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Sugar Act

Sugar Act


War and Debt. The British Empire triumphed in the Seven Years War, winning undisputed control of North America and control of the worlds oceans. However, the war was extremely expensive, and maintaining the empire and the seas required a military force in North America and a navy. The war itself left England with a debt of £122,603,336, requiring an annual interest payment £4,409,797, or about half of the nations annual budget. With the British people already heavily taxed, Parliament sought other sources of revenue.

Colonial Trade. One lucrative source of revenue, Parliament realized, would be the trade of the American colonies. Because the colonies benefited from British military power, and in fact the war had been fought to protect the colonists, it seemed only fair that the colonists share the burden of debt. Britain had never enforced regulations on colonial trade, and though the American colonists had a thriving commercial economy, their trade only contributed about £2,000 each year to the British treasury. In 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act, which actually reduced the tariff colonists would have to pay on sugar, but it increased enforcement. By having customs collectors in the colonies inspect ships and cargoes, Parliament could raise £78,000 each year from the intercolonial sugar trade.

Molasses and Rum. Britains most lucrative colonies were in the West Indies. Barbados and Jamaica produced sugar, which would be shipped in the form of molasses to the North American mainland colonies, particularly Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where it would be refined into either sugar or rum. In return these colonies shipped food supplies to feed the slave laborers in the West Indies so that the sugar planters would not have to grow food for the labor force but could use every available bit of land to grow sugar. North American traders would also go to Africa to buy more slaves for the West Indian plantations, which absorbed about 40 percent of all Africans brought to the New World. Molasses and rum and slaves were making some of the American colonists wealthy, and it seemed only fair that they pay their share to the British treasury.

Enforcement. Parliament reduced the tariff on molasses from six pence per gallon to three pence; however, Parliament also sent customs collectors to the colonies to make sure this tax was collected. Parliament also gave the vice-admiralty courts more power to hear cases involving the trade laws and limited the power of other courts to hear related cases. Vice-admiralty courts, which did not have juries, had originally been established to hear cases involving sailors wage disputes as well as cases involving trade laws. With one judge, who was often also the colonys chief justice, and no jury these courts could resolve disputes quickly. They were not, however, courts of recordtheir decisions were not binding on other courts. There were twelve vice-admiralty courts in British America (Quebec; Nova Scotia; Newfoundland; Massachusetts and New Hampshire; Rhode Island; Connecticut, New York and New Jersey; Pennsylvania and Delaware; Maryland; Virginia; North Carolina; and Georgia). The sugar act established a new vice-admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and gave this court jurisdiction over all the local admiralty courts.

Newport. John Robinson arrived as customs collector in Newport, Rhode Island, determined to enforce the

law. On his arrival the merchants of Newport greeted him with an offer of a £70,000 bribe if he would look the other way when their ships reached port. Robinson was outraged, but he discovered that his own rectitude was not enough. The local merchants already had allies in the vice-admiralty judge and advocate, both consisting of local men. The judge would wait until Robinson was out of town to call his cases, so no evidence could be presented. Sometimes the case would be dismissed when the advocate, who was supposed to prosecute cases, would not show up in court. In the rare cases when the judge felt compelled to condemn a ship for violating the sugar act, Robinson would see the full extent of the communitys support for its own merchants. The judge would order the condemned ship auctioned off, and no one would bid. The judge then, for a nominal sum, would sell the ship back to its original owner.

John Robinson and the Polly. In April 1765 John Robinson followed the ship Polly up the Taunton River from Newport, suspecting it had sailed past his customs office without reporting the molasses on board. When the ship docked at Dighton, Massachusetts, twenty miles from Newport, Robinson boarded it, discovered the molasses, and ordered the Polly seized; but no Dighton men were willing to execute his orders. He had to walk twenty miles back to Newport, where he hoped to find men willing to enforce His Majestys customs laws. While Robinson was walking back to Newport, men from Dighton boarded the ship and removed all its cargo and equipment, stripped it to its frame, then drilled holes into its hull. When Robinson returned to Dighton, the Polly sat on the bottom of the Taunton river, and its owner charged Robinson with destroying his ship. The local sheriff arrested Robinson and marched him eight miles up river to Taunton. Though Robinson was ultimately released, his arrest showed the difficulty a customs official would have in enforcing this unpopular law.

Unlikely Allies. The Sugar Act brought together unlikely allies: wealthy colonial merchants and the lawless lower orders of society. By convincing both that they had a common interest, and that this interest differed from the interests of Britain, Parliament had begun a process which would end in independence. Colonists also began to distinguish between acts passed to regulate trade, such as the 1690 Navigation Acts, and taxes passed to raise revenue. Parliament, they said, could regulate colonial trade, but only the colonial assemblies could tax the colonists. Eight colonial assemblies adopted protests against the Sugar Act, but because the Sugar Act mainly hurt New England merchants, and as it could be considered an act to regulate trade more than a revenue act, the protest was muted. But just as the colonial assemblies were drafting their protests, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, designed to raise revenues from all the colonists. Opposition to the Sugar Act was drowned out by the fierce opposition to the Stamp Act.


Edmund S. Morgan and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1953);

Lawrence Henry Gipson, The British Empire before the American Revolution, volume 11, The Triumphant Empire: The Rumbling of the Coming Storm, 17661770 (New York: Knopf, 1965).

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Sugar Acts


SUGAR ACTS were parliamentary measures designed to increase Great Britain's profits from the lucrative West Indian and North American sugar trade. Throughout the American colonial period the British Empire depended on the West Indies for sugar. Wealthy sugar planters who resided in England used their political influence to bring about enactment of the Molasses Act (1733), which secured their monopoly by subjecting foreign molasses imported into any British colony to a duty of six pence per gallon. This law proved ineffective, however, in the absence of systematic measures to enforce it.

