Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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NAVIGATION ACT. The famous navigation act promulgated for the first time under Cromwell's administration, and which was perpetuated with various modifications in England up to very recent times, is to-day only a matter of history. But it has occupied so large a place there, it was considered for so long a time as the chief foundation of British greatness, it has been the object of so many commentaries, debates and quarrels, as well within as without Great Britain, that it still merits our attention.


—We shall, therefore, after having summarily indicated the object of this act, analyze it in its essential provisions, and relate its history. We shall then see whether it really accomplished, during its existence, the object had in view in passing it.


Object of the Navigation Act. The avowed and recognized object of the navigation act was to encourage the British merchant marine, by reserving to it, by restrictive measures against foreign ships, the best part of the carrying trade. Its object in the beginning was also to discourage the Dutch marine, which then acted as carrier for most of the nations of Europe, and the ascendency of which England feared. All the provisions of the act were framed with this double motive. Let us examine the substance of them.


Analysis of the Original Act. It would be useless, as well as tedious, to recall here the terms of the original act, which was passed in 1651, an informal and very obscure act, written in the tortuous style which the English laws seemed to affect at that time; or even to quote the wording of that more explicit and clearer act which was substituted for it in 1660, during the reign of Charles II. A concise analysis, accompanied by a few comments, will give a more exact idea of the act than the reproduction of the text itself would give.


—This law related to five different subjects, which are ordinarily classified in the following manner: 1, coasting trade; 2, Fisheries; 3, Commerce with the colonies; 4, Commerce with the countries of Europe; 5, Commerce with Asia, Africa and America. The following is the way in which these different subjects were regulated by the law.


—The coasting trade, that is to say, the navigation from one port to another of Great Britain, was exclusively reserved for English vessels.


—As regards the fisheries, the law was less exclusive. It did not absolutely exclude from British ports the products of foreign fisheries, it only imposed upon them double duties. This was sufficient, however, to drive away, little by little, foreign fishermen from the market of the country.


—The commerce of the mother country with the colonies and of the colonies with each other was, like the coasting trade, exclusively reserved for English vessels. In this respect the navigation act did not differ from the principles generally admitted at that time, and which have unhappily prevailed until the present time, among most commercial nations. It was a recognized maxim, that all mother countries could and should exclude all foreigners from all commerce with their colonies. This maxim England had already followed previously, when she had the power to do so, and the navigation act merely sanctioned it anew. Let us only add, that, unlike France, which has always reserved colonial commerce for ships of the mother country alone, England granted from that time, to her own colonies, a sort of reciprocity.


—As regards commerce with the countries of Europe, the navigation act provided that the importation of merchandise into England coming from those countries should be effected only upon English ships, or upon ships belonging either to the country which produced such merchandise or to the country which forwarded it, that is to say, England excluded from this commerce the intervention of a third party. The exclusion of a third party was not absolutely, however; it was enforced only as to a certain number of articles, specially designated in the act, and which have since been called enumerated goods. The number as well as the kind of these goods often varied. In the act of 1660 there were eighteen kinds of these enumerated goods; but, after 1792, others were successively added to the list, so that in the law of 1825, which took the place of the old act, there were twenty-eight. This is the number also found in the later acts, and notably in the last, which was passes in 1845; only, the enumerated goods in the act of 1845 are not all the same as those which figured in the act of 1825. It is probable that at all times it was the intention to reserve specially for national vessels the kinds of merchandise which then appeared to be most encumbering. Perhaps, also, in the original law, some of those kinds which the Dutch marine most usually carried were named in preference. To consider, then, only the terms of the navigation act, it would seem that the exclusion of a third party was the only object then had in view in European international navigation. In fact, no provision is found in this law which specially taxed the importation of merchandise by foreign vessels, provided these vessels belonged to the country which produced such merchandise or to the country which forwarded it; according to this, the law of that time was much more liberal than any of those which followed it. But it must be remarked, that as a complement to the act there was the customs bill or customs tariff, adopted about the same time, in 1652, and by virtue of which the merchandise imported by foreign ships was, in all cases, even when the ships belonged to the country producing the merchandise, subject to an additional tax, which most frequently constituted a double customs duty. It is this last provision, foreign to the navigation act properly so called, which gave rise to most complaints on the part of foreigners, and provoked the greatest number of reprisals. It was this provision, too, as we shall presently see, which was destined to disappear first by the successive adoption of reciprocity treaties.


