Navigation Acts and Parliament’s Control Over Colonial Trade

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

It didn’t take long for the English to realize what the new rules of international trade looked like, and from the 1660s, successive royal governments began playing at mercantilism. Why did the parliament abolish tax on grain, and, a year later imposed a ban on the import of French liquor?

Painting of merchants unloading their goods at a harbour in England.
Navigation Acts prevented the colonies from shipping goods anywhere without first stopping in an English port, resulting in an opportunity to regulate and tax what was being shipped. (Image: Abraham Storck/Public domain)

Dependency on England

The parliament abolished the tax on grain to drive down the cost of English grain to sell it abroad for making people elsewhere dependent on England. Similarly, imposing a ban on the import of French liquor, was to encourage the manufacture of domestic English gin from English grain. A central Bank of England was established in 1690 to stabilize the national currency and to control interest rates. In 1707, Parliament forced Scotland into a union with England, which became the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Learn more about the unforgettable drama of the American South.

Navigation Acts

The parliament began hedging in the colonial economies by imposing a system of trade regulations to get the colonies to work for England. This system of ‘Navigation Acts’ made its first appearance in 1651, when Parliament forbade the shipping of colonial goods to England in anything but English ships which was a real windfall for the English shipping industry, due to losing market share on the North Atlantic to the Dutch.

Parliament’s Ratcheted Control

Parliament gradually ratcheted its control over colonial trade upwards where the colonies were prevented from shipping goods not just to England except in English ships, but to anyone else. Then the colonial shippers were prevented from shipping certain enumerated articles like sugar or indigo or military stores to any place but England. Navigation Acts prevented the colonies from shipping any goods anywhere without first stopping in an English port to have their cargoes loaded and unloaded; resulting in providing work for English dockworkers, stevedores, and longshoremen; and also an opportunity to regulate and tax, what was being shipped.

Learn more about investigating American Presidents.

England’s War With Dutch and French

Painting by Pierre-Denis Martin of one of the three wars England fought with the Dutch.
An oil painting depicting a war between English and the Dutch after England was unable to drive them out of business. (Image: Pierre-Denis Martin/Public domain)

After economic warfare failed, because the regulation had failed to drive the Dutch out of business, so England fought three successive wars with them in the 1660s and the 1670s. One of those wars netted the New Netherlands colony for England.

As French loomed up as the next threat, England went to war with them as well, from 1692 until 1697, and again from 1702 until 1713, not only in Europe, but also in America, Africa, and India.

Impact of Navigation Acts

3,000 miles of the ocean made enforcing Navigation Acts uneven. Smuggling was easy, and royal officials were poorly paid that bribery smoothed the departure of many a cargo for most unlicensed destinations. Many American fortunes were made before the American Revolution out of smuggling, and the royal officials who were representing the crown and the crown’s regulations found it very much in their interest to look the other way.

Painting by John Trumbull shows members from American colonies discussing the Navigation Act
One of the impacts of the Navigation Acts on American colonies was that it gave birth to the American iron industry. (Image: John Trumbull/Public domain)

Another thing that softened the impact of the Navigation Acts was that mercantilists’ regulation benefitted the American colonies. The Iron Act of 1750 raised prices on iron imports from Scandinavia, which gave birth to an American iron industry.

The restrictions placed by the Navigation Acts, prevented the use of foreign shipping so that only English ships could be used in sending goods especially to and from England. Because of the restrictions, there was a greater need for English flagships, built by the people of New England, a great aid in building the New England shipping industry.

Learn more about English in America.

France’s Stand on Navigation Acts

What softened the blow of the Navigation Acts was the involvement in Great Britain’s wars was an acknowledgment that colonists really were part of the British Empire. English was successful at mobilizing their North American colonies for warfare than the French. The great French Kings of the late 1600s and the early 1700s, Louis XIV and Louis XV were preoccupied with directing the war in Europe and working political power in France out of the hands of the French nobility, and less attention to making New France, Louisiana, a successful player in the great game of mercantilist thinking. New France’s immigration policies discouraged large-scale settlement, so the recruitment of a significant colonial military force was impossible.

Split Authority of New France

By 1700, the white population of Britain’s North American colonies was more than five times the size of New France. In New France, governmental authority was split three ways between the Military Governor, Civil Governor, and a Catholic Bishop. On paper, this was to create a healthy system of checks and balances. In practice, it created a system of rivalry, division, and demoralization with their jealousies. French couldn’t supply in terms of mercantilist thinking by means of their own manpower in America but were successful in supplying the Indian allies.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Relation Between the French and Indians

The fact that the French were less in number in America made it unlikely to develop the land hunger in them that the English had. Thus, the Indians used the French just as much as the French used the Indians, as a resource for making retaliatory war on the English. In 1704, at French prompting and sponsorship, Indians swept down on the frontier settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 47 settlers and carrying more than 100 others into captivity.

The French had their own Indian troubles; the Iroquois Confederacy in northern and western New York remained implacably hostile to the French, and in 1729 the Natchez Indians staged one of the bloodiest Indian uprisings after New England’s King Philip’s War, in Louisiana. Neither the French in New France and Louisiana nor the English along the Atlantic seaboard was strong enough to do more than making the imperial seesaw go up and down in North America.

Common Questions about American History

Q: How did the Navigation Acts affect the colonists?

The English Parliament imposed a system of trade regulations known as the ‘Navigation Acts‘. Under this, the colonial shippers were prevented from shipping certain enumerated articles like sugar or indigo or military stores to any place but England. It also forbade the shipping of colonial goods to England in anything but English ships.

Q: What did the Navigation Acts do?

The Navigation Acts made smuggling easy. Besides, the restrictions placed by the Navigation Acts prevented the use of foreign shipping so that only English ships could be used in sending goods especially to and from England or other places.

Q: How was the government of New France structured?

The government of New France was split three ways between the Military Governor, Civil Governor, and a Catholic Bishop to create a healthy system but in practice, it created a system of rivalry, division, and demoralization.

Q: Did the French and Indians get along?

The French were less in number in America. Thus, the Indians used the French just as much as the French used the Indians, as a resource for making retaliatory war on the English. In 1704, at French prompting, Indians swept down on the frontier settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 47 settlers and carrying more than 100 others into captivity.

Keep Reading
Politics before the American Civil War
Five Key Themes of the American Identity
Americans Honor Fallen Members of Armed Forces on Memorial Day