- Society and religion in the New England colonies
- Politics and native relations in the New England colonies
- Puritan New England: Plymouth
- Puritan New England: Massachusetts Bay
- The Middle colonies
- Lesson summary: New England and Middle colonies
- The Navigation Acts
- The Enlightenment
- The Great Awakening
- The consumer revolution
- Developing an American colonial identity
- Colonial North America
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.
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.
Image of a three-masted ship.
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.
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.
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?
- When were the Navigation Acts revoked?(21 votes)
- 1849 by the British, long after the American Revolution(14 votes)
- I'm a bit curious as to how this impacted American colonies specifically. Rather what was the general reaction?(4 votes)
- The Navigation Acts impacted the American colonies specifically by forcing all trade to go through British hands. This was especially important for the tobacco that was being cultivated in Virginia. In the Navigation Acts, it specifies that all tobacco trade has to go to England. I'm not quite sure what the general reaction was. If I were to put myself in the feet of a person who lived in 17th century North America, it would all depend where I lived. If I were a New Englander, I might be pretty mad because I do not like English rule. If I were a citizen of Chesapeake Bay, I might be relived that I have a good trading partner. All in all, it depends on where you lived.(15 votes)
- why did mercantilism lead to a war between Europe(3 votes)
- 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 :)(7 votes)
- Aren't there 3 "parts" of the Navigation Laws? If so, what are they?(4 votes)
- 1. Shipments from Europe and English colonies had to go through England first.
2. Any imports to England from the colonies had to come in ships built and owned by British subjects
3. The colonies could sell key, such as tobacco and sugar, only to England(4 votes)
- Why did parliament regulate the colonies' trade?(2 votes)
- Hello Aditi,
Parliament regulated Colonial trade to get money for the government.
- Manish V.(6 votes)
- Which foreign country's ships did the colonists use to trade before the Navigation Acts were put in place?(4 votes)
- What happens if a colony doesn't trade with their Mother Country?(2 votes)
- Generally the colony becomes even more impoverished. It happened during the 19th century more than once in Santo Domingo.(3 votes)
- Which colony was mostly hurt by this?(2 votes)
- I think that the pier/coastal colonies were the most affected(2 votes)
- Why did the British government vote to pass the Navigation Acts?(2 votes)
- How many navigation acts were there total before the Molasses Act?(2 votes)
- You might want to check this out-