The first American colonies planted by the British along North America’s Atlantic seaboard were organized, staffed, and supported as private commercial ventures, not by an imperial plan. For decades after the first colonies were established, the king and the Church of England were largely content to neglect them.
Some of these commercial ventures—like the Massachusetts Bay Company—were covers used by religious and political dissidents to escape the heavy hand of conformity to the king’s government or the official religious establishment, the Church of England.
But even the strictly commercial ventures—like the Virginia Company—were slow starters compared to the riches generated by the British conquest of the sugar islands of the Caribbean. But either way, for the sake of God or profit, the British colonies in North America were left largely to run themselves, to invent their local legislatures, to set up churches of their liking, and to form their own armed militias.
This is a transcript from the video series The American Revolution. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
So long as they presented no bills to the royal treasury, neither the king of England nor the Church of England paid much attention. To the contrary, the only time the king and the Church seemed to awaken to the possibilities of America was for the convenience it offered: First as a support station for military plunder of Spain and Spain’s much larger empire in South and Central America; and second, because America was mainly useful as a dumping ground for Britain’s unproductives and social incorrigibles.
A Threat to the British Economy
This attitude of “salutary neglect”—as Robert Walpole called it—persisted from 1607 and the first British colonial plants in Virginia and Maine, until 1660, when the home government awoke to the startling realization that all those unproductives, once dumped in America, had turned out to be wonderfully productive after all—so much so that America was beginning to threaten the balance of the British economy.
By 1700, British imports of American goods were beginning to achieve growth twice the size of all other imports. Exports of British goods to America were beginning to grow three times faster than all other exports. Between 1663 and 1772, America’s purchases of British goods rose from 3% of all British exports to nearly half, while a third of all of Britain’s imports came from America.
Shipbuilding in America cost roughly half of what it cost in the British Isles, and the result was that by 1775, almost a third of Britain’s merchant shipping fleet had been constructed in its American colonies. Nor did the Americans lack a ready workforce. Immigration—not just from the British Isles, but also from the German states—along with a healthy domestic birthrate, had swollen the population of the North American colonies from 250,000 in 1700 to almost two million by 1763, with the Virginia colony and the Pennsylvania colony leading the pack with 350,000 and 300,000 settlers respectively.
At length, it occurred to the imperial government that this could not go on unregulated: It would beggar the mother country, either by sucking British production and labor across the Atlantic, or by Americans undercutting British exports on world markets.
Learn more about how Dutch settlements developed into a major commercial center
New Regulations on Trade
In a lumbering, piecemeal, and unmethodical way, Britain struggled to rein in its rambunctious North American colonies and turn them into paths that would guarantee a larger share of the colonies’ prosperity for the empire they belonged to.
Beginning in 1660, the home government began imposing new regulations on colonial trade: The first comprehensive Navigation Act in 1660, which required certain American exports to be shipped only in British vessels; the Wool Act of 1699, which forbade the dumping of cheap American wool on British wool markets; the Molasses Act of 1733, which outlawed imports of sugar and molasses to America from all except the British sugar islands in the West Indies; and the Iron Acts of 1750 and 1757, which prohibited any new growth in American iron manufacturing.
At first, like the frog being slowly boiled in the pot, few Americans balked at this. After all, the navigation legislation only touched the colonies’ external import/export trade. It did not touch intercolonial trade; it did not touch the interior domestic economies of the colonies. The new costs of export could, after all, be passed off to consumers. The new import regulations could be flagrantly ignored by large-scale smuggling, especially since the imperial government was too stingy to provide for sufficient oversight and enforcement of its own laws in America.
Besides, in a backhanded sort of way, British trade regulations were a compliment to the colonies’ coming-of-age as part of the empire. Although America had originally been populated by assemblies of what upstanding members of English society regarded as oddballs and riffraff—by Puritans, Quakers, convicts, the bankrupt, the chronically underemployed—those who survived the rigors of transportation and settlement found themselves in a place where there were no aristocrats with prior possession of the land, a government so minimal that it scarcely seemed to be there, and labor in such short supply that the right set of skills could land profitable employment almost anywhere.
By the time the third generation of these castoffs was born in America, they had forgotten most of what made their grandparents Puritans, Quakers, or debtors and they were now preening themselves on the thought that they were fully and properly English as much as any Londoner.
The Great War for Empire
Unhappily, Great War for Empire—the Seven Years War—was the undoing of that English identity. The Seven Years War left Britain victorious, but also near financial collapse. For one thing, Britain had borrowed money to the hilt to finance the war and was now staring at a deficit of £146 million sterling in the face.
The cost of servicing that debt—just the servicing alone—was going to be £4.7 million per annum. Imperial planners in London cast their eye across the Atlantic, where an English-speaking people were prospering under the shield of an English government which laid on them only the costs of regulating and redirecting their external trade. It was high time, the people in London concluded, for the Americans to be made to pay their fair share of the burdens of victory. It was time—in other words—to levy direct taxes on the internal economies of the colonies.
The agency for doing this was Britain’s ancient legislature—the Parliament, in its two houses of Commons and Lords—which had held the purse strings of the English government since the days of the Tudor kings in the 1500s. In 1765, with the flush of victorious cooperation still on everyone’s cheeks, Parliament passed a Stamp Act for the colonies, requiring all legal documents, newspapers, college diplomas, and other products of the print trade to display a revenue stamp. At that point, the lid blew off everything in America.