Parliament and the American Colonies before 1765

For much of the 17th century Parliament had little direct involvement in the growing colonies in America.

Most had royal origins –through either chartered trading companies (such as the Virginia Company), royal grants to favourite individuals (William Penn's Pennsylvania) or direct royal control (Barbados).

Parliament's largely hands-off policy towards America later became known as salutary neglect.

Controlling trade

Later in the century, Parliament did begin to regulate overseas trade and passed a series of Navigation Acts in 1651, 1660 and 1663.

These aimed to ensure that the profits of international trade stayed in the hands of English merchants by limiting the ability of American colonists to trade with any country, or colony, other than England.

The period after the Glorious Revolution of 1689 saw an increased involvement. The Board of Trade was established in 1696 to develop colonial policy.

Tightening up laws

Parliament next passed laws to tighten up the Navigation Acts and to combat the widespread piracy and smuggling in American waters. Parliament also made changes to the charters of the various English companies trading in America, Africa and Asia.

Parliament's main focus remained on America and India and it passed twenty-nine Acts on colonial trade, customs and piracy between 1714 and 1739.

It was also central to the establishment of royal rule in the Carolina colonies in 1729 and to the foundation of the colony of Georgia in 1733.

Molasses Act

Many members of both houses of Parliament had interests in the sugar-producing West Indian islands and, in 1733, these planters and their agents pushed through Parliament an Act which set a high import duty on molasses and sugar imported into the North American colonies from the French West Indies.

This was the first time Parliament had brought in a tax to raise revenue on the colonies, and it was greeted there with many objections, and seen as a sign that the long period of Parliament's salutary neglect of the American colonies was over.

Related information

Did you know?

Parliament's trade policy could take a more violent form than just the Navigation Acts.

Parliament actively promoted naval war with England's greatest trade rivals, the Dutch, in 1651-2 (England victorious) and again in 1665-7 (England defeated).