Salutary neglect

'Salutary neglect' was an undocumented, though long standing, British policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws meant to keep the American colonies obedient to Great Britain. Prime Minister Robert Walpole stated that "if no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish". This policy, which lasted from about 1607 to 1763, allowed the enforcement of trade relations laws to be lenient. Walpole did not believe in enforcing the Navigation Acts, established under Oliver Cromwell and Charles II and designed to force the colonists to trade only with England. King George III ended this policy through acts such as the Stamp Act and Sugar Act, causing tensions within the colonies.

Salutary neglect happened over three time periods: from 1607-1696, England had no coherent imperial policy; from 1696-1763, England tried to form a coherent policy (navigation acts), but did not enforce it; lastly, from 1763-1775 England began to try and use a coherent policy.

Salutary neglect was a large contributing factor that led to the American Revolutionary War. Since the imperial authority did not assert the power that it had, the colonists were left to govern themselves. These essentially sovereign colonies soon became accustomed to the idea of self-control. The effects of such prolonged isolation eventually resulted in the emergence of a collective identity that considered itself separate from Great Britain.

The turning point from salutary neglect to an attempt to enforce English policies was the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War). Great Britain was fighting France for imperial control of the known world (including North America, where the war was started (see Jumonville affair) and was losing very badly until Secretary of State William Pitt the Elder took charge. To help the war effort, Pitt tried to seize supplies from the colonies, force colonial men into service, and take control of military issues. The colonists strongly resented his interference, and soon Pitt eased his policies.

Nevertheless, the Seven Years' War fostered resentment in the American colonists toward the British and contempt in Britain toward the Americans. These tensions caused England to abandon its policy of salutary neglect, which led directly to the American Revolution.

The term "salutary neglect" arises from Edmund Burke's 'Speech for Conciliation with the Colonies' given in the House of Commons March 22, 1775.

"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." (Burke p. 186)


  • Burke, Edmund (1834). The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke Vol. I. Holdsworth and Ball. OCLC 16565696. pp.181-205

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