In the period following the introduction of the introduction of the Stamp Act, the American colonies looked back to the pre-1760 period as a ‘golden age’ of non interference, or to use Burke’s famous phrase- ‘neglect’. But this view of the first half of the 17th century is not entirely accurate. While there was indeed a prolonged period of ‘salutary neglect’ in the 17th century, there were other variables at play which were to determine the course of American history. This node shall examine the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ and try to answer some of the key questions surrounding it- notably, was it deliberate or dictated by circumstances? Was there real neglect and how salutary was it and for whom? Does the relative stability in this period imply a lack of resentment? Why were attempts at reversing the policy unsuccessful? Answers to these questions will prove that the policy of Britain towards her North American colonies was rather more complex than had been previously thought and that there were indeed periods when Parliament or the Board of Trade tried to re-assert their authority vis-à-vis the colonies. How and why these attempts failed and the legacy of the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ is the final aspect that this node will examine.
Between 1713-1755 the economies of the British colonies of North America flourished as they were drawn into the burgeoning North American system of triangular trade. There was a growing process of Anglicization in many of the colonies aided by the British government’s mild approach to imperial economic policies in this era. This policy, known as ‘salutary neglect’, it is argued, encouraged the maturation of colonial political systems and the concomitant growth in the authority of colonial legislatures. But this policy would unravel under its own pressure. As a policy it could only succeed in the short run and as the strains of empire began to be felt, and the British reversed the policy to become more pro-active and interfering, it caused dissent and resentment from the American colonies who having been left alone for so long, they resented this sudden interference.
When the British first colonized America, they had to deal with the critical problem of what these colonies ‘were’. There were some crucial differences with other British colonies of this time. First, these colonies were three thousand miles away, and distance made effective communication rather difficult. Next, most of the colonies were ‘waste’ lands with low population density. The natives were believed to be pagan and less culturally advanced than the Europeans. The English showed little interest in absorbing the natives and resorted to either purchasing their land or physically driving them away. The model of colonization used was also rather different. The colonies did not have de jure autonomy and were not concerned with keeping countries or people in subjugation. But this separation of identity has seen in the American colonies did not imply independence. All metropolitan officials agreed that the colonies were to be ‘dependent dominions’. However, further questions on how dependent they were and to what extent they would enjoy autonomy would be much tougher to answer.
In the light of this, it is easy to see how the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ would provide a panacea for these problems, especially in an era of economic prosperity. This meant that despite occasional bluster from the Board of Trade, there was never a sustained effort to govern the colonies in a way that was at serious variance with colonial opinion. It was argued that the remarkable development of the British colonies in America owed itself to the relatively indulgent treatment it received from metropolitan authorities. It would mean a constant flow of resources, without having to answer any of these vexing questions. While eventually this ‘neglect’ of key issues, would eventually boomerang for the British and cause them much heartache, for both Walpole and later Newcastle, this would have seemed like the perfect model of governance.
The decline of the Board of Trade in the 17th century, despite various attempts to revive it, also aided this policy. In its early years the Board has managed to capture effective control over colonial policy and patronage. But from 1702 onwards, with the appointment of the Earl of Nottingham, the prestige of the Board declined. the death of William III and the resignation of several influential members began to tilt the scales heavily in favour of the Secretary of State. Not just were the patronage powers of the Board reduced, so was its role in the formulation of policy and the settlement of colonial disputes. It was further undermined by the creation of the Privy Council committee for plantation affairs in 1714 and it was only post 1748 and the Board found a semblance of authority and responsibility vested in it. But the intervening years had led to a irreversible fragmentation in its control over the colonies.
There is thus little doubt that ‘salutary neglect’ was a conscious policy adopted by Walpole, rather than a mere conjunction of circumstances. It can be argued that given the circumstances this was the most obvious solution to the governance of the colonies in North America, but it was not the only one. As later developments showed, a firmer policy at various stages might have changed the course of American history and the onset of the Revolution. While it might be too deterministic to link Walpole’s strategy to the Revolution, there is a school of thought that sees a growth of revolutionary tendencies being fostered in this period- not as a result of ‘neglect’ but as the ‘salutary’ effect of various representative bodies gaining experience in the art of governing themselves.
