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The Navigation Acts

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


  • 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
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
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
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

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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user John Shadix
    When were the Navigation Acts revoked?
    (26 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user curb check 124
    yo im bored help me
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      When I'm bored, I ask myself if it's the material with which I am interacting or if it's myself with which I'm bored. When it's the material, I switch to something else for a while, then come back. When I'm bored with myself, I give myself a good encouraging talk, and a kick in the pants.
      (26 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Adrianna
    Mercantilism was an economic lifestyle the British went through. It was made for the sake of making the mother country more powerful by pouring everything they had into it, exports going all to England. Mercantilism was much bigger than just a policy. It forced colonists into certain scenarios and was something that greatly affected the money flow and overall life of colonists, especially merchants. Mercantilism is a very shaky foundation because in simple terms, mercantilism drained colonies of everything for the sake of the mother country, making it hard for colonies to keep a consistent supply when only able to focus on exports. A policy that could have been made to keep colonist calm would be giving them a more give-and-take. As it stood, only the mother country thrived in mercantilism, so if a policy was made that at the very least gave colonists more leniency or just overall being able to accept more imports and trading with other European countries, the colony and England could have lived in peace. The Navigation Acts were extremely important when is came to the colonies anti-British thinking. Many felt hatred for the british due to the fact that they had milked them dry for their own benefit, especially merchants. Although the colonists may have been on rocky terms with the British due to mercantilism as a whole, the Navigation Acts really hit the nail on its head due to its restricting nature. As the colonists were more and more held down, they slowly began to show hatred for the British, causing a sentiment of anti-Britain.
    (11 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user rctheman03
    Aren't there 3 "parts" of the Navigation Laws? If so, what are they?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 10001957
    what was the reaction of the colonists and what motivated it ?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Some colonists resisted and engaged in activities that could be considered as smuggling. Some colonists dissented through legal means. Some colonists buckled under and tolerated it. Some colonists figured out ways to profit from it.

      In short, the "colonists" did not have one universal reaction.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user annad99
    why did mercantilism lead to a war between Europe
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Manomay Shravage
      Since Mercantilism led to the enactment of the Navigation Acts, which did not allow trade between other European colonies and the British... well you can see how other nations became angry.
      Influx of goods for the Dutch and French along with other nations began to dwindle and tempers rose, which caused the wars.
      Hope this answered your question :)
      (10 votes)
  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Avi Rosin
    Mercantilism was the ideology that there is a limited amount of money in the world and England should get as much of it as possible. Mercantilism was a way of life, not just an economic policy because it changed how people worked and lived. The way it was founded was not sound due to the fact that gold and silver is limited and forcing people to live a certain way to give England what they wanted did not stand.
    A policy the British could have adopted that would have bolstered British finances without incurring the wrath of the colonists would have been that they would leave the colonies alone and charge other ENgland colonies themselves.
    The North American Colonies began viewing England in a negative way because they attempted to force rules and bother the colonies, even though they were doing fine.
    (6 votes)
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  • scuttlebug blue style avatar for user Sienna G
    Did British impose limitations on ALL of the North America colonies (including, French, Dutch, and Spanish) or was it just British colonists?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sosacarinod3187
    1. Mercantilism is a policy in which the government has the power to decide how business is made in trades and such they can make money to themselves.
    2.I cannot think of a policy which the british could implement to make a profit themselves which would not anger the colonists because, all of them in my opinion would involve taking something away from the colonists so it wouldn't work.
    3.I think the navigation acts were very important in solidifying the anti british sentiments of the british to the colonists because it was the final straw that easily demonstrated how little the british cared/respected them.
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user lily
    Which foreign country's ships did the colonists use to trade before the Navigation Acts were put in place?
    (4 votes)
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