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Salutary neglect is an American history term that refers to an unofficial and long-lasting 17th- & 18th-century British policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws, meant to keep the American colonies obedient to England.
Prime Minister Robert Walpole stated that "If no restrictions were placed on the colonies, they would flourish". This policy, which lasted from about 1607 to 1763, allowed the enforcement of trade relations laws to be lenient. Walpole did not believe in enforcing the Navigation Acts, established under Oliver Cromwell and Charles II and designed to force the colonists to trade only with England, Scotland, and Wales, the constituent countries of the British homeland as well as Ireland, then in personal union with Kingdom of Great Britain, as part of the larger economic strategy of mercantilism. Successive British governments ended this non-enforcement policy through new laws such as the Stamp Act and Sugar Act, causing tensions within the colonies.
Salutary neglect occurred in three time periods. From 1607 to 1696, England had no coherent imperial policy regarding specific overseas possessions and their governance, although mercantilist ideas were gaining force and giving general shape to trade policy. From 1696 to 1763, England (and after 1707 the Kingdom of Great Britain) tried to form a coherent policy through the Navigation acts but did not enforce it. Lastly, from 1763 to 1775 Britain began to try to enforce stricter rules and more direct management, driven in part by the outcome of the Seven Years' War in which Britain had gained large swathes of new territory in North America at the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Successive British government passed a number of acts designed to regulate their American colonies including the Stamp Act and Quebec Act. The Quebec Act was not meant to oppress the colonists, but the colonists interpreted it as so because of the Intolerable Acts being passed at the same time.
Salutary neglect was a large contributing factor that led to the American Revolutionary War. Since the imperial authority did not assert the power that it had, the colonists were left to govern themselves. These essentially sovereign colonies soon became accustomed to the idea of self-control. They also realized that they were powerful enough to defeat the British (with help from France), and decided to revolt. The effects of such prolonged isolation eventually resulted in the emergence of a collective identity that considered itself separate from Great Britain.
To what extent "salutary neglect" constituted an actual neglect of colonial affairs, as the name suggests, versus a conscious policy of the British government, is controversial among historians, and also varies with national perspective. While Americans may side with Burke on the "salutary" effect of this policy, emphasizing the economic and social development of the colonies, it was from a British imperial perspective a momentous failure, and debate remains as to its true social, economic, and political effects.