Samuel Adams, Portrait

Samuel Adams rose to prominence in Massachusetts politics when he opposed the Sugar Act.

Sugar Act, Primary Documents

1764–1765

After Parliament passed the Sugar Act in 1764, there was vocal opposition throughout the American Colonies. This collection of primary documents argues that Parliament had no right to levy taxes on the colonies without representation, which lead to the rallying cry of "No Taxation Without Representation."

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On August 5, 1764, Britain passed the Sugar Act, which extended the Molasses Act of 1733. The purpose of the Sugar Act was to raise revenue through the collection of customs duties on shipments of specific goods and to encourage American merchants to purchase sugar and molasses from plantations in the British West Indies.

For the first time, Britain levied a tax on the American colonies for the purpose of raising revenue. However, the colonies, like many other towns in England and colonies throughout the Empire, did not have elected delegates that represented them in Parliament.

Americans were used to paying taxes that were levied on them by their colonial legislatures and felt that taxes levied by Parliament were unconstitutional and illegal. They responded to the Sugar Act with the slogan, “No Taxation Without Representation.”

In New England, where there was a significant rum production industry, the rallying cry was strongest and led to the publication of documents, letters, and pamphlets that helped shape the ideology of the American Revolution.

Instructions to Boston’s Representatives

On May 28, 1774, the Boston Town Meeting sent instructions to its representatives in the Massachusetts legislature. The letter, which was written by Samuel Adams, is significant because it marked the first time that any political body in the American Colonies publicly declared that Parliament did not have the constitutional authority to levy taxes on the colonies without their consent.

In the letter, Adams wrote, “these unexpected proceedings may be preparatory to new taxations upon us: For if our trade may be taxed, why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands, and every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves — It strikes at our British privileges, which as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our fellow subjects who are natives of Britain: If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are made, are we not reduc’d from the character of free Subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves.”

Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved

On July 30, 1764, Boston lawyer James Otis published this pamphlet. Otis had gained a reputation for not being afraid to criticize Parliament for passing laws to govern the colonies. He gained fame for his stance in 1761 when he argued against the legality of Writs of Assistance. In this pamphlet, he argued the property of British citizens in American could only be taxed by Parliament if the colonists were represented by elected officials. Otis also argued that men could not make laws to supersede natural laws.

“Every British subject born on the continent of America, or in any other of the British dominions, is by the law of God and nature, by the common law, and by act of Parliament (exclusive of all charters from the crown), entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great Britain. Among those rights are the following, which it is humbly conceived no man or body of men, not excepting the Parliament—justly, equitably, and consistently with their own rights and the constitution—can take away.”

Petition from the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the House of Commons

On November 3, 1764, the Massachusetts House of Representatives sent a letter to the House of Commons. In the letter, the members of the House of Representatives explained the difficulties the Sugar Act had placed on businesses in Massachusetts and made several arguments about their opposition to the provisions of the Sugar Act. The House specifically pointed out that the people of Massachusetts felt they were not being afforded the same rights as other British subjects. The letter stated, “…every Act of Parliament, which in this respect distinguishes his Majesty’s subjects in the colonies from their fellow subjects in Great Britain, must create a very sensible concern and grief.”

Reasons Against Renewal of the Sugar Act

A group of merchants in Boston worked together to publish a pamphlet that showed how the Sugar Act would not only harm commerce in the American Colonies but also commerce in Britain.

Rights of the Colonies Examined

Stephen Hopkins was the Governor of Rhode Island. After he returned from a trip to London in 1764, Hopkins wrote this pamphlet. It was published in 1765. Hopkins echoed many of the same sentiments as James Otis. Hopkins said, “British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws by which themselves have in some way consented.”

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Sugar Act, Primary Documents
  • Coverage 1764–1765
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 5, 2022
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