—The fifth and last subject regulated by the navigation act was commerce with Asia, Africa and America . In this respect the regulation was simple; it was the absolute exclusion of every foreign vessel. It must not, however, be believed that this last exclusion was more severe than all the others. On the contrary, it was nothing else than the application of the principle previously adopted, of the exclusion of a third party. As there did not exist at that time any nation in Asia, Africa or America which had a national marine, or at least a marine capable of carrying merchandise to the ports of Great Britain, third nations alone would have been able to dispute this carriage with the British marine. By reserving it for English vessels, the law, therefore , merely remained true to its principle; only it applied it here with much greater rigor, by making the exclusion bear upon all merchandise, without distinction of kind. It was for the same reason, and because they had not then any marine of their own, that Muscovy and Turkey, although situated in Europe, were placed on the same footing as the countries situated in the three other parts of the world. Let us add to this, that the native merchandise of Asia, Africa or America could not in any case be imported into England from any country in Europe, even by English ships, unless they had undergone the process of manufacture in that country; a provision, whose purpose it was to discourage in rival nations, and especially in Holland, the system of entrepôts. Such was the navigation act in its essential provisions. The enforcement of these provisions necessitated, however, many others, which were so to speak, natural corollaries of the former. From the moment that their treatment varied according to the nationality of the ships, it became necessary to define that nationality and to regulate the conditions of it. It was therefore established that a ship should only be considered as English and should only enjoy the privileges attached to that title, when it had been duly registered, when it belonged wholly to English subjects, and when the captain and three fourths of the crew were English. In the beginning, it was admitted that such ship might have been built in a foreign country, provided it had become the legitimate property of Englishmen; but this toleration afterward ceased, and it was necessary that all ships, with the exception of those which might be taken from the enemy in time of war, should be entirely built in British ports. Similar conditions were imposed upon foreign ships to establish their respective nationalities.


—As regards the coast navigation, the law was still more severe. It was necessary here that the crews should be wholly composed of English subjects.


—Whatever we may think of this act and the influence which it exercised upon the development of the British marine, if we compare it with the legislation adopted by most modern nations, we shall find nothing exactly exceptional in its rigorous measures. It is nothing else, at bottom, than the system which we have seen established almost everywhere, with this difference, however, that this system has been greatly modified, since 1825, by the adoption of treaties of reciprocity.


Successive Alterations of the Navigation Act. The navigation act, as we have just analyzed it, continued in force without material alteration until after the American revolution, that is to say, during 120-130 years after its publication. It was not even till from 1823 to 1825 that it was replaced by a new law. It was always respected, moreover, even under the new form which it received then. At this last epoch, however, it had already received severe attacks. Let us go back to the time when its first modifications were introduced.


—During 130 years England had carried on by means of her own ships all her trade with Asia, Africa and America, without allowing in any case, in this trade, the intervention of foreign vessels. However, war broke out between herself and her colonies in North America; the independence of the United States was declared, and, in 1782, that independence was recognized by the mother country. This produced a new situation, which the navigation act had not foreseen. Henceforth, separated from the mother country, North America could no longer pretend to carry on navigation with the British ports by virtue of its former colonial privileges; and, on the other hand, the act formally excluded, in the commerce with America, all foreign vessels. It was impossible, however, that the United States should remain under the ban of such an exclusion: it would never have consented to abandon all transportation to English ships; it was necessary that the navigation act should yield. After long negotiations between the United States and England, in which different systems were proposed and debated, it was agreed that the ships of the United States, although coming from America, should be allowed, contrary to the tenor of the law, to frequent the ports of Great Britain on the same conditions as those of the old states of Europe. This modification was the first of any importance. Later, similar ones were allowed in favor of the old Spanish and Portuguese colonies of South America, when they became independent of their mother countries; as well as in favor of the black republic of Hayti; so that, the part of the act which related to the commerce with the new world fell gradually to pieces. It must be acknowledged, however, that these successive modifications attacked rather the letter than the spirit of the law, since, in the midst of them all, the prevailing principle of the act, the sacred principle of the exclusion of third parties, was maintained intact.


