The Navigation Acts refer to a large body of various pieces of legislation enacted between 1651 and 1663 (although other Acts that came under the purview of the “Navigation Acts” passed much longer). Keep reading for an overview for APUSH of what these Acts meant for the colonial United States and the eventual founding of the nation.
What were the Navigation Acts?
Don’t be fooled by the name; the Navigation Acts were primarily about trade and taxes, not directions.
When you see this term referenced in your APUSH textbook, it is likely that you are learning about one (or all) of the following pieces of legislation:
- The Navigation Act of 1651: This Act began the policy of regulating trade in the colonial United States by stated that British trade should be carried out in British ships.
- The Navigation Act of 1660: This Act built on the 1651 Act, by stating that the ships that engaged in British trade – and two-thirds of the ships’ crew – had to be British.
- The Navigation Act of 1663: This Act required that all European goods that were to be sent to any of the colonies (including the 13 original) had to go through England first, in order to make sure that all foreign imports to the colonies were paying proper taxes on those goods.
Why did Great Britain establish the Navigation Acts?
If you haven’t read my previous post on mercantilism, you should read it now. This helps explain the financial incentives Great Britain had to establish acts that regulated trade to such a high degree. And, if you haven’t read my previous post on salutary neglect, you should also read that now. Because that helps make sense of the rest of the story.
Wait…there’s more to the story?
There’s always more to the story, my dear young scholar.
Your textbook or APUSH course may have lumped the Molasses Act of 1733 in the larger Navigation Acts.
You may be surprised to find that the Navigation Acts were largely followed – that is, up until the Molasses Act. Many colonists did not view themselves as separate from Great Britain, but rather, as British citizens abroad. Their wealth and success in the British colonial project reflected well on the mother country; overwhelmingly, these individuals did not see themselves as revolutionary at all.
That is until the colonists began to view the British government as crossing a line. The Molasses Act of 1733 began to shape what that line would become.
In this Act, the British levied heavy fines and penalties (called duties) against sugar from the French West Indies (why? Again, mercantilism). This made the formerly cheaper sugar from these islands much more expensive, forcing the hand of colonists: they had to buy from the British West Indies sugar plantations.
As was the case when trade of just about any valuable good was restricted (think about the failed Prohibition policy of the early 20th century), the de facto prohibition of cheap sugar caused a rampant black market of sugar trade to develop. The colonists were making their displeasure heard through “creatively” working around the restrictions of the Molasses Act. Originally set to expire in 1763, the Molasses Act was renewed in 1764 as the Sugar Act; this action infuriated the colonists and was a major impetus for the American Revolution (why? salutary neglect, for starters).
This political cartoon is a perfect representation of the economic policy of mercantilism. Source here.
Why would the British tax the colonists so much? Didn’t they know this would happen?
Well, no. Remember: nothing in history is inevitable. The actions of individuals, organizations, and countries are what makes history, not a sense of inevitability.
Furthermore, what else were the British supposed to do? They needed to fill their government coffers by raising revenue and fast. Taxes are how governments make money, and the British needed to make money that they lost in the aftermath of the Eighty Years’ War (yes, that’s right: EIGHTY years).
Historians debate today how much of the colonial resources were spent on taxes and whether or not the tax would have presented an undue burden on the colonists. Generally speaking, the British weren’t overtaxing the colonists. But still – no one expects taxes that they don’t already have to pay, regardless of the necessity of the taxes.
The British found this out the hard way.
When were the Navigation Acts repealed?
Technically, the Navigation Acts – as far as the United States was concerned – were repealed when they declared independence. However, it wasn’t until Great Britain established a policy of free trade in 1849 – the idea that the government should have a laissez-faire attitude towards managing the economy – that the Navigation Acts were repealed for the rest of British colonial holdings.
What kinds of APUSH questions could I be asked regarding the Navigation Acts?
The following questions are adapted from the Gilder Lehrman AP US History Practice Quiz.
“Be it enacted … That after the five and twentieth day of March, 1698, no goods or merchandizes whatsoever shall be imported into, or exported out of, any colony or plantation to his Majesty, in Asia, Africa, or America … in any ship or bottom, but what is or shall be of the built of England, Ireland, or the said colonies or plantations … and navigated with the masters and three fourths of the mariners of the said places only … under pain of forfeiture of ships and goods.”
English Parliament, Navigation Act, 1696
1. The excerpt most directly reflects which of the following goals for England’s North American colonies?
A. Developing them as a producer of manufactured goods
B. Aiding them in developing trade with other European nations
C. Integrating them into a coherent imperial structure based on mercantilism
D. Protecting them from American Indian attacks
2. One direct long-term effect of the Navigation Act above was that it
A. promoted commercial treaties with Spain and France throughout the 1700s
B. contributed to the rise of opposition that ultimately fostered the independence movement
C. encouraged colonists in North America to expand trade agreements with American Indians
D. led to the imposition of heavy taxes on the North American colonists in the early 1700s
3. The goals presented in the excerpt from the act have the most in common with which of the following?
A. Increases in the federal tariff in the 1820s
B. Progressive Era antitrust reforms in the 1900s
C. Free-trade policies in the 1990s
D. Federal tax reductions in the 2000s
1. C; the system of mercantilism was the economic policy that governed the implementation of the Navigation Acts.
2. B; the long-term effects of the Navigation Acts was the opposition it fomented against the British Crown
3. A; tariffs, taxes, and duties (and the goals of these actions) are similar. Thinking about these economic policies as inhibitory – you increase taxes generally if you expect that people will curb those actions you tax – to think about change and continuity over time in history.
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About Allena Berry
Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.
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