From 1607 to 1763, the unwritten British policy for governing the American colonies was referred to as salutary neglect. Under this policy, enforcement of parliamentary law was deliberately lax, with the stated objective of encouraging colonial prosperity. Colonists were, for the most part, left to look after their own affairs. The fact that the practice lasted for generations, along with the attempt to end this policy and reassert British authority in the 18th century, are identified as important factors leading to the American Revolution.
According to the laws of the day, trade between the American colonists and other nations was heavily restricted, and colonists were to trade exclusively with England, Scotland and Ireland. Salutary neglect allowed Great Britain to turn a blind eye to illegal trade activities with other countries, which were difficult and expensive to enforce. As stated by Sir Robert Walpole, viewed by most as Britain’s first prime minister, “If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish.” Walpole also is credited with advising authorities to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
During this time, the colonists largely were self-governing. Beginning with the House of Burgesses in Virginia, each of the 13 colonies developed its own legislative body, and by the 18th century, they were functioning as independent, autonomous governments.
Americans enjoyed personal and religious freedoms not shared by other British subjects. Maryland passed the Act Concerning Religion, or the Maryland Toleration Act, in 1649 to protect religious freedoms and promote tolerance. Similar legislation in Pennsylvania attracted settlers from the Quaker community.
Under salutary neglect, colonists did not feel the influence of the British government and culture. These developments led to a growing sense of American identity, distinct from Britain. People in the colonies had become used to the idea of self-governance and began to think of themselves as British subjects in name only.
After these freedoms were granted, they proved difficult to take back. When the expenses of the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War, began to take their toll, Britain reasserted its control over the colonies. Supplies were seized, and men were drafted into the war effort. These policies eased in response to colonial resistance, but the Americans continued to resent the attempt.
Further steps marking the end of the policy of neglect followed, including the dissolution of the House of Burgesses in 1769. Tighter enforcement of British law and an increase in taxes further upset the colonists. These actions are considered directly responsible for the American Revolutionary War.