Navigation Laws, the name usually given to those enactments by which commercial states have endeavored to regulate the navigation which left or visited their ports, seeking always to favor and promote the commerce of the state enacting them. Such laws have existed in some form among all the maritime states of Europe for many centuries. The first systematic effort of this kind was probably that of Spain, about three centuries ago, to preserve the exclusive possession of her very profitable commerce with her American colonies. In England, so far back as 137!), in the reign of Richard II., a statute was passed prohibiting the king's subjects from importing or exporting merchandise except in English ships. After this time sundry enactments were passed for a similar purpose. But the navigation laws of England, so called, properly began in Cromwell's time. Then the long pending conflict between Holland and England for the suprem-aey of the seas came to a crisis. The contest continued after the restoration of Charles II. But the fatal blow was given to Holland, and the superiority of England made certain, not so much by her naval victories as by the navigation laws, which, originating in the sagacity of Cromwell, and receiving then the form they nave preserved until recent times, secured to England, first, the building of all her ships and their navigation by English seamen; next, the absolute monopoly of her colonial commerce; and finally, her full share of the general carrying trade of the world.
For these purposes it was provided that no ship should be deemed a British ship that was not wholly built within the dominions of Great Britain, and wholly owned by British subjects, and navigated by a British commander and a crew of which at least three fourths were British subjects; next, that only British ships should carry any merchandise from any port of the British empire to any other; and thirdly, that no goods which were the growth, product, or manufacture of Asia, Africa, or America, should be imported into any of the ports of Great Britain except in British ships, or in ships of the countries of which the goods were the production. The rigorous execution of these laws, and the consistent adherence to these principles, are supposed by many to have done more than any other one cause in giving to Great Britain her enormous commerce. In order to ascertain what were British ships, and secure the execution of these laws, an admirable system of registry was adopted and remained in force in England during almost two centuries, with no substantial change. But in 1849 the principle of free trade was permitted to break down this monopoly to some extent.
By the act of that year and the subsequent amendments it is enacted, first, that ships which are not of British build may become British ships by registry, if wholly owned by British subjects; and next, that any ship may bring to the United Kingdom any merchandise, excepting, however, that the king or queen, by order in council, may interpose such changes, restrictions, or prohibitions upon ships of any country as will put the ships of that country when in British ports on the same footing on which British ships stand in the ports of that country. - This subject was one of the earliest to which the American congress, under the present constitution, turned its attention; and in the winter of 1792-3 acts were passed which were substantially the same as the English acts then in force, but, so far as they differ, may be considered as more rigorous. These statutes are still in force, having never been materially altered. The maritime nations of continental Europe have their own systems of navigation laws, but these are not in any case quite so stringent as those of England and the United States. During the years which immediately followed the adoption of the federal constitution, England and France being constantly at war, the United States had almost the whole carrying trade of the world; and its vast profits laid the foundation of the wealth of the country, and built up its commercial marine with a rapidity unexampled in the history of the world.