Walpole’s strategy included restricting the active role of government as much as possible to bind potentially disruptive groups by catering to their needs and to align himself with the strongest group in a factional struggle. Such a haphazard and amorphous style of colonial administration blended well with the political style and goals of Walpole. Walpole sought to avoid, both in domestic affairs and in his dealing with the colonies, any contentious issue that would split the country on ideological grounds or engender the determined opposition of established interest groups. Thus, the aim in the post 1720 period was to promote the well being of the empire in general and to avoid potential difficulties for the administration at home. It allowed the colonial governors more room for manoeuvre without having to be constantly on guard for reprimands from home. Governors with significant patronage could then distribute the growing number of royal offices among the elite and thereby obtain their support.
It was here that the critical dichotomy in the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ was exposed. Since 1670, the metropolitan officials had gradually stripped away the patronage powers of the governors. So, while in theory the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ would work as long as the governors could dispense favours, this was not always the case in reality. Governors, who found themselves at the centre of disputes and in precarious positions, would then choose to align with the dominant political faction in the colonies rather than challenge the authority of the assemblies.
The increase in the power of the assemblies was thus an important consequence of ‘salutary neglect’. This was enhanced by the inability of the home government to enforce parliamentary legislation. Britain lacked the strength, both literally- in terms of armed strength, and figuratively to ensure that policies were being carried out accordingly. There had been some talk of using force in the colonies, but this was never implemented. Without the use of force, the British government in order to maintain the dependence of the ‘colonies’ had to ‘use them well’. The compliance of the colonists could be selective. They would often ignore or evade regulations they found problematic. Merchants in the middle colonies and the New England did not hesitate to violate the Molasses Act of 1733 which they felt to be discriminatory. In the political realm occasionally, the confrontation was much more open.
The role of the Duke of Newcastle Sir Thoman Pelham-Holles in implementing and fashioning policy in this period has come under extensive scrutiny. Historians and contemporaries have often presented him as a figure of ridicule. Many American historians see him as being responsible for ‘scandalous negligence’ since he did not contribute a single administrative measure or a piece of legislation. He is blamed by many others for the problems of the next generation. This view of Newcastle has been recently altered especially by Sir Lewis Namier who has tried to present him as a dedicated public servant and a heavyweight in political life.
Despite his recent restitution, certain policies of Newcastle did indeed cause much resentment. When he became Secretary of State in 1724, the time was ripe for getting a firm grip over North America. At the end of his tenure however, the links between the plantations and the mother country were more tenuous than ever before. In his defense, it must be said that he was not solely responsible for the ‘neglect’ of American administration in this period. There was antipathy to political and administrative reform in England during the first half of the 18th century. The various centres of control over colonial policymaking meant that there was no single official, uncircumscribed by bureaucratic inertia and traditional policies, who could effect meaningful changes. In his early years, his hands were tied under the influence of Walpole and Townshend. Walpole in particular, was loathe to spending too much money over colonial governments as it would constitute a drain on the exchequer. His cautious fiscal policy limited the changes that Newcastle could introduce.
Newcastle has also been accused of rewarding sycophants and friends especially those from Sussex, his power base in parliamentary elections, with colonial offices. This would have disastrous consequences for colonial administration. By 1750, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Jamaica were also completely bereft of any significant authority. They had neither the means nor the energy to win back the initiative from their representative bodies. Further in South Carolina, the bureaucratic system was on the verge of collapse. While it could be argued that the administration was already inefficient and corrupt when he came to power, Newcastle did little to rectify the situation or to prevent its further deterioration.
In the light of these developments, it is useful to turn to an examination of how widespread this ‘neglect’ really was. Any study of colonial administration would demonstrate that rather than a linear policy followed by the British, there was a certain cyclical trend to their attention towards the colonies. After about three decades of neglect, we see a resurgence of interest in colonial affairs in the late 1720s and early 1730s. This was evident from the assumption of the proprietary colonies of North and South Carolina by the Crown in 1729 and the establishment of the first naval base in Antigua in the same year. This was followed by the passing of the Hat Act in 1732 and the Molasses Act in 1733. But this did not constitute a reversal of policy, rather it demonstrated the importance of military and strategic concerns, rather than administrative ones, in framing colonial policy. It was only the threat of war with Spain that refocused attention on colonial patronage and made it imperative that more attention be paid to colonial affairs. At this time it became apparent that the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ had caused a huge backlog of colonial business that needed to be cleared urgently. By 1737 almost half of the royal colonies were without a chief executive and no appointments had been made to major colonial positions for over a year. Walpole was concerned that his earlier pacifist policy now threatened the territorial integrity of the infant colony of Georgia. Walpole began to implement some of the mercantilist ideas outlined by the Board of Trade.
