The Sugar Act of 1764

The Plantation Act, also known as the Sugar Act, was the first of the Revenue Acts to be passed, on April 5, 1764. In the words of one historian, it brought a “new realism to the regulation of foreign trade in America.” The bill—designed to balance the interests of New England merchants and distillers, West Indian sugar planters, and imperial coffers—revised the Molasses Act of 1733 by cutting in half the molasses duty, from six pence to three pence per gallon (at a time when it was selling for 12 pence per gallon), with the clear intention that every last farthing would be collected. It also followed standing mercantile practice in placing a prohibitively high duty on non-British sugar (striking a further blow at French interests), banning entirely the importation of foreign rum, and giving a monopoly on the American sugar market to the British West Indies (just as the Chesapeake had a monopoly on the English tobacco market) and to the American colonies monopolies on distilling rum and the importation of whale products into Britain. In addition, the Act imposed new duties on madeira wine, coffee, and certain Asian and foreign textiles (the sale of which was banned in England by the Calico Acts), and extended the list of “enumerated goods” required to be