Navigation Acts, Were “Insanely Inefficient, but Gratifyingly Lucrative to British Merchants and Manufacturers”

(p. 297) Many of Monticello’s quirks spring from the limitations of Jefferson’s workmen. He had to stick to a simple Doric style for the exterior columns because he could find no one with the skills to handle anything more complex. But the greatest problem of all, in terms of both expense and frustration, was a lack of home-grown materials. It is worth taking a minute to consider what the American colonists were up against in trying to build a civilization in a land without infrastructure.
(p. 298) Britain’s philosophy of empire was that America should provide it with raw materials at a fair price and take finished products in return. The system was enshrined in a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts, which stipulated that any product bound for the New World had either to originate in Britain or pass through it on the way there, even if it had been created in, say, the West Indies, and ended up making a pointless double crossing of the Atlantic. The arrangement was insanely inefficient, but gratifyingly lucrative to British merchants and manufacturers, who essentially had a fast-growing continent at their commercial mercy. By the eve of the revolution America effectively was Britain’s export market. It took 80 per cent of British linen exports, 76 per cent of exported nails, 60 per cent of wrought iron and nearly half of all the glass sold abroad. In bulk terms, America annually imported 30,000 pounds of silk, 11,000 pounds of salt and over 130,000 beaver hats, among much else. Many of these things – not least the beaver hats – were made from materials that originated in America in the first place and could easily have been manufactured in American factories – a point that did not escape the Americans.

Source:
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

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