The British did their best to create and support homegrown agriculture and industries. Citizens were encouraged to show initiative, and those who did were given benefits by the state (Nettels, 1952, p. 106). This was not act of socialism as Nettels points out. Those who showed initiative and succeeded were duly rewarded, whereas as those who risked all and failed were not propped up by the state.
The growth of colonial agricultural development and native industries led to the creation of the Navigation Acts. These acts were a trade barrier designed to funnel all trade from the colonies through British ports. Colonists were not allowed to trade directly with the other nations of Europe. The first act was created in 1651 and revised periodically in small ways. The act came about thanks to the Eighty Years’ War which ended in 1648. The British found themselves in a competition which saw a decrease in the power and profitability of trade. Thus, the requirement of the colonies to trade directly with the home country was designed to shield British merchants from a competitive war of which there was no guarantee of winning.
The colonists in the New World were supposed to remain agrarian and send to Britain produce such as tobacco and cotton. Whatever industrial development necessary was to be controlled and overseen by the British. The colonists were primarily in supporting roles, even when the British overseers were new to the shores. The local knowledge and expertise of the colonists was seen as less important to advancement than place of birth. At the same time, the British showed no aversion to exploiting the locals. The Navigation Acts were meant to ensure that the cotton, tobacco, and other colonial goods enriched the British above all.
Every law which protected British merchants came about not because of governmental innovation and policies, but rather as a response to developments which merchants (British or otherwise) were responsible for (Nettels, 1952, p. 108). According to Nettels, the colonists were given free rein in developing industries until such time as they threatened British industries and British profits. The Staple Act was pushed for by British merchants requiring colonists to buy manufactured goods and even slaves from the home country.
The colonists were subjected to the ultimate in protectionist policies. British interests came above all others. The growth of slavery in the colonies came about in large part as a method of colonists attempting to reduce expenditures. Although the slaves had to be bought from Britain, the workers then provide a source of cheap labor. Farmers were completely dependent upon the home country because of the artificial imbalance in trade. The colonists could only buy and sell to the British. Thus, conditions were set which left an indebtedness which could never be fully done away with. The Navigation Act did stimulate the growth of shipping and shipbuilding (Nettels, 1952, p. 110), but the colonists were still restricted in where those ships could sail.
The British government (thanks to the direct influence of the merchant class) did its best to restrict and manipulate colonial trade. The gross imbalance did much to lead the colonists down the path of rebellion. The infamous Stamp Act of 1765 happened to be the straw which finally broke the backs of the colonists. Trade restrictions and barriers were no longer enough to contain a people who wanted self-determination.
Berkin, C. (2011). Making America: A History. Independence, Kentucky. Wadsworth Cengage
Nettels, C.P. (1952, Spring). British Mercantilism and the Economic Development of the Thir
teen Colonies. The Journal of Economic History, 12(2), 105-114. Retrieved from