It was around this same time (between 1727-33) that the first concerted attempt to reform the character of colonial government took place. This period was marked by an increasingly pro-active role played by Parliament and in fact, it was this possibility of extensive Parliamentary intervention that distinguished this reform movement from its predecessors. James Henretta argues that the 1730s constituted a new and distinct phase in colonial administration particularly because Parliament took such an active interest in empire. However, the reform movement of 1727-33 did not succeed. It was not so much as a result of the entrenched policy of ‘salutary neglect’ but because of indifference from higher echelons of the administration, financial stringency and political incompetence. The result of this was that the local assemblies could exploit this situation by encroaching with impunity upon the traditional prerogatives of the Crown.
Apart from these instances where the home government tried and failed to re-assert its authority, there is other evidence that the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ was not uniformly applied or interpreted in similar terms in all regions. The most interesting example how relations between the King, the colonial government and the American people evolved during this period comes from Massachusetts Bay. Bushman argues that the King held a special place in Massachusetts politics and life. There were elaborate rituals and ceremonies surrounding the monarch and the king had huge symbolic importance in public life and a source of moral authority. But all of this contrasted with the general mistrust of officials, the consistent opposition to royal encroachment and there was no effect of monarchical principles on the nature of the legislation passed by the assembly. In Massachusetts, the people were willing to honour the king and looked up to him as their protector. But this allegiance did not extend to political life in so much as it affected their dealings with the colonial government. On important constitutional and fiscal questions, the governor’s power frequently crumbled and the patronage network eventually broke down because of the sheer size and independence of the electorate. It was later argued that the British through the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ had failed to create a patronage network that could create a sense of attachment and influence to counter the restlessness of popular assemblies. However, the truth was that the social conditions would have never allowed the duplication of such patronage networks. So in Massachusetts, while monarchical practices infused society, society itself was never monarchical. The chains of dependency fell short of the broad mass of people. The excessive dependence on the king as a moral symbol in contrast with the cupidity of royal officials, meant that a spirit of independence always troubled the latter. In the 50 years after 1691, as the colony grew more accustomed to royal rule, suspicion about the motives of colonial officials never died down. Officials, it was believed still pursued their own good at the cost of the public. Often, this mistrust was not linked to personal failings or dislike for the man in office. The colonists mistrusted officials as a class. This was a stereotype that not even the most virtuous governor could shake off.
The Massachusetts Bay example demonstrates that despite being left alone, there was always simmering discontent. And it is in this that the true failure of the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ lies. From the American point of view, it was salutary in so far as it allowed representatives institutions to foster, but from the British view point, it was to have disastrous consequences. There was a growing distrust of royal officials and their motives and a disillusionment with the rot setting into the administration. Newcastle’s appointee for the post of governor of New York was described as ‘inexperienced, ill-informed, poorly motivated and generally unsuited to holding public office’. While the colonies were left alone, they experimented with a vast variety of political institutions, and the notion that there was always internal peace in this period, is a myth. But the extent to which the people were empowered by the transfer of power would again greatly depend on the religious, social and economic conditions of the different colonies.
The period of ‘salutary neglect’ was looked upon fondly by Americans in the post 1760 period. But the reality was that while it was being carried it out, it remained the source of much discontent among various sections. Governors were unhappy that they were not receiving adequate support in their fight against the local assemblies, especially from the Duke of Newcastle. Moreover, colonial distrust for British officials never really vanished and if anything, the lack of reform in administration, merely strengthened their suspicions. The policy also created a curious dichotomy where, thanks to a process of increasing centralization, the king and his officials, in theory had all pervasive powers. But there was a great disjunction between theory and practice and this was a constant source of instability in the colonies. Again, the declining standard of administration was paradoxical, given that Newcastle, at the end of his reign was a man of considerable prestige and direct access to the king. But this was neutralized by the peripheral importance of colonial affairs. A colonial blunder would not topple a ministry not would it tarnish the reputation of an individual minister.
To conclude, the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ was neither accidental nor was it uniform in its application or effects. But given that within Britain the tussle between the King and Parliament had yet to be resolved, it was only natural that politicians fell back on individual self-interest while framing policy. Over time, this neglect meant that the administrative system suffered acute damage. The growing centralization of patronage undermined the authority of the colonial chief executive, and the governors lost the ability to manage the local assemblies in the interest of the home government. While the policy changed in the 1750s under the pressure of military defence and financial necessity, the damage had already been done by then.