have happened. Eventually though, the ambitions of the United States (trading with more than three countries, for example) would have caused it to desire it's own government. If the lax policies of the 17th British Empire had remained in place, it would have only delayed an inevitable revolution.

By Perforations — On Sep 17, 2010

Although it is only possible to speculate on the subject, it's interesting to think that the United States could still be a colony if the British hadn't gotten greedy after the Seven Years War. Had Walpole's attitude persisted on through the generations of British government, the global superpower could have been Britain, with the United States under its control. Only by instating oppressive policies long after the founding of the colonies did the English transplants start to become dissatisfied with their government.

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