—But the emancipation of the United States had other and very different consequences. The colonial system, a system so severe up to that time, was shaken by it. Although most of the states of Europe had in this regard been almost as rigorous as England, they, considering the great distance between the places, and the uncertainty of supplies coming from the mother country, nevertheless allowed their colonies to receive, in case of need, from ships of foreign countries nearer to them, the things necessary for their subsistence, such, for example, as flour and meat; England alone had refused this toleration, of which she had not till that time felt the absolute necessity. Thanks to the great number of her colonies, to the importance of some of them, and to their proximity to each other, she had been able, strictly speaking, to deprive them of all foreign assistance, by forcing them to rely upon themselves. But from the moment the colonies of North America, the most important of all, were emancipated, this state of things changed. The English Antilles, accustomed to rely upon supplies coming from these former colonies, found themselves left suddenly in the lurch; it was necessary, therefore, to allow, in their interest, new modifications of the navigation act, modifications more grave than the former ones, because they altered the very principle of the law.


—At this time commenced, between the government of Great Britain and that of the United States, a sullen struggle, rarely interrupted, and which could end only when the last vestiges of the old system should have entirely disappeared. The people of the United States, accustomed up to that time to carry on trade only with Great Britain and her colonial possessions, and desirous of continuing in this the usual field of their activity, solicited at first of England, as a favor, the preservation of their former relations offering in return to the British marine exceptional advantages in their ports. This proposal having been refused, despite what there was tempting in it to England herself, the American people changed their tactics: they demanded that at least their ships should be admitted into the ports of the mother country on a footing of perfect equality, that is to say, that the additional tax established by the tariff of duties should no longer be applied to the merchandise imported by these ships. From 1782 to 1792 this very natural demand was incessantly renewed by them, with solicitations even more pressing, sometimes even with threats followed by action; but it could not prevail against the restrictive and jealous spirit which then ruled in English councils. Finally, weary of these vain solicitations and diplomatic struggles without results, after having tried all means of conciliation, the American government resolutely adopted reprisal measures. Congress passed, in 1792, a navigation act, corresponding in certain respects to the English act; more elastic, however, as it authorized the government to suspend its effects, whenever arrangements concluded with other nations required it. From this moment there commenced, between the United States and England, a veritable tariff war, continued without interruption, in spite of many unforeseen events which changed the state of things, until 1815. Hence, the commercial and maritime relations between the two countries became exceedingly difficult. This can be judged of by the following comparisons: The tonnage of English vessels admitted to American ports was, in 1790, 218,914 tons; in 1791, 210,618; in 1794 it fell to 37,058, in 1795, to 27,097, and in 1796, to 19,669. After having risen a little during the first years of the nineteenth century, it commenced to decline again from the year 1805, and in 1811 and 1812 it was reduced to almost nothing.


—Having reached this degree of intensity, the struggle could no longer be prolonged; it had to come either to open war, or to an amicable arrangement, which should put an end to the differences between the two countries. In 1812, in fact, war was declared; a war, determined perhaps by political motives, but the original cause of which was these commercial quarrels. Fortunately, this war did not last long, and it finally led, in 1815, to the conclusion of a treaty of commerce and navigation, founded upon reciprocity and equality of rights.


