The British Empire in America (1650 - 1750) for AP US History

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Updated on Mar 21, 2011

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The British Empire in America (1650 - 1750) Review Questions for AP US History

Summary: The economic theory of mercantilism, which held that a state should be as economically self-sufficient as possible, helped to motivate England and other European powers to discover and develop colonies, as colonies could provide raw materials. The triangular trade system tied together the economies of Europe, the Americas, and Africa and brought slaves to the Americas. The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts were a result of social unrest existing in the Massachusetts colony. Wars between the European powers spilled over into the Americas during this period, with Native American tribes cultivated as allies by either the English or the French.


Mercantilism: economic system practiced by European powers in the late seventeenth century stating that economic self-sufficiency was crucial; as a result, colonial empires were important for raw materials.

Navigation Acts (1660): acts passed by the British parliament increasing the dependence of the colonies on the English for trade; these acts caused great resentment in the American colonies but were not strictly enforced.

Triangular trade system: complex trading system that developed in this era between Europe, Africa, and the colonies; Europeans purchased slaves in Africa and sold them to the colonies, raw materials from the colonies went to Europe, while European finished products were sold in the colonies.

Middle Passage: the voyage taken by African slaves on horribly overcrowded ships from Africa to the Americas.

Salem Witch Trials (1692): trials in Salem, Massachusetts, after which 19 people were executed as witches; historians note the class nature of these trials.

Salutary neglect: early 18th-century British policy relaxing the strict enforcement of trade policies in the American colonies.

The Impact of Mercantilism

The dominant economic philosophy of the period in Europe was mercantilism. This theory proclaimed that it was the duty of the government to strictly regulate a state's economy. Mercantilists believed that it was crucial for a state to export more than it imported, since the world's wealth was limited. The possession of colonies (so a nation wouldn't have to rely on other nations for raw materials), tariffs, and monopolies were other mercantilist tactics of the era. The American colonies were more than adequate from a mercantilist point of view, as they could provide crops such as tobacco and rice from the southern colonies and raw materials such as lumber from the colonies of the north.

Charles II came to the throne in England in 1660 and desired to increase British trade at the expense of its main trading rival, the Dutch. Charles influenced the British Parliament to pass the Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1663. These bills had great influence on colonial trade. These stated that certain products from the colonies, such as sugar, tobacco, and indigo, could only be shipped to England, in an effort to help British merchants. The acts required that all goods going from anywhere in Europe to the American colonies must pass through England first.

Resistance to the Navigation Acts came from both the Dutch and the American colonies. Three commercial wars between the Dutch and the British took place in the late 1600s (with one result being the ending of the Dutch monopoly over the West African slave trade). In New England, many wanted to be able to continue to trade with the Dutch, who offered them better prices for their goods than the British did. Edmund Randolph, the chief British customs official in Massachusetts Bay, noted that colonial officials welcomed non-British traders, and he called upon the British government to "reduce Massachusetts to obedience." In 1684, a British court ruled that Massachusetts Bay colony had intentionally violated the Navigation Acts (as well as restricted the Church of England). The charter of the colony was thus declared invalid, and the colony was placed under direct British control. The Dominion of New England was created, which revoked the charters of all the colonies from New Jersey to Maine and placed immense powers in the hands of Sir Edmund Andros, the governor.

Similar feelings of resentment against the Navigation Acts developed in Virginia. The price of tobacco dropped sharply after 1663, with many landowners blaming Royal Governor Sir William Berkeley, who was thought to be profiting greatly from his position in Virginia. Some landowners joined in opposition to Berkeley under Nathaniel Bacon. In a dispute over policy toward Native Americans (specifically, how the government could protect farmers against Native American attacks) and how the colony would be governed, Bacon and his followers took control of the colony and burned the city of Jamestown. Some historians view this revolt as a rebellion of poor western farmers against the "eastern elite." The rebellion ended in October 1676 when Bacon and several of his followers died from dysentery. The results of Bacon's Rebellion were a limitation of the power of the royal governor by the Virginia gentry and an increase in the slave trade. (Some of Bacon's supporters were former indentured servants; the leaders of Virginia believed that African slaves would be much more docile.)

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