Although many scholars have cited the Navigation Acts as one of Adam Smith's key exceptions to his general embrace of natural liberty, there remains a need for a systematic account of Smith's under-explored beliefs on the Acts, and specifically the Act of Navigation of 1660. My article
seeks to fill this gap by providing a descriptive and critical examination of his commentary on the commercial restraints, and locating it in wider eighteenth-century debates over their utility in Anglo-American imperial relations with specific reference to Thomas Pownall and Edmund Burke.
I argue that Smith's thoughts contained important tensions that were exposed by Pownall's and Burke's analyses of the Acts. I conclude, however, by offering a possible explanation for the ambiguities in Smith's qualified support for the Act of Navigation of 1660: Smith suggests that the legislator
should not establish ironclad rules for national defence policy and commercial policy stripped of circumstance — such as always promote either protectionism or free trade — but rather should be willing to modify them, and if necessary discard them, in a manner that is responsive
to the historical evolution of the international imperial order, the progressively heavy burdens of empire, and the spirit of natural liberty.