Sugar Act Explained — Section 47

April 5, 1764

Section 47 of the Sugar Act of 1764 explains how British officials are protected against lawsuits that come from them doing their duty in enforcing the Sugar Act.

Sugar Act, 1764, Date, Taxes, Reaction, Grenville Acts, AHC

George Grenville, Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was responsible for the Sugar Act of 1764, starting the movement in the 13 Colonies against Taxation Without Representation.

Understanding the Sugar Act of 1764

This entry is part of a series that explains the Sugar Act of 1764, including, rules, regulations, and penalties. To learn more, see History of the Sugar Act and Facts About the Sugar Act. Vocabulary, key people, and primary documents related to the Sugar Act are listed at the bottom of this article.

Section 47 — Protections for British Officials Who Are Enforcing the Navigation Acts

XLVII. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if any action or suit shall be commenced, either in Great Britain or America, against any person or persons for any thing done in pursuance of this or any other act of parliament relating to his Majesty’s customs, the defendant or defendants in such action or suit may plead the general issue, and give the said acts, and the special matter, in evidence at any trial to be had thereupon, and that the same was done in pursuance and by the authority of such act; and if it shall appear so to have been done, the jury shall find for the defendant or defendants; and if the plaintiff shall be non-suited, or discontinue his action after the defendant or defendants shall have appeared, or if judgment shall be given upon verdict or demurrer against the plaintiff, the defendant or defendants shall recover treble costs, and have the like remedy for the same as defendants have in other cases by law.


Section 47 of the Sugar Act of 1764 provides legal protections for individuals being sued for actions taken while enforcing the Navigation Acts. It ensures that those following the law are protected from legal repercussions and can be reimbursed for court costs if they are sued. The key points are:

  1. Scope of Protection — If any lawsuit is started in Great Britain or America against someone for actions taken under the authority of customs laws.
  2. Defense Strategy — The defendant(s) can plead the general issue (a broad defense) and present the relevant acts of Parliament and specific circumstances as evidence.
  3. Jury Verdict — If it is proven that the actions were taken under the authority of the customs laws, the jury must rule in favor of the defendant(s).
  4. Outcome for the Plaintiff
    1. If the plaintiff withdraws the lawsuit (non-suited) or discontinues it after the defendant(s) have appeared in court.
    2. If the court rules against the plaintiff based on a verdict or legal argument (demurrer).
  5. Recovery of Costs — The defendant(s) will be entitled to recover three times the costs (treble costs) incurred in defending the lawsuit.
  6. Legal Remedy — The defendant(s) can use the same legal methods to recover these costs as are available in other cases by law.


The Sugar Act set up a controversial system for handling accusations regarding customs violations, including seizures of ships and goods, per the provisions of the Sugar Act. While cases in Great Britain were handled through the usual courts, cases in the American Colonies were directed to the Vice Admiralty Courts. Overall, the system entailed:

Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts

These courts had jurisdiction over maritime issues and trade disputes.

  1. Admiralty Courts — These courts had jurisdiction over maritime navigation and trade issues, such as violations of customs laws. They were responsible for adjudicating cases of seized ships and goods, ensuring compliance with the laws regulating trade and duties.
  2. Vice Admiralty Courts — These were similar to Admiralty Courts but operated in the American Colonies. They handled cases involving maritime trade, including the enforcement of the Sugar Act and the Navigation Acts.

Legal Process

The courts had the authority to hear and determine cases of customs violations, including disputes over whether duties had been paid, whether goods were lawfully imported or exported, and the legitimacy of seized goods.

When goods or ships were seized, the courts would decide whether the seizure was lawful. If it was found lawful, the goods would be forfeited. If the seizure was deemed unjustified, the claimant (the owner) could contest it in these courts but was limited.

Certification and Penalties

The courts were responsible for certifying whether there was probable cause for the seizure. If probable cause was established, the seizing officer would be protected from lawsuits, and the costs of the legal action would be limited for the claimant. The courts could order the payment of prosecution costs from customs revenue if the proceeds from the sale of seized goods were insufficient.

Controversy Over the Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts

The use of Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts in the American colonies created controversy for many reasons:

  • Lack of Jury Trials — One of the main points of contention over the Sugar Act was that these courts did not use jury trials. Each case was decided by judges who were appointed by the Crown. Because of this, the judges were considered biased against American merchants. This was seen as a denial of the colonists’ rights, which traditionally included the right to a trial by jury.
  • Consolidation of Authority — The Vice-Admiralty Courts centralized judicial power in the hands of a few Crown-appointed judges. At the time, colonial courts had authority over local cases, and the use of the Vice-Admiralty Courts for violations of the Sugar Act was viewed as an overreach of British authority that undermined the local courts. 
  • Harsh Penalties and Procedures — The penalties imposed by these courts were often severe. This included the forfeiture of ships and goods and large monetary fines. The requirement for claimants to provide security before contesting the seizure of ships and goods was another problem and made it hard for many colonists to defend themselves in court.
  • Perception of Corruption and Unfairness — Many colonists believed that the courts were corrupt and unfair, favoring British Customs Officials and merchants over American merchants. The protections given to Customs Officials, making it difficult for them to be charged with harassment, made the entire system suspect in the minds of Americans.
  • Economic Impact — The strict enforcement of the Sugar Act disrupted colonial trade and commerce and had a significant impact on the Rum Production Industry in the New England Colonies.


These terms and definitions provide more context for students studying the Sugar Act. For more on the Sugar Act as it relates to the AP US History curriculum, see Sugar ACT APUSH Review.

  • Action — A legal proceeding or lawsuit.
  • Authority — The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
  • Costs — Expenses associated with a legal action.
  • Defendant — The person, company, or institution sued or accused in a court of law.
  • Demurrer — An objection that an opponent’s point is irrelevant or invalid, while granting the factual basis of the point.
  • Discontinue — To cease or terminate a legal action.
  • General Issue — A broad defense that denies all allegations without specifying reasons.
  • Judgment — The official decision of a court in a lawsuit.
  • Jury — A group of people sworn to render a verdict based on the evidence presented in a legal case.
  • Non-Suited — A judgment against a plaintiff when they are unable to prove the case or when they withdraw the case.
  • Plead — To present and argue for a position in a legal case.
  • Plaintiff — The person who brings a case against another in a court of law.
  • Recover — To obtain reimbursement or compensation.
  • Special Matter — Specific facts and circumstances related to a case.
  • Suit — A lawsuit.
  • Treble Costs — Triple the amount of legal costs incurred.
  • Verdict — The decision of a jury or judge in a court of law.

Key People

  • Samuel Adams — Adams helped lead opposition to the Sugar Act in Massachusetts. Went on to become a leader of the Boston Sons of Liberty and one of the most influential men behind the movement for independence.
  • George Grenville — Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Responsible for the design of the Sugar Act and introducing it to Parliament.
  • Stephen Hopkins — Governor of Rhode Island. Critic of the Sugar Act and its impact on the Rhode Island economy and colonial rights.
  • James Otis — Early advocate of the rights of Americans as British subjects. Argued against Writs of Assistance (1761) in the Paxton Case.

Primary Documents

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Sugar Act Explained — Section 47
  • Date April 5, 1764
  • Author
  • Keywords Sugar Act, What did Section 47 of the Sugar Act do
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2024