The British had an empire to run. The prevailing economic philosophy of 17th and 18th century empires was mercantilism. In this system, the colonies existed to enrich the mother country. Restrictions were placed on what colonies could manufacture, whose ships they could use, and most importantly whom they could trade with. British merchants wanted American colonists to buy British goods, not French, Spanish or Dutch products. Americans had to pay duties on imported goods to discourage them from buying non-British goods.
The Navigation Acts and the Molasses Act are examples of royal attempts to restrict colonial trade. The colonists ignored these restrictions by smuggling.
Distance and the size of the British Empire worked to colonial advantage. Prior to 1763,theBritish followed a policy known as Salutary Neglect. They passed laws regulating colonial trade, but they knew they could not easily enforce them. It cost four times as much to use the British navy to collect duties as the value of the duties themselves. Colonists, particularly in New England, thought nothing of ignoring these laws. Ships from the colonies often loaded their holds with illegal goods from the French, Dutch, and the Spanish West Indies. British customs officials earned a modest salary. It was common for them to receive bribe money from colonial shippers. When smugglers were caught, they were often freed by sympathetic American juries.
As 1776 approached, smuggling became vital to the Revolutionary cause. Colonists ignored British law, particularly in the harbors of New England. American shippers became quite skilled at avoiding the British navy, a practice they used extensively in the Revolutionary War. Soon England began to try offenders in admiralty courts, which had no juries. All attempts to stop smuggling just brought further rebellion.
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