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Navigation Acts

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To many, the Navigation Acts are considered the initial spark for the American Revolution. Oliver Cromwell was the leader of England in 1651 when the first of the many Navigation Acts was passed. Jealousy was the ultimate reason for the formation of the Navigation Acts. The English envied the Dutch for their dominance of Atlantic trade and wanted to get in on the wealth gained by this mercantile system (Leigh). These preliminary laws stipulated that English colonies could only export goods to England if they were transported by English ships. These laws also specified that if England imported any goods from foreign countries, they must be imported on English ships or on the ships of the exporting country (“NAVIGATION ACTS”). This would not be the end of English attempts to control trade, however; in the very near future more laws would be passed to better “regulate” trade and restrict economic freedoms. Provoked by economic jealousy, entrenched in the mercantile system, and the cause of friction with the colonists, the Navigation Acts would leave a lasting effect not only on England, but on the rest of the world.
As a result of the profitability of the Dutch system of trade, the Navigation Acts were initially passed in 1651 by a jealous British government attempting to make a profitable trade system of its own (Schweikart 50). The Dutch were making immense amounts of money trading goods throughout all of the New World, especially the English colonies. Dutch merchants were essentially the middle-men of the Atlantic Ocean trade. They would buy raw goods from the producers, the American colonies, and trade the raw goods to manufacturers, European countries. In addition, the Dutch would buy manufactured goods made from the raw goods and sell them to the American colonies (Leigh). Dutch traders brought much needed organization and stimulation to the Atlantic trading system and therefore made trading much more efficient and prosperous. The traders were running both sides of the Atlantic trade market and making a rather large profit in the process. The British fashioned the Navigation Acts to put an end to this monopoly of sorts, and take over as the economic power-house of the Atlantic Ocean trade (“NAVIGATION ACTS”). England hoped to accomplish this task by using a commonly practiced system of economics called mercantilism.
Mercantilism was the theory of having a positive balance of trade, meaning a country exports more than it imports (Schweikart 62). The American colonies fit perfectly with England’s mercantile system. American colonies would produce raw goods for England, and England would transfer these raw goods into manufactured goods and sell those manufactured goods back to the American colonies. By doing so, English merchants made enormous amounts of money because the manufactured goods were sold for very high prices to the colonies. The ultimate goal for the British was to make the American colonies heavily dependent on English manufactured goods (Schweikart 50). For example, in 1759, British imports of goods from the New England colonies were the financial equivalent of 38,000 pounds. In the same year, the New England colonies imported British manufactured goods to the financial equivalent of 600,000 pounds. Ironically, the colonists were able to buy these expensive goods from England with the money they made from smuggling and working around the Navigation Acts (Leigh). These lopsided numbers show a considerably favorable balance of trade to England, not the colonies. These numbers represent the mercantile system functioning at its finest. These statistics were not overlooked by the colonists as many colonists saw the flaws in the system and soon demanded change (Schweikart 63).
The original Navigation Act was the first example of the British putting restraints on, and showing their authority over, the American colonies (Unger 43). Colonists did not like these restrictions for a variety of reasons. First, the colonists were not used to having laws thrust upon them telling them what they could and could not do. Second, many colonists, especially in the northern colonies, lost their jobs because of the similarity of goods produced from the northern colonies and England itself (Leigh). Because of this, the northern colonies were banned from English trade and were forced to produce other goods and services, mainly shipbuilding. In the early days of the Navigation Acts, the southern colonies benefited the most because the commodities grown and produced there were unique to the southern colonies and consequently allowed them to have a monopoly under the British mercantile system.
Eventually more laws would be passed to the anger of colonists throughout all of America. For instance, many southern goods, such as tobacco and rice, became “enumerated,” meaning they had to go to a British port where duties would be placed on the products. In turn, this made the products more expensive and ultimately caused less to be sold (Unger 43). Acts such as the Sugar Act further enraged the colonists. The Sugar Act essentially forced the American colonists to buy English sugar. Despite the fact that English sugar was cheaper than smuggled sugar, the colonists still boycotted it (Schweikart 62). Boycotts and rebellious feelings were stirred and eventually the colonies would attempt to break away from England entirely in what is known as the Revolutionary War.
The English ultimately pushed restricting and taxing laws too far. England was desperate for money to pay off war debts and over taxed and restricted the American colonies in an effort to raise funds (“NAVIGATION ACTS”). If these acts had been used in moderation, the United States of America might never have been born and mercantilism may still be thriving today. It is clear that the Navigation Acts, an extension of the economic strategy of mercantilism, have left their mark in history. Revolving around European competition and commonly held economic beliefs, the Navigation Acts were unique to England and its colonies in the Atlantic Ocean trading sphere. A sparkplug for the American Revolution and a prime example of mercantilism, the Navigation Acts forever changed the path of the world.





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