Salutary Neglect: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

In the vast realm of the APUSH exam, the words salutary neglect may seem small, but the concept has had immense consequences. Keep reading to learn about the causes and consequences of this colonial term.

What is salutary neglect?

Imagine that, when your parents or guardians went out of town, you were in charge of the house. Yes, that means you would have to do all the cooking — bummer — but you could also decide what you wanted to cook. Yes, that means you would have to get yourself up for school — ugh — but you could also decide how late you wanted to stay up. Sure, there would be some missteps, but you would figure it out on your own. Now, imagine that the next time your parents or guardians go out of town, they leave you with a babysitter that enforces draconian rules. Bed at 6:00. Only dry toast ever.

I imagine you would be pretty upset, yes? The rules of the game changed in a snap!

This, at its core, is what was at issue with salutary neglect.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was standard operating procedure for the British crown to allow its colonies to govern themselves. The British neglected to enforce certain laws (especially laws relating to trade) in the American colonies so as to allow the colonies to flourish (thus having a salutary, or beneficial, effect).

Robert Walpole is often credited with proposing the concept as a means of creating a win-win situation: the colonies, especially the very profitable American colonies of the British mercantilist system, would not be subject to strict trade laws; meanwhile, the folks back home in Britain could focus on the increasingly complicated political dynamics in Europe.

What are important dates to know for salutary neglect?

Although this policy lasted from approximately 1607 to 1763, it came to a screeching halt after the Seven Years War. Because of the war (and the fact that wars cost money), Great Britain began taxing the colonists as never before through laws like the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767. In effect, the policy of salutary neglect had ended, and, because the American colonists weren’t too happy about this, the beginning of the American Revolution was at hand.

What is a sample question about salutary neglect that I may be asked on the APUSH exam?

Here is a short answer question, based on the following excerpt:

salutary neglect apush topics

Image by Kevin Dooley

“The riotous behavior of the people in Boston is remarkable. I would have been less surprised by their behavior if we had taxed their beer, because everyone drinks beer. But the Stamp Act is a tax on none of the necessities of life. It does not affect the poor. And even a poor person can afford this little amount of money.”

Will Alfred, of London, “To Mr. Secretary Conway,” Boston Gazette Supplement, January 27, 1766.

From the Stanford History Education Group.

Answer (a), (b), and (c)

(a) Describe ONE concept from history that would support the position described in the excerpt above.
(b) Describe ONE concept from history that would contradict the position described in the excerpt above.
(c) Explain the consequences of the position you described in either (a) or (b).

Sample response:

(a) Will Alfred was describing the position of the elite in Great Britain, who saw themselves and the colonists as subjects of the same royal crown. Therefore, in Mr. Alfred’s eyes, they all were equally subject to taxes that were necessary to fund his majesty’s wars (such as the Seven Years War that this Act responded to).

(b) The concept of salutary neglect would contradict Mr. Alfred’s opinion, as the colonists had not historically been subjected to the same taxes and rules at other British subjects. In fact, according to this concept, the colonists had a great degree of autonomy; the Stamp Act was a direct affront to the idea of salutary neglect in the eyes of the colonists.

(c) The degradation of the policy of salutary neglect was a point of unification for colonists who no longer wanted to be subjects of the British crown. As colonists became more incensed — and the British crown continued to pass more punitive acts — the situation grew worse and, eventually, became a revolution.

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  • 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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