Friday, September 12, 2014

Towards Revolution: Sugar Act of 1764

George Grenville
In the vast tracts of land in the west of the Atlantic, different activities were bustling. From religious, to scientific, to economic activities, the New World had become a flourishing colony of Europe. The Spaniards, the French, the Dutch, and more importantly, the British had established stakes within the new continent. The British in particular were keen in maintaining and benefiting from its holdings in the Americas.  Through taxation and as a market for British goods, British Imperial Policy would bring the American colonies into revolution. Among the first of its dreaded policy was passed in 1764, called as the Revenue Act, but it was notoriously known as the Sugar Act.

The conditions both in the Americas and in Great Britain were depressed. The French and Indian War in the Americas, also known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War, just ended in 1763. In London, a new Prime Minister came to power. George Grenville just taken office as Prime Minister from John Stuart, the Earl of Bute. Grenville had the responsibility to set up the post war situation. First order of business, in order to show gratitude to their Native American allies, they decided to provide them lands. In 1763, they allocated lands west of the Appalachian Mountains in the Americas to their Native American allies. It became a subject of criticisms of the American colonist as it hampered their westward expansion. After solving the issues of Native American lands, he had to tackle another serious crisis - a financial crisis. The wars in both Europe and the Americas had took toll on the financial capabilities of Great Britain. National debt was standing at the enormous amount of £130 million. The financial troubles of Britain was further strained with the maintenance cost of the American territories. The government spent £350,000 a year in order to maintain a sizable force of 10,000 men in the Americas alone. The British had been occupying lands that it could not maintain financially.

In order to solve the problem, Grenville decided that the American colonies, the Thirteen Colonies particularly, had to start carrying the burden of the cost of maintain Red Coats in the region. The first target of the Grenville Government was improving customs payment in molasses and other luxury goods. And so in 1764, the Revenue Act of 1764, otherwise known as the Sugar Act was enacted in the colonies.

The act was an upgrade of the Molasses Act of 1733. For decades the Molasses Act proved to be ineffective. The Molasses Act involved the taxation of rum and molasses from other foreign sources, like the Spanish in the Caribbean, the Dutch, and the French, formerly occupying the Canada. The rate of customs was 6 pence for every gallon of molasses and rum. The rate was too high for the colonials to afford. And so smuggling became rampant.  The cost of bribing customs official was very cheap compared to the taxes, 1 to 2 pence per gallon. And so, many merchants decided to undergo illegal transactions in order to save cost. If caught, the merchant remained on the upper hand against the colonial government. Smugglers were tried by jury, which were composed of their neighbors who also vilified the high customs rate. Many hated the tax because it hampered the production of rum, which was a favorite alcohol of the common people. And so, during a trial of a smuggler, the jury sympathize with defendant and gave not guilty verdict or guilty with very light punishments. With smuggling rampant, the Molasses act of 1733 only generated, throughout its enforcement, £20,000. A small percentage compared to the annual cost of maintain the British Army in the Americas.

In order to fill the coffers of the government more effectively, the Sugar Act was passed. Under the new tax law. Taxes were imposed on coffee and luxury items, like wine, silk, pimiento, and calico. Rum importation were banned. And molasses import rates were slashed by half, from 6 down to 3 pence per gallon, still higher from the bribe or smuggling rate of 1 to 2 pence per gallon. British navy also played a key part in the enforcement of the new tax. Inspections and seizure of the navy became intensified by the act. All those were caught of smuggling no longer would face a trial by jury, but a trial by a judge in a vice-admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Thus, court battles became more expensive and became a sure guilty punishment for smugglers. The sympathy vote of the jury no longer exist. Also, their lawyers had to travel from the Thirteen Colonies to Nova Scotia in the north.  And so, merchants began to forcibly comply.

Criticism and protest reign in the Thirteen Colonies when the Sugar Act was enforced. Rum distilleries, who needed molasses, were protesting in the rise of cost. Merchants were also protesting for loss of profit. People began to shout the slogan “taxation without representation.” Daniel Dulaney explained it with his argument. Trade restrictions like the Molasses Act of 1733 were alright as it was a protectionist measure imposed throughout the British Empire. On the other hand, the Sugar Act was deliberated taxation to the people of the colonies whom were not consulted or represented in the Parliament when the act was passed. Students were even more active in protesting against the act. They boycotted British goods and decided to stop drinking rum as a sign of anger over the Sugar Act.

The British government decided to make the Sugar Act more palatable to Colonies. In 1766, they decided to lower the customs rate on molasses from 3 pence per gallon down to just 1 pence per gallon. Therefore, paying taxes became cheaper than bribing and smuggling molasses. Anger over the law did went down, until another round of taxes were imposed.

The Sugar Act was the start of the road to revolution. The Act was passed by men whom the colonies never elected nor represented them. In addition, it became a start of tax burden that would be placed in the shoulders of the Colonies. The Sugar Act was the just the beginning of following taxes that would enraged the colonies and result ultimately in the War of Independence starting in 1776. 

See also:
Stamp Act
Tea Act
Townshend Act

Clack, George (ed.). Outline of US History. Washington DC: Bureau of International Information Program, 2005.

Clark, C. The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia. California: ABC-CLIO, 2011.

Conlin, J. The American Past: A Survey of American History. Massachusetts: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 

Dobson, J. Bulls, Bears, Boom & Bust: A Historical Encyclopedia of American Business Concepts. California: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

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