What Role Did the Navigation Acts Play in the American Revolution?

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England's enforcement of the Navigation Acts in the North American colonies during the second half of the 18th century helped mobilize the colonial population into developing into a broader and more unified movement directed toward independence. The American colonists perceived the Navigation Acts, which prohibited trade with countries other than England, as a direct threat to their economic system. By joining together and forming nonconsumption and non-importation agreements to protest the Navigation Acts, a large portion of the colonial population, which had previously been inactive politically, began to take part in the growing independence movement.

The British Navigation Acts began in 1651 and were designed to keep the benefits of trade confined within the Empire. The use of foreign ships for trade between the colonies and Britain was restricted, and the loss of gold and silver to foreign nations was minimized. The Navigation Acts set the rules for trade between England and its colonies, and it prohibited the colonies from trading with France, Spain, the Netherlands or any of those countries' colonies.

At first, the Navigation Acts were not fully enforced in the North American colonies owing to the unofficial, yet operative policy of "salutary neglect," or "benign neglect," by which the British government remained distanced from the relatively autonomous affairs of the 13 colonies. By 1763, however, England was burdened by a massive war debt as a result of the Seven Years War. The enforcement of the Navigation Acts in the North American colonies was intended to help the English economy recover by requiring the 13 colonies to conduct all trade with England or with English businesses, regardless of whether a better price could be obtained elsewhere. This restriction on free trade within the colonies was a significant step toward the American Revolution.