The Sugar Act

sugar act
A British cartoon lampooning opponents to the Sugar Act

Following the French and Indian War the British parliament began a program of reviewing and updating its many items of legislation relating to trade to, from and within the American colonies. One of the first statutes reviewed was the Sugar and Molasses Act, which had been in place since 1733; this act placed a sixpence-per-gallon duty on all molasses imported from the French West Indies , in order to make British molasses cheaper and therefore more attractive. With molasses used in the production of rum it was an important commodity and sold heavily in the colonies, so American merchants were not averse to avoiding the sixpence duty by either smuggling in French molasses or bribing customs officials to let it pass. The parliament decided to scrap the 1733 legislation and replace it with a new bill: the Sugar Act, passed in April 1764.

The Sugar Act actually decreased the customs duty from sixpence a gallon down to threepence, in order to make the tax more palatable; however it also imposed new duties on a range of other goods imported from non-British sources: wine, cloth, indigo, coffee and others. The most significant aspect of the Sugar Act was that it aimed to enforce collection of the duty more rigorously: writs of assistance were granted to customs officials, the Royal Navy presence in American waters was increased and the navy’s role in assisting customs officers was expanded. The impact of the Sugar Act was a decline in trade between the American colonies and foreign merchants; the rum industry in the colonies quickly declined while American merchants were not able to export raw materials to their regular purchasers in the Caribbean . The colonial economy, already in something of a slump following the war, continued to decline further. The merchants in American ports were hardest hit while some in the assemblies talked of a boycott of British goods. The act provoked criticism of the British government; the cartoon shown above, Anti-Saccharrites, portrays King George III and Queen Charlotte sipping sugared tea while their subjects go without.

“Colonial protests against the act emphasised three major points. First, there were objections to the continued attempt to provide a monopoly that would benefit West Indies planters at the expense of rum distillers in New England. Second, the colonists objected to the mechanisms of enforcement, which they believed violated the English common law’s principle of trial by juries. Finally, doubt was expressed about the Parliament’s right to levy taxes upon people who were not represented.”
Howell H. Gwin, historian