George Grenville, Portrait, by William Hoare

George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain [Wikimedia]. Grenville proposed the Sugar Act.

Sugar Act (1764)

April 5, 1764 — Definition, Analysis, Impact

The Sugar Act, properly known as the American Revenue Act, was enacted by Parliament on April 5, 1764. The goal of the act was to raise revenue to help defray the military costs of protecting the American colonies at a time Great Britain's economy was saddled with the huge national debt accumulated during the French and Indian War (aka Seven Years War).


This analysis of the Sugar Act of 1764 provides a detailed look at what it was, why it was passed, and the repercussions. For a quick overview of this article, see the Frequently Asked Questions and the list of Key Related Documents.

Summary of the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act of 1764 is also known as The American Revenue Act. It was passed by Parliament on April 5, 1764 in order to:

  • Extend the Molasses Act of 1733, which was initially passed for the benefit of the owners of sugar cane plantations in the British West Indies.
  • Secure the trade between Great Britain, its colonies in America, and its plantations in the West Indies by cracking down on smuggling.
  • Raise money to help pay down debt incurred from fighting the French and Indian War.
  • Raise money to “improve the revenue of the kingdom” and to pay for the defense, protection, and security of the colonies, plantations, and new territory in North America acquired by Great Britain due to its victory in the French and Indian War.

Parliament had lost money with the Molasses Act, because it actually cost more to try to enforce it than customs officials were able to collect in taxes due to smuggling and salutary neglect. It needed to make a profit through the enforcement of the Sugar Act, and it was determined to do so. The provisions of the Sugar Act:

  • Reduced the tax on a gallon of imported molasses by fifty percent; from six pence per gallon to three pence per gallon.
  • Added taxes to other popular goods, like sugar and coffee, that were often imported from foreign manufacturers.
  • Placed restrictions on where goods like lumber, iron, and whalebone could be shipped.
  • Enforced regulations that required ships to document cargo and sail to Great Britain to have it verified by customs officials before it could be delivered to the colonies or plantations.
  • Levied heavy fines on merchants, ships captains, and customs officials who failed to follow the new laws.

To provide some context, 100 pence make up one British pound, similar to pennies and dollars in the United States.

Parliament thought that cutting the tax on molasses in half would increase the demand for molasses in New England, which would create additional profits for merchants. When that happened, Parliament thought it would be acceptable to colonial merchants to pay the tax of three pence per gallon and give up smuggling. Unfortunately, Parliament failed to see how its policies affected the colonies due to its adherence to mercantilism and the lack of colonial representation in the government.

In the 18th century, Great Britain was still clinging to an economic philosophy called mercantilism (although it was not known by that name until 1776). Followers of the philosophy believed one of the reasons the colonies existed was to produce raw materials that could be shipped to Great Britain and manufactured into products. They also believed the government needed to control the economy and that exploiting the colonies for both raw materials and revenue was well within Britain’s right as the mother country. They believed that as long as Great Britain prospered the colonies would too, although not to the same level.

Sugar Cane Plantation

This engraving depicts the process of harvesting sugar cane at a plantation in the West Indies. 

After the French and Indian War, there was an economic depression in the American colonies and the Sugar Act only made it worse. Parliament underestimated the importance of rum on colonial trade — rum is made from molasses — and the economic impact that new taxes and regulations would have on the colonies. If the colonies would have been allowed to have elected representatives in Parliament, then maybe Parliament would have had a better understanding of how the new policy was going to damage the colonial economy.

Although nine colonies protested by sending letters to Parliament, their arguments fell on mostly deaf ears. Most of the opposition they raised was in regard to the economic impact. They were especially concerned with the restriction of trade with non-British ports and the enforcement of rules regarding the transportation of goods from one port to another. If the colonies had worked together to formulate a single, unified response, it might have helped their cause.

People started to question whether Parliament had the constitutional authority to levy taxes to “improve the revenue” of the kingdom, especially since the colonies were not represented in the government and the revenue went directly into the treasury. The constitutionality of the act was also questioned because of how it handled court cases.

Key figures like James Otis and Samuel Adams began to formulate the basis for their arguments against “no taxation without representation,” which became a key component of the ideas behind the American Revolution.

