Salutary neglect

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Salutary neglect, in American history, is the 17th and 18th century British Crown policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws meant to keep British colonies obedient to England. The term comes from Edmund Burke's "Speech on Conciliation with America" 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 1834, p. 186)

Prime Minister Robert Walpole stated that "If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish".[1] 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, Scotland, and Wales, the constituent countries of the British homeland as well as Ireland, then in personal union with Kingdom of Great Britain, as part of the larger economic strategy of mercantilism. Successive British governments ended this non-enforcement policy through new laws such as the Stamp Act and Sugar Act, causing tensions within the colonies.

Salutary neglect occurred in three time periods. From 1607 to 1696, England had no coherent imperial policy regarding specific overseas possessions and their governance, although mercantile ideas were gaining force and giving general shape to trade policy. From 1696 to 1763, England (and after 1707 the Kingdom of Great Britain) tried to form a coherent policy through the Navigation Acts but did not enforce it. Lastly, from 1763 to 1775 Britain began to try to enforce stricter rules and more direct management, driven in part by the outcome of the Seven Years' War in which Britain had gained large swathes of new territory in North America at the Treaty of Paris. Successive British governments passed a number of acts designed to regulate Britain's American colonies including the Stamp Act and Quebec Act. The Quebec Act was not meant to oppress the colonists but was nevertheless widely viewed as oppressive due to the concurrent passage of the Intolerable Acts.

The end of 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. They also realized that they were powerful enough to defeat the British (with help from France), and decided to revolt. The effects of such prolonged isolation eventually resulted in the emergence of a collective identity that considered itself separate from Great Britain.

To what extent "salutary neglect" constituted an actual neglect of colonial affairs, as the name suggests, versus a conscious policy of the British government, is controversial among historians, and also varies with national perspective. While Americans may side with Burke on the "salutary" effect of this policy, emphasizing the economic and social development of the colonies, it was from a British imperial perspective a momentous failure, and debate remains as to its true social, economic, and political effects.


  1. ^ [1][unreliable source?] – Quote regarding the Salutary Doctrine and the prime minister who made it: "A spirit of self-government had arisen in the colonies. Between the years 1721 to 1742, Britain's Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, had encouraged this with a policy called 'salutary neglect.' Wishing to concentrate on European matters, Walpole relaxed colonial regulations and allowed the colonists to govern themselves. Each colony had an assembly of no representatives elected by respected men-- men who owned at least a little property. These assemblies enforced the collected taxes, budgeted expenditures and pursued a few small public works programs." References: The Oxford History of the American People, by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1965 Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, by Maya Jasanoff, 2011 Thomas Paine, by Craig Nelson, 2006 A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, by Carol Berkin, Harcourt, Inc, 2002 A Companion to the American Revolution, edited by Jack P Green and J R Cole, 2000 American Colonies, by Alan Taylor, 200. The Cousin's War: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo America, by Kevin Phillips, 1999 The War that Made America, PBS Documentary, 2006 First Freedom: the Fight for Religious Liberty, PBS documentary, 2012