- Forty Years of Salutary Neglect: A Retrospective
If a graduate student was asking me today where he or she might start the process of trying to understand the momentous events that led to the creation of a new nation in North America in the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century, I would recommend, without hesitation, James Henretta’s Salutary Neglect, a monograph published forty years ago by Princeton University Press. I would not pick Bailyn, Greene, or Wood as the best starting point. No, Henretta instead. To my mind, his book is the logical launching pad for comprehending the origins, and the eventual realities, of the confrontation with Great Britain.
To be perfectly frank, I only recently discovered this extraordinarily valuable volume. I had heard the term “salutary neglect” mentioned fairly often within the colonial context, but I had no firm idea about exactly what time period was covered or who might have authored the book with that title. As it happens, I have spent the bulk of my four active decades in the profession studying mostly economic issues, in particular money and finance. Political history forced itself upon me only when it interacted with conflicts over the issuance of paper currency. Those interactions between colonies and the mother country were fairly frequent in the eighteenth century. Indeed, I published an article on these recurring monetary conflicts several decades ago.
More recently, I began thinking about how the financial landscape in the 1790s, after the completion of Alexander Hamilton’s handiwork, differed or, alternatively, mirrored what had existed during the final quarter century of the colonial era. Upon reflection, I came down on the latter side; there were many more similarities than differences. In retrospect, Hamilton’s major contribution to the national welfare was to restore the same degree of soundness and reliability to the financial system that had prevailed from 1750 to 1775. From that conclusion sprang my next thought: how different was the political landscape in the 1790s from what had prevailed in colonial days? My tentative [End Page 370] hypothesis was as follows: conditions were perhaps not all that much different in the later period than in the earlier era. But where to seek reinforcement for that line of historical analysis? At that crucial point, the “salutary neglect” interpretive format suddenly came to mind. I went on the internet and found an old copy of Henretta’s book available for the bargain price of just fourteen dollars. Four decades after its initial publication, my nearly pristine copy is still in sound physical and intellectual condition.
What Henretta demonstrates in vivid colors is that the British North American colonies were already de facto independent political units long prior to Jefferson’s public proclamation to the world. Indeed, they were already functioning as essentially autonomous communities by the turn of the eighteenth century. The degree of political control extending from the mother country was weak at best. Since their founding in the seventeenth century, neither the reigning monarch nor Parliament had made a serious effort to exercise sustainable administrative power over these faraway dominions. Sustainable is the key word here. Unlike Ireland, these “possessions” were too distant to justify more than a transitory focus; and those irregular periods of heightened mutual interest only emerged when linked to military rivalries with competing European powers.
What changed the overall situation, beginning around the middle of the eighteenth century, was a movement by influential political leaders in Great Britain to assert the claims and privileges of imperial dominance. More people with political influence became convinced that these seemingly free and independent colonies should be reigned in and brought more tightly under proper control. In response to these unprecedented and unwelcome intrusions, colonial leaders deflected the unwelcome attention and dragged their feet. They expressed devotion to the monarch and to the expanding British Empire, but they had serious reservations about the seemingly changing nature of their relationship with the mother...