Extension of the Molasses Act

The Sugar Act extended the Molasses Act of 1733, which was set to expire in 1763, by continuing the tax on imported molasses.

The Molasses Act had been passed at the request of the owners of large sugar cane plantations in the British West Indies because they wanted to drive up the price of molasses that was being produced by competing plantations in the West Indies.

Molasses from the plantations in the British West Indies was expensive and the American colonial merchants were able to trade with French, Dutch, and Spanish plantations in the West Indies and acquire molasses at a lower cost. The British plantation owners used their influence to look out for their own interests and lobbied for a tax on the importation of foreign molasses into the colonies.

The tax — or duty — imposed by the Molasses Act was six pence per gallon, and it was supposed to be collected by customs officials when a ship arrived in port. However, merchants found several ways around paying the tax. They would bribe customs officials and pay them to look the other way or offload their cargo to smaller ships that could land in smaller ports where customs officials were not working. Customs officials did not go out of their way to collect the tax either. The lax attitude was part of a policy known as salutary neglect.

At the time, molasses was a staple food in New England. Molasses is made by harvesting sugar cane and processing it through several steps to where it can be boiled. The boiling results in a dark, thick syrup that has a high sugar content and a sweet, smoky flavor. Molasses was also used in the colonies as a sweetener for candy and other baked goods. It was also used to distill rum, which made up a significant portion of the economy in the New England Colonies — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.

By passing the Molasses Act, Parliament hoped to force colonial merchants to trade for molasses from British sugar cane plantations in the West Indies. When that failed to happen, Parliament put provisions in the Sugar Act that levied stiff penalties and repercussions on merchants and customs officials that failed to comply.

New Taxes Levied on Other Goods

The Sugar Act expanded the tax created by the Molasses Act to more imported products, including:

  • Sugar
  • Indigo
  • Coffee
  • Wine
  • Silk
  • Herbs

The tax on sugar, for which the act is known, levied a tax of “one pound, two shillings” for every 100 pounds of “foreign white or clayed sugars.”

Regulation of Trade

The Sugar Act regulated trade by specifying where ships could dock and required ships to have their cargo checked and verified by customs officials every step of the way.

Most ships were required to sail to a port in England, have their cargo checked by customs officials, and then pay the taxes. Once that was done, the ship could continue on its voyage.

All of this extra sailing and time involved added up to extra expenses for the merchants. Merchants shipping iron or lumber were strictly prohibited from shipping wood or iron to other ports in Europe. Section XXXVIII (38) specifically said that “no iron, nor any sort of wood, commonly called Lumber” could be “landed in any part of Europe except Great Britain.”

Captains were required to have papers with them that proved what they were carrying was legal and how much of each product they had on board. Even the smallest mistake in the paperwork could result in the entire cargo of a ship being seized by customs officials.

Ships were also under regulations for how long they could take to get from one port to another, although Sections XIII (8) and XXIII (23) do take into account the “danger of seas and enemies.”

Enforcement of the Act

The Sugar Act was enforced by British customs officials, the navy, and the admiralty courts.

The Sugar Act included provisions that allowed for strong customs enforcement. Customs officials were given the authority to stop any British ship or vessel that was within two leagues of the shore if they suspected it was transporting illegal goods, or sailing without the proper papers. If the captain of the vessel could not produce the proper paperwork then officials were authorized to seize the cargo.

Merchants were subject to heavy fines if they were caught smuggling. If they were convicted, then their cargo was sold at an auction to help cover the costs of the court and to reward British officials for enforcing the law.

The customs officials had a financial incentive to accuse a merchant of smuggling because they were due one-third of all goods and ships confiscated under the Sugar Act. Naval officers also had an incentive and were entitled to a share as well.

Section XLI (41) placed jurisdiction of cases related to violations of the Sugar Act under the authority of the admiralty courts. At that time, customs officials were under the authority of the Vice-Admiralty Court in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Unlike traditional courts, the Vice-Admiralty Court did not use a jury. The decision of the court rested entirely with the judge.

