Navigation Acts

The Laws: English parliamentary acts restricting the use of non-English ships to conduct trade with England and its colonies

Dates: Passed on October 9, 1651, and September 13, 1660

Significance: The Navigation Acts tied the American colonies into the British imperial market, restricting the colonies’ trade with other powers and encouraging smuggling. Because colonial ships were considered to be English, the acts contributed to the growth of American shipbuilding. After the American Revolution, American ships were no longer colonial vessels, so the acts restricted the ability of the United States to trade with Great Britain.

The Navigation Act of 1651 prohibited non-English vessels from importing goods into England or Ireland. The Navigation Act of 1660 expanded this prohibition to include imports into England’s colonies. The second act required that all imports and exports of the colonies be carried in either English or colonial vessels. Goods produced in foreign countries and imported in vessels of their country of origin were exempt. Although colonists were free to trade to foreign countries in their own ships, the act of 1660 also mandated that certain commodities, including many important colonial crops such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton, could be exported only to England or another English colony. Over time, more commodities were added to this list of restricted goods.

Subsequent amendments and modifications to the Navigation Acts tightened the restrictions on foreign trade to the colonies and imposed duties on trade between colonies. Scottish traders were originally excluded from colonial trade by the acts, but that changed after Scotland united with England to form Great Britain in 1707. Enforcement of the acts was never complete, but they nevertheless aroused much resentment in the colonies, contributing to the outbreak of the American Revolution. After the revolution, American ships were defined as “foreign,” and the United States’ ability to trade with Britain was restricted. The acts were finally repealed in 1849, as part of the British free trade movement.

William E. Burns

See also: Colonial economic systems; European trade with the United States; Gadsden Purchase; International economics and trade; Royal Charters of North American colonies; Stamp Act of 1765; Townshend Act.

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