—This treaty of 1815 may be considered as the point of departure of the new policy, successively adopted by the greater part of the states of Europe. Still this treaty did not end all quarrels. Besides the fact that it was not always faithfully carried out, it made scarcely any concessions except as regards the intercourse between the United States and the United Kingdom, leaving the colonial commerce, at which the American people had not ceased to cast longing glances, as it had formerly been. This second point, therefore, remained to be settled. It was the object of fresh debates, which were prolonged with more or less acrimony for many years, and to which the definite repeal of the navigation act alone could put an end.


—The example given by the United States was not lost. Some years after 1815, Prussia exacted the advantages which had been accorded to the American Union, and showed herself disposed to use the same means to obtain them. England was tempted again to respond by a formal refusal, for the prestige of the navigation act was not yet, by any means, destroyed. But the government and parliament, much as they were devoted to the protective law, did not care to recommence a fatiguing and ruinous war similar to that which they had just gone through, nor to repeat the experience which had shown them its uselessness. It was to be feared, besides, that other nations would join Prussia, and that they would league together to resist the British monopoly. This consideration prevailed over all the others, and England understood soon enough that it was necessary to yield again. The treaty with Prussia was concluded in 1823; but already the question appeared under another aspect; England had taken a great step in advance.


—On the proposition of the ministry, of which Mr. Huskisson was then a member, parliament passed, in 1822, not without dread nor without casting a desperate look backward, a bill which authorized the government, in a general manner, to conclude similar treaties with all foreign nations. This was to throw down with a single blow one of the supports of the system, which rested on the tariff of duties. By virtue of this bill a great number of treaties were successively concluded with all the independent states of Europe and America.


—In the following years many new provisions were adopted, all modifying the original law, like that, for example, which extended to the nations of Europe the power, previously accorded to the American people, of trading, on certain conditions, with the English colonies. It was at this time also that for the first time the exportation to foreign countries of certain kinds of colonial merchandise, and particularly of sugar, was authorized. From this moment it may be said that the navigation act was battered in all its parts.


—In 1725 it was entirely remodeled, to make a new act of it, in which an effort was made to take into account the principal modifications which it had undergone. After that time it was twice revised, in 1833 and in 1845. The last draft, that of 1845, recalls, in its essential provisions, the original act, to such a degree, that if we were to judge only from a comparison of the text of the two laws, we might think that from the one epoch to the other the system had undergone little change. But the last authorizes the government, in consequence of treaties concluded with foreign powers, to make so many and such notable exceptions, that these exceptions have almost destroyed the rule. Let us see what was the real state of the law before the definite repeal of the act.


State of the Law before the Repeal of the Act. We have just seen that even before the repeal of the law, differential duties, in direct international navigation, had ceased almost everywhere by virtue of the treaties of reciprocity. However, it seemed that the exclusion of third parties had been strictly maintained: this exclusion continued, indeed, in principle. But even in this respect there were already numerous exceptions, resulting principally from a sort of artificial extension of nationalities. After 1838 a large number of the states of Europe had been successively authorized to consider as ports belonging to them, so far as their maritime relations with Great Britain were concerned, the ports situated at the mouths of rivers which flowed through any part of their territory. It was in this way that Austria, the first power to profit by this exception, could consider as hers the ports situated at the mouths of the Danube and the Vistula, and that her ships could sail from them to Great Britain with the same privileges as if they had set out from Austrian ports. It was in this way, also, that the ships of the zollverein could make use, under the same conditions, of the ports situated at the mouths of the streams or rivers which crossed any one of the associated states. Hanover, the two Mecklenburgs, the duchy of Oldenburg, Holland, Russia, and many other states, had successively obtained similar privileges, which became more and more extensive; so that all central and northern Germany, as well as a good part of the north of Europe, formed scarcely more, in the eyes of the English law, than one and the same country. There was now no nation which had not obtained the privilege of trading with the English colonies. Yet this privilege remained subject to many reservations. Granted to each power separately, by orders in council, it was more or less extended, according to the case in question, that is to say, according as the power which obtained it granted greater or less reciprocity. France and Spain were in this respect the least favored of Europe, because they had maintained more than the others their system of restriction. In any case, foreign ships were admitted only into certain ports of the English colonies called free ports. It is proper to add, that these free ports were very numerous, so much so that Jamaica alone had fourteen. Finally, in colonial commerce, the carriage of certain kinds of merchandise specially designated, and, besides, few in number, remained the exclusive privilege of English ships; and it was not permitted to foreigners to sail from one colony to another, that sort of navigation being likened to the coasting trade. Nothing had been changed in the provisions relative to the registration of ships and the conditions of their nationality.