Cases that dealt with smuggling could be transferred by customs officials to the court at Halifax. This created problems for colonial merchants, and increased the likelihood they would lose their case for many reasons, including:

  • The defendant had to travel to Nova Scotia. If they failed to appear they were automatically found guilty.
  • The burden of proof was on the defendant and they were assumed guilty until they could prove their innocence.
  • The customs officials could not be counter-sued.
  • The customs officials had a financial incentive to accuse a merchant of smuggling because they were due one-third of all goods and ships confiscated under the Sugar Act.
  • The judges had an incentive to find the defendant guilty because the judge would receive five percent of all confiscated cargo and ships.

Although the English Bill of Rights guaranteed a fair trial by a jury of peers, any case that was sent to Halifax violated that right because the cases were not decided by a jury of peers. Cases that were heard in front of the court in Halifax had a high rate of conviction.

Prior to the passage of the Sugar Act, customs officers in the American colonies had been easy to bribe, which made the collection of the Molasses Act tax difficult. Section XXXVIII (38) of the Sugar Act created heavy fines that would be levied on customs officers that were found guilty of taking bribes or falsifying records, and those officers would also be barred from serving in any position in the government and military.

Section XLV (45) allowed customs officers to accuse any ship or merchant of smuggling and put the burden on the accused to prove they were not smuggling. It says, “proof thereof shall lie upon the owner or claimer of such ship or goods, and not upon the officer who shall seize or stop the same; any law, custom, or usage, any law, custom, or usage, to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Section XLVI (46) took things further, and made it so customs officials could not be sued, even if the defendant was found innocent. It says, “nor shall the person who seized the said ship or goods, be liable to any action, or other suit or prosecution, on account of such seizure.”

The Sugar Act also expanded the potential for customs officials to use writs of assistance to seize and search ships without a warrant, and to force local law enforcement officials to assist in the process.

A Turning Point in British Policy

The Sugar Act marked a turning point in British policy because it was the first time a tax was levied simply to raise money for the treasury. It was also a step towards British imperialism because Great Britain started to treat the American colonies as a competing nation..

Up to the point the Sugar Act was passed, acts passed by Parliament that dealt with the colonies were primarily intended to regulate trade. However, the language in the Sugar Act made it clear the purpose of the act was to both regulate trade and increase revenue.

Passage of the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act was passed to help offset the deficit incurred by the French and Indian War and to raise revenue for the crown.

The French and Indian war had nearly doubled the national debt of Britain. It also expanded British territory in North America because France ceded nearly all of its territory, including the Ohio Country, to Britain.

Something also had to be done about skirmishes that were breaking out between the Indian tribes that lived west of the Appalachian Mountains and American colonists on the frontier. Most of the tribes had fought on the side of the French during the war and did not trust the British. Some tribes banded together and launched a series of attacks on British forts and colonial settlements in an uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. In order to appease the tribes, the Proclamation of 1763 was issued on October 7, 1763. It set the western boundary of the colonies at the Appalachian Mountains and reserved the new territory west of the mountains as “hunting grounds” for the tribes.

In order to protect the colonies and the expanding frontier, Prime Minister John Stuart, Earl of Bute, decided to install a standing army of 10,000 British regulars in the colonies. Because the Ohio Country was unsettled, and not officially part of any colony, protecting it was considered part of national defense.

George Grenville succeeded Bute as Prime Minister of Britain in April 1763. He decided the best way to reduce the debt would be to levy taxes on the American colonies. After all, the deficit had been created because Great Britain had to defend the colonies from the French and it was only going to get worse now that there was new territory that needed to be defended and protected.

Although Grenville was the architect of the Sugar Act, he only expected the colonies to pay a portion of the expenses needed for their own defense. It was never his intent the colonies should cover all of the expenses. Britain was going to cover the cost of troops that were stationed at wilderness forts to protect the Ohio Country, and that was actually going to cost more than what the colonies were going to pay for their defense.

With the passage of the Sugar Act Parliament was, for the first time, levying taxes directly on the colonists for the purpose of raising revenue.

Affect on the American Colonies

After the French and Indian War, the American colonies were hit by an economic depression, and the Sugar Act made it worse.