In 1764 George Grenville, chancellor of the Exchequer, enacted a new sugar act, which he intended to end the smuggling trade in foreign molasses and at the same time secure revenue. The act lowered the duty on foreign molasses from six to three pence a gallon, raised the duties on foreign refined sugar, and increased the export bounty on British refined sugar bound for the colonies. These measures gave the British sugar planters an effective monopoly of the American sugar market. Smuggling of foreign sugar became unprofitable, as did the old illicit trade in foreign molasses. These changes sparked violent protests at first. Two years later, Parliament lowered the duty to one penny a gallon, applied alike to foreign and British imports, and the protests on the molasses duty ended. At this lower rate, molasses yielded an average of £12,194 annually from 1767 to 1775.

Other phases of the Sugar Act of 1764 were far more irritating to the colonists than was the lowered duty on molasses. One was a new duty on wine imported from Madeira, which had previously come in duty free and was the main source of profit for the fish and food ships returning from the Mediterranean. This part of the Sugar Act led to few direct protests, but it did produce some spectacular attempts at evasion, such as the wine-running episode in Boston involving a ship belonging to Capt. Daniel Malcolm, in February 1768. Even more provocative were measures imposing new bonding regulations that compelled ship masters to give bond, even when they loaded their vessels with nonenumerated goods. The most controversial of these features was a provision that shipmasters had to give bond before they put any article, enumerated or nonenumerated, on board. The universal American practice, however, was to load first and then clear and give bond, which made it difficult for shipmasters to give a new bond at a customhouse before he brought every new consignment on board. Under the Sugar Act, any ship caught with any article on board before a bond covering that article had been given was subject to seizure and confiscation. The customs commissioners profited greatly from this provision. The most notorious seizures for technical violations of the bonding provision included John Hancock's sloop Liberty (10 June 1768) and the Ann belonging to Henry Laurens of South Carolina.


Andrews, K. R., et al. The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic, and America, 1480–1650. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1979.

McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

O. M.Dickerson/s. b.

See alsoColonial Commerce ; Colonial Policy, British ; Enumerated Commodities ; Navigation Acts ; Rum Trade ; Smuggling, Colonial ; Triangular Trade ; West Indies, British and French .

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Sugar Act (1764)

SUGAR ACT (1764)

The Sugar Act of 1764 was passed by the Parliament of Great Britain, in part, to cut down on smuggling between the West Indies and the American colonies and also to tighten England's grip on its empire. But mostly the Act was approved to raise money to pay England's national debt caused by the French and Indian War (17541763). It was for that reason that the law was also known as the Revenue Act. The Act had three major parts. First, the measure created a complicated system of loading and unloading cargo for merchant ships in order to make smuggling more difficult. Second, the Act made certain foreign goods (including sugar, coffee, indigo dye, and wines) more expensive in the colonies because the tax would boost the retail price. Third, it cut the importation duties on molasses in half, in an attempt to make the tax easier to collect.

Parliament's motivation in passing the Sugar Act was to correct an earlier, failing piece of legislation. The 1733 Molasses Act tried to discourage colonists from buying molasses from French and Dutch West Indian planters by placing a high duty of sixpence per gallon on it. New England merchants, traders, and their agents had developed a thriving trade in rum, a popular alcoholic drink, which they distilled from molasses. They shipped the rum to ports in West Africa, where they exchanged it for African slaves. The same traders then carried the slaves to plantations in the Caribbean, where they were exchanged for molassesthe socalled "Triangular Trade." Because the New England rum distilleries were generating so much business, colonial traders were scouring the West Indies for molasses; they often found French or Dutch molasses cheaper than that from British plantations. Parliamentary representatives believed that the steep tax on foreign molasses would help British sugar producers. (However, it could instead have ruined the New England rum industry had it been collected as planned.) In most cases, customs officials preferred not to collect the tax and allowed the colonial traders to import molasses from whatever areas they chose.

George Grenville, the author of the Sugar Act, wanted to use the estimated £40,000 per year he expected the tax to generate to help pay the costs of keeping 10,000 British soldiers on the American frontier. He did not anticipate the strong resistance he encountered from the colonists. They had never been expected to pay these kinds of taxes to this extent before, and they protested loudly. Bostonian Samuel Adams used the crisis to try to unite the merchants of the cities with the small farmers of the countryside. Lawyer James Otis Jr., in a pamphlet titled Rights of the Colonies Asserted and Proved, argued that Great Britain had no right to tax the colonists at all. Even solid Tories like Governor Francis Bernard protested the three pence tax, claiming that it would be difficult to collect and, if collected, would ruin colonial businesses. Similar protests were lodged in New York and Rhode Island. For the most part, however, complaints were limited to small special interest groups throughout the colonies. The Sugar Act was not the issue that would galvanize the colonists and turn them toward independence. It was an irritant in the relationship between the colonial officials of Great Britain and the colonists, but nowhere near as volatile an issue as the Stamp Act turned out to be a year later.

See also: French and Indian War, Triangular Trade


Barrow, Thomas C. Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in America, 16601775. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Becker, Robert A. Revolution, Reform, and the Politics of American Taxation, 17631783. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Egnal, Marc M. A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Ubbelohde, Carl. The Vice-Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture (Williamsburg, VA), 1960.

Wells, William V. The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1865.

for if our trade may be taxed, why not our lands? why not the produce of our lands and, in short, everything we possess or make use of?

samuel adams, boston town meeting, may 24, 1764

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