Repeal of the Act in 1849; what remains of it. After the numerous and powerful attacks, which it had already been subjected to, the moment had come when the navigation act had finally to disappear. The time when it had been surrounded by a respect almost religious, and when it was considered as the palladium of British power, was past. It still had, it is true, a very great number of partisans, above all among those directly interested in the merchant marine. But each of the alterations it had undergone since 1815 had so little justified the fears and sinister predictions of the sectaries of the past, these alterations had been followed, on the contrary, by such favorable consequences, that the old faith in the efficacy of the act had been extinguished in some and strongly shaken in others. At the time when the first changes were introduced into it, changes necessitated by circumstances, the sacred ark was touched only with trembling, and in obedience to a fatal necessity. But later, after the unexpected success of the first trials, changes were made with a more cheerful spirit, and it was easy to foresee thenceforth that the moment would soon come when the navigation act would receive its death blow. The commercial reforms brought about in England, from 1842 to 1846, only hastened this moment by preparing the way. It is from 1815, or at least from 1822, that the first serious attacks made against the navigation act date, and since that time it may be said that the old edifice of restrictions, barriers and monopolies, which it established, only advanced from day to day towards an inevitable and fatal downfall.


—To Mr. Huskisson belongs the honour of having commenced, from 1822 to 1825, the work of its destruction: to Sir Robert Peel, that of having prosecuted it, from 1842 to 1846, by ruining all that protected the edifice; and to Lord John Russell, the honor of having finished it, in 1849. In this latter year the navigation act was definitively repealed.


—By virtue of the new law, which went into force Jan. 1, 1850, all the old restrictions are abolished. Since then, the ports of Great Britain have been open to all foreign vessels, from whatever country, and such vessels are received there, in whatever touches the laws of navigation, on the same footing as English vessels. Foreign vessels are also received upon the same conditions as English vessels in all the British colonies, and may import into and export from them such merchandise as they please.


—Nevertheless the act of 1849, after having proclaimed the virtual abolition of the old restrictions, retains some of them, few in number, the maintenance of which appeared necessary, or which it was not thought should be entirely done away with. In the first place, it retains those restrictions in what concern the coasting trade, that is, the navigation from one port of Great Britain to another, as well as in regard to the navigation between Great Britain and the Channel islands: Guernsey, Jersey, etc. In the second place, it retains them also in regard to the navigation from one colony to another, and from one of the ports of a colony to another port of the same colony. Still upon this point, the interdiction of foreign ships is not absolute. It is allowable for the colonies themselves to put an end to it, by addressing to the queen a request that they may be authorized to regulate their coast navigation themselves. Finally, no change has been effected by the new law in the provisions relative to the constitution of the crews of English vessels, and to the recognition of their nationality. These restrictions are the only ones which continue. They have not been maintained with a view of favoring the British marine, that system of protection having been condemned as harmful and vain, but only because their repeal would have given new facilities for smuggling, and therefore have reduced the public revenues.