During the war, there had been a steady need for food, supplies, and clothing for the troops that were fighting the French. Without the war, orders fell off, and it had a serious impact throughout the colonies. Farmers felt the impact the most because their crops were no longer needed by commissaries that needed to feed hundreds or thousands of men. If Parliament had allowed the colonies to have representation, it may have had a better understanding of the situation and tried a different solution than levying taxes and restricting trade.

The Molasses Act was set to expire in 1763, around the same time as the French and Indian War ended. The British Commissioners of Customs thought that there would be a higher demand for molasses and the products produced from it, especially rum. Higher demand would mean higher profits for the merchants, so the commissioners thought that if they lowered the tax on molasses the merchants would be more likely to pay it.

In order for the tax to be collected and for the benefits of the Sugar Act to be realized, it required the customs officials and naval officers to be granted the authority to enforce it. The British navy used the Sugar Act as a license to harass small ships, which would be stopped frequently and searched. If illegal cargo was found, the British would take the cargo and sell it themselves. This, of course, was not Parliament’s intent in enforcing the Sugar Act. It was an unforeseen circumstance, but it certainly hurt the relationship between the colonists and British seamen. Not surprisingly, colonists responded by occasionally harassing sailors when they were ashore.

Enforcement of the Sugar Act threatened the ability of business owners to conduct business as they saw fit, and only made the economic depression worse. In fact, it forced many colonial merchants to change how they were doing business, because it limited the markets that they had access to, increased their expenses, and reduced their profits, all during difficult economic times.

Rum was a key component to trade for the colonies, and enforcement of the act caused an immediate decline in the rum business. Distilleries in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania desperately needed molasses to make rum, and their production had an impact on other industries that commonly used rum to trade for goods they needed.

The Massachusetts Bay colony wrote a letter to Parliament called “Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act” and protested the new measures. It warned Parliament the Sugar Act would cripple the rum industry in New England and not only harm the economy of the colonies, but also of Great Britain. Massachusetts wrote:

“It is apprehended that the trade is so far from being able to bear the high duty imposed by this act, on sugar and molasses, that it will not bear any duty at all. As the price of molasses now is, it will barely answer to distill it into rum for exportation: Should this duty be added, it would have the effect of an absolute prohibition on the importation of molasses and sugar from the foreign islands, and consequently the same effect on the exportation of fish, lumber and other commodities from hence to those islands, as the french, dutch and other foreigners, whom we supply with those articles, will not per|mit us to bring away their money; so that unless we can take their ordinary sugars and molasses in return, this trade will be lost. And if an end should be put to our trade to the fo|reign islands, Great-Britain would finally lose much more than would be gained by the duty on sugar. For should the colonies be obliged to take from our own islands all the west india produce that they consume, the price in Great Britain must necessarily advance more than double this duty. But if we are permitted to import foreign sugars and molasses into the northern colonies, more of our west india produce will be carried to Great Britain, where the consumption is supposed to be equal to the whole produce of our islands.”

Benefits of the Sugar Act

British customs officials, judges, and the British treasury benefited from the Sugar Act.

It is important to understand who Parliament thought was going to benefit from the Sugar Act and who really did. Because it followed the philosophy of mercantilism, Parliament thought it was going to benefit the treasury, the American colonies, and plantations in the British West Indies. The reality is it produced limited benefits, due to the economic depression that affected the colonies after the French and Indian War.

Parliament believed the merchants who bought and sold molasses would benefit, because the tax on molasses was cut in half, from six pence per gallon to the pence per gallon. The reality is the tax was still too high and nearly destroyed the rum distilling business in New England.

Customs officers, naval officers, and other government officials benefited because they were given incentives to enforce the Sugar Act. Section XLII (42) spelled out the monetary rewards they would receive after the illegal goods were sold at auction.

  • One third went to the collector of the customs.
  • One third went to the governor or commander-in-chief of the colony or plantation.
  • One third went to the person who caught the merchant in the act of smuggling.

Seizures made at sea by the navy had slightly different rewards:

  • One third went to the collector of the customs.
  • The rest went to the commanders and officers of the naval vessels that caught the ship smuggling goods.

Harm Caused by the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act harmed colonial merchants and made the economic depression that hit the colonies after the French and Indian War worse. It also violated the constitutional rights of British citizens in the way court cases regarding violations of the Sugar Act were handled.