Did the Navigation Act accomplish, during its existence, the good which was expected of it? There is no doubt but that, in the early periods of its promulgation, the navigation act must have dealt a heavy blow at the Dutch merchant marine, which was then the general carrier between all the nations of Europe. Excluded, or almost so, from the ports of Great Britain, by reason of the severe prescriptions which forbade, in international navigation, all intervention of third parties, the Dutch ships lost at once one of their best customers. The damage was so much the more serious because the example given by England was not slow in being followed, at least in a certain measure, by some other states,(notably by France), which strove, as if in rivalry, to make their ports less accessible to foreigners. The Dutch merchant marine, therefore, saw the circle of its activity visibly narrowing from day to day. And as at this time, even more than to day,*68. the merchant marine was the real nursery of the naval army, the maritime power of Holland, which had been heretofore without a rival, was greatly influenced by it. The navigation act may therefore be considered as the first check given to the maritime greatness of Holland, although this artificial greatness must sooner or later have passed away, and although many other causes, both internal and external, contributed to its decay.


—There can no longer be any doubt that the immediate effect of the navigation act was to give a certain impulse to the English marine. If commerce and industry had to suffer enormously from the severe restrictions imposed upon them all at once, and to experience a great injury from them, it is easy to understand that the merchant marine could and must increase, in a certain measure, at the expense of everything else. Did the advantage obtained on the one side furnish a sufficient compensation for the injury experienced on the other? Without doubt it did not, if we look at it from the point of view of the commercial interests of the country; for certainly the marine did not gain so much from this innovation as commerce and industry lost by it. But if, leaving the interests of industry and commerce out of the question, we consider the effect produced only from the point of view of maritime power, it appears to us certain that the navigation act fulfilled, at least up to a certain point, the intentions of those who were its authors. In a word, from the economical point of view, the measure was detestable in all respects, even at that time.


—From the political point of view, and as a war measure, it can be justified or explained, and for a certain length of time it certainly produced the results which were expected of it. It is in this way that Adam Smith regarded it, when, despite his just horror for all restrictive measures, he made an exception in favor of the navigation act, which he considered a patriotic and wise act. He did not and could not ignore the injury this law had caused to the national wealth, but he thought it justified by considerations of another order. It was in his eyes a measure of public safety. The damage which it must have caused to industry and commerce he considered as a sacrifice imposed upon the country in the interest of its security.


—But if such were the first effects produced by the navigation act, it was not the case afterward. The first impulse once given to the British marine, it suffered itself, almost as much as foreign marines, from the restrictions established in its sole interest. These restrictions, in fact, traced a circle about it, and forbade it in a certain manner to overstep it. A proof of this truth is found in the fact that later, as the severe prescriptions of the act had to be relaxed, by the force of circumstances, the English marine prospered and increased much more than it had before. Thus, in 1815, a treaty of reciprocity was concluded with the United States, and, as a consequence of this treaty, so far from English ships being excluded from the ports of the United States, as had been feared at first and as shipowners had jealously predicted, it was found that the British tonnage in its ports increased from year to year, and finally rose far above what it had ever been. We have seen that, from 1792 to 1815, the tonnage did not exceed, in the best years, 210,000 tons; in 1844, before the great commercial reforms brought about by Sir Robert Peel, it had already gradually increased to more than 700,000 tons. All the other alterations which the navigation act successively underwent had like consequences; if the measure had had its useful side in the first moments of its existence, its day had gone by. Such is, moreover, the ordinary effect of restrictive measures established for the profit of any industry. They exalt it, they raise it up and increase it for a short time at the expense of all others; but later they become fetters even for that industry, by inclosing it, so to speak, in the narrow circle which they have made for it.


—Freed henceforth from the inextricable network of its restrictive laws, England will become, without any doubt, the general rendezvous of the marine of the world. Its principal maritime cities, London and Liverpool, are destined to become the great entrepôts of Europe. Already colonial commodities flow there, to be distributed thence throughout the whole of northern Europe. Truly, other nations would have little ground to complain of this. They should not envy the English people these advantage, which are not acquired at their expense.


Notes for this chapter

We say, even more than to-day, because at that time the seas being generally infested with pirates, almost all merchant vessels were armed as for war, so that sailors commenced really an apprenticeship of maritime war on board merchant vessels


End of Notes

748 of 1105

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