Parliament failed to understand that molasses was a key part of the trade between the colonies, England, West Indies, and West Africa. It quickly caused a decline in the rum business and harmed colonial merchants who were doing business on a global scale with merchants from other countries, such as France and the Netherlands.

It restricted who they could buy goods from, which drove up prices. In most cases, the price increase had to be passed on to the customer. If the customer could not afford the higher prices, then the chance of the merchant going out of business increased.

The Sugar Act reduced the money merchants had available, which meant they had less money available to buy goods manufactured in Great Britain. This, in turn, hurt the manufacturers in Great Britain who relied on raw materials from the colonies in order to make their products.

It also forced merchants to sail to Britain to have their cargo checked before they sailed to colonies to deliver the goods. It usually took a ship at least six weeks to make the trip from England to the colonies, and sometimes as long as two to three months, depending on the weather. Merchants had to incur additional expenses such as pay and provisions for the crew. It also increased the chances of losing cargo to piracy or storms on the high seas.

In the minds of many colonists, the consequences of breaking the law infringed on the rights of anyone that was brought up on charges of violating it, because it eliminated fair trial by a jury of peers. According to the act, anyone who was charged could be sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia to stand trial before the new Vice-Admiralty court.

The Massachusetts legislature responded to this on November 3, 1764, in the “Petition from the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the House of Commons” that said, “The extension of the powers of the courts of vice-admiralty has, so far as the jurisdiction of the said courts hath been extended, deprived the colonies of one of the most valuable of English liberties, trials by juries.”

Reaction to the Sugar Act

The American colonies reacted with widespread opposition to the Sugar Act, but they did not come together to create a unified response.

Nine colonies officially sent messages to Parliament speaking out against the Sugar Act, but only two of them, New York and Virginia, specifically stated that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies for the purpose of raising money.

In April 1763, Boston merchants found out that Parliament was considering renewing and extending the Molasses Act. They formed a group called the Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce and set up a committee to write up how the continuation of the molasses tax would have a negative impact not only on the colonies but also Britain and the West Indies. The Boston merchants recruited allies in other parts of the colony and collectively they issued the Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act. In that document, they spelled out in significant detail how the Sugar Act would have a negative impact not just on the American colonies, but all of Great Britain.

The colonies also felt that they had paid their fair share by providing so many troops to help fight in the French and Indian War. James Otis expressed this sentiment in “The Rights of the British Colonies, Asserted and Proved,” when he said the loyalty of the colonies to Britain  “…has been abundantly proved, especially in the late war. Their affection and reverence for their mother country is unquestionable. They yield the most cheerful and ready obedience to her laws, particularly to the power of that august body the Parliament of Great Britain, the supreme legislative of the kingdom and in dominions.”

In the colonies, the political process worked from the ground up. The towns would hold meetings and send instructions to their representatives in the colonial legislature. Then the colonial legislature would create instructions based on the feedback and send them to the colony’s representatives in London. Vocal opposition to the Sugar Act in places like Boston was led by men like Otis and Samuel Adams, who played key roles in the American Revolution.

In Massachusetts, the legislature formed a committee and tasked it with formulating a response to the passage of the Sugar Act. A letter that outlined the concerns about the Sugar Act and arguments against it was written and sent to Parliament but was based on instructions it received from the towns.

On May 15, 1764, Samuel Adams was appointed to a committee of the Boston Town Meeting. The purpose of the committee was to provide instructions to Boston’s representatives in the colonial legislature on how the city wanted them to respond to the Sugar Act. The letter, “Instructions to Boston’s Representatives” was dated May 28, 1764.

In the letter, Adams informed the legislature that it needed to tread carefully because the prosperity of the colony was at stake. He wrote, “As you represent a town which lives by its trade we expect in a very particular manner that you will make it the object of your attention to support our commerce in all its just rights, to vindicate it from all unreasonable impositions & promote its prosperity – our trade has for a long time labord under great discouragement;& it is with the deepest concern that we see such further difficultys coming upon it which will reduce it to its lowest ebb, if not totally obstruct and ruin it.”

Adams also viewed the passage of the Stamp Act in terms of Parliament moving in a direction that could be dangerous and lead to more taxation. He wrote, “What still heightens our apprehension is, that 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 & every thing we possess or make use of?”

Constitutional Controversy Over the Sugar Act

The colonists met the passage of the Sugar Act with resistance because they believed raising revenue through taxes was unconstitutional and a violation of their rights as Englishmen under the English Bill of Rights. Colonists started to openly protest against Parliament’s infringement into their business affairs.

It was not an entirely new concept in the colonies. Cotton Mather had raised the issue during the Great Boston Revolt of 1689 when he referenced the “raising of taxes without an assembly.”

Many colonists believed it was unconstitutional because it had been designed, voted on, and enforced on them by people that did not represent them. James Otis called it “taxation without representation.”

Samuel Adams also questioned the constitutionality of the Sugar Act, “If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?”

Stephen Hopkins, the Governor of Rhode Island, questioned the constitutionality of the act in “The Rights of the Colonies Examined.” He wrote, “. . . Have not the colonies here, at all times when called upon by the crown, raised money for the public service, done it as cheerfully as the Parliament have done on like occasions? Is not this the most easy, the most natural, and most constitutional way of raising money in the colonies? What occasion then to distrust the colonies—what necessity to fall on an invidious and unconstitutional method to compel them to do what they have ever done freely? Are not the people in the colonies as loyal and dutiful subjects as any age or nation ever produced;  and are they not as useful to the kingdom, in this remote quarter of the world, as their fellow-subjects are who dwell in Britain?”

It also robbed anyone accused of violating the Sugar Act of their right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers.

Salutary Neglect and the Sugar Act

The Molasses Act of 1733 placed a tax of six pence per gallon on molasses. However, the law was not strictly enforced and taxes were not collected due to salutary neglect. The passage of the Sugar Act, with its strict enforcement of the law, effectively ended salutary neglect.

Salutary neglect was an unofficial policy in which British officials did not strictly enforce trade laws, such as the collection of taxes. The concept was initiated by Prime Minister Robert Walpole in an effort to ease restrictions on the American colonies, which would allow England to focus on matters in Europe. The policy was given a name on March 22, 1775, when Edmund Burke spoke to Parliament and referred to the “wise and salutary neglect” of British officials as one of the factors that had led to the commercial success of the colonies.

Unfortunately, there were unintended consequences of the policy. Parliament would eventually discover that allowing the colonies to conduct business under salutary neglect and without economic and political restrictions created a sense of freedom and prosperity that would turn out to be impossible to turn back.

The Sugar Act helped end salutary neglect by implementing strong measures that allowed for the enforcement of collecting taxes and regulating trade for colonial merchants.

For Great Britain, it was a step towards imperialism. For the American colonies, the unrest and protest against the Sugar Act was a small step towards independence.

Mercantilism and the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act reinforced the economic philosophy of mercantilism by placing strict government control on the economy and regulating commerce in the colonies.

Mercantilism was a popular economic philosophy that was practiced in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries as nations transitioned from feudal systems of government to national governments. The system was given its name in 1776 by Scottish economist Adam Smith in his thesis “The Wealth of Nations.”

It was essentially a system where the government controlled the economy of the nation in order to accumulate wealth in the form of gold and silver. However, proponents of mercantilism believed there was a fixed amount of wealth available in the world and that the more gold and silver a nation owned the more powerful it was.

One of the ways a nation could increase its gold and silver was to achieve a favorable trade balance by:

  • Maximizing exports. Exports are goods that are shipped out of a country, to be sold in another. Exported goods make money.
  • Minimizing imports. Imports are goods that are brought into a country, and they cost money.

In order to maintain a favorable trade balance, nations needed a large working population and colonies that provided raw materials. If a nation had both of those, then it could put people to work making products that could be sold — or exported — to other nations. If it manufactured enough products, then it would not need to buy — or import — from other nations.

In order to reduce the need for imports a nation needed to be as self-sufficient as possible and not only produce enough products to export, but also enough for its own population. In Great Britain’s model of mercantilism, the American colonies and plantations in the West Indies provided the people and raw materials necessary for the nation to maintain and grow its cache of gold and silver.

However, the British mercantile system also depended on keeping the American colonies from amassing their own gold and silver. As a result, manufacturing was discouraged in the colonies, and they could only manufacture products that could not be made in Great Britain. It also led to an increase in the use of paper money in the colonies.

As far as the proponents of mercantilism were concerned, one of the main reasons the colonies existed was to produce raw materials that could be sent to Great Britain to be manufactured into products. Not only were the colonies the producers of the raw materials for the manufacturers in Great Britain, but they were also a major market the manufacturers sold the products.

Parliament shifted its thinking on the American colonies when it passed the Sugar Act. It no longer looked at the colonies and the people as a source of raw materials and a market, but also as a source of revenue. It was essentially treating its own colonies, its own people, the same way it would another nation that it was competing with for gold and silver.

Prior to the Sugar Act, there were regulations in place regarding trade, but they were largely ignored due to salutary neglect, bribery, and rampant smuggling. Colonial merchants enjoyed a fairly free market where they could trade with anyone they wanted to, even if their trading partner was a merchant from a nation that was an enemy of, or at war with, Great Britain.

The Sugar Act helped reinforce the mercantile system by:

  • Adding taxes to more products than just molasses.
  • Restricting who colonial merchants could trade with.
  • Implementing regulations that imposed heavy fines for violations of the act.

Triangular Trade and the Sugar Act

Sugar was one of the goods that were part of the Triangular Trade between the American colonies, Great Britain, West Africa, and the West Indies. The Sugar Act restricted colonial merchants from doing business with foreign merchants by levying heavy taxes on imported goods.

Triangular Trade is a term that refers to the routes on the Atlantic Ocean that colonial vessels traveled along in order to conduct commerce and trade with Great Britain, Europe, the West Indies, and Africa. The main routes were:

  • England to Africa to the colonies
  • England to Africa to the West Indies
  • Europe to the West Indies to the colonies
  • Colonies to the West Indies to Europe

Triangular Trade was a key byproduct of mercantilism, because Great Britain tried to follow the routes that were the most profitable, and kept the balance of trade in its favor.

Rum was a key component in the triangular trade between the New England colonies, the West Indies, and Africa. The New England colonies would ship rum to West Africa where it was traded for slaves. Slaves would be transported across the Middle Passage of the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies, where they would go to work on the sugar plantations. The plantations would make molasses from sugar cane and ship it to the New England colonies. Slaves were not always involved in the transactions with the New England colonies. Sometimes the transactions included fish, wine, or other products. Regardless, the Triangular Trade involving the New England colonies led to a rise in rum distilleries in the New England colonies, especially in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Colonialism and the Sugar Act

Parliament used the Sugar Act to promote colonialism because it used the idea of raising revenue to exploit the colonies.

Colonialism is a policy where a nation settles an area, occupies it with settlers, and then exploits it for economic purposes. Not all of the American colonies were started for the same reasons or founded for economic purposes, but by the middle of the 18th century, nearly all of them were operating in the same fashion.

Parliament exploited the colonies with the passage of the Sugar Act when it explicitly levied taxes for the purpose of generating revenue for the treasury.

Results of the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act was not successful and failed to generate the revenues that Parliament expected. Despite the lower tax on molasses, smuggling continued until the taxes were reduced in 1766 by the Revenue Act, which lowered the revenue collected from imports.

Timeline of the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act of 1764 was in effect for about two years. It was passed by Parliament on April 5, 1764, and replaced by the passage of the Revenue Act of 1766.

The Molasses Act set the tax on molasses at six pence per barrel. The Sugar Act cut it in half to three pence per barrel. However, the going rate to bribe a customs official was one and a half pence, so it was more economical for merchants to pay the bribe.

Smuggling continued until at least 1766 when the tax was lowered to one pence by the Revenue Act of 1766, and it became cheaper to pay the tax than to pay the bribe.

The Revenue Act, which was enforced until 1776, was enormously successful and raised around 300,000 pounds.

Importance of the Sugar Act

The Sugar Act was important because it marked the first time Parliament levied a tax on the American colonies for the purpose of generating revenue. It also did away with salutary neglect.

Parliament believed that if merchants were forced to stop in British ports they would be more likely to purchase British goods and take them back to the colonies to be sold. However, it showed how out of touch Parliament was with the reality of commerce and trade in the colonies. The Sugar Act promoted mercantilism and pushed towards imperialism, and made the economic depression in the colonies worse.

Parliament thought that reducing the tax on molasses would increase the likelihood that merchants would pay the tax instead of smuggling. However, merchants were able to pay a bribe of one and a half pence per gallon. That money went directly into the pocket of the customs official and none went to the British treasury. This went on until the tax was lowered to one pence per gallon in 1776. Adding taxes to new products, like wine, actually increased smuggling, because merchants found ways around paying the new taxes.

Since the colonies had no representation in Parliament, they took great offense to the tax, even though they failed to develop a unified response. Many colonial leaders thought the tax was unconstitutional and an infringement on their rights. Men like Samuel Adams and James Otis saw it as the beginning of a dangerous path for Parliament and seized the opportunity to speak out and write about the dangers of the Sugar Act, which put them in the public eye and increased their popularity and recognition.

One of the First Steps in the American Revolution

The opposition to the Sugar Act led to the American Revolution by helping start a process of where many political and business leaders in the colonies started to give serious thought to how Britain treated the colonies. Prior to 1763, there had been some minor instances where colonists had spoken up about British policy, especially during the legal dispute in 1761 over Writs of Assistance.

Adams and Otis Gained Popularity

Samuel Adams gained notoriety because of his letter, which set him on a path where he was the primary voice in Boston and Massachusetts speaking out against British policies. James Otis used the phrase “no taxation without representation” which became a popular rallying cry. Both men would go on to have a strong influence on other leaders of the American Revolution, especially John Adams.

On March 15, 1764, a letter was printed in the Massachusetts Gazette that had been written to a merchant in London. The author of the letter warned that if Britain did not repeal the Sugar Act it could be disastrous.

“what more alarms us, is, the attack made upon our molasses trade to Surinam and the West-India islands, which is a principal support of our rum manufactory, fishery, and lumber trade. These stopped, we cannot possibly make our remittances to London, and in that case, I am satisfied, England must sensibly feel the loss of her colonies, as a market for her manufactories.”

Fort George Fires on the HMS St. John

The economy of Rhode Island was especially dependent on rum, and there were run-ins between colonists and the British navy. One incident led to shots being fired on a British ship.

To help enforce the act and catch smugglers, British naval ships were sent to patrol the waters off the coast of New England, including the HMS St. John. In July 1764, the St. John was on patrol in Narragansett Bay, keeping an eye out for smugglers. Some of the crewmen were in the town of Newport and had been accused of stealing some chickens. They also tried to force a man to join their crew, an act known as impressment. A fight ensued and the crewmen were driven off.

The local authorities wanted to arrest the crewmen, but their captain kept them on the ship and would not allow them to leave. This upset the townspeople, who then learned the crewmen were going to try to escape. Fort George was located on Goat Island, and guarded the passage out of the bay. Orders were sent from Newport to the fort, ordering the St. John to be stopped if it tried to get out of the harbor.

The St. John set sail. When the Rhode Islanders at the fort saw the ship approaching, they tried to hail it, but the St. John ignored them and continued to sail. One cannon at the fort opened fire on the ship, firing about 10 balls towards the St. John. They all missed, but it marked the first time colonial guns fired on a British ship.

Critical Issues

The Sugar Act also brought the concept of taxation without representation to the forefront, and the issues of taxes being raised either for the benefit of the crown or to regulate the flow of trade. All of these inflamed colonists, especially James Otis. Not only did it set the stage for the colonial response to the Currency Act, which was passed on September 1, 1764, but also to the Stamp Act of 1765.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Sugar Act

This is a list of common questions regarding the Sugar Act. Click the link to be taken to the section of this article that answers the question.

Key Documents Related to the Sugar Act


Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Sugar Act (1764)
  • Coverage April 5, 1764
  • Author
  • Keywords Sugar Act, American Revenue Act, American Revolution
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 20, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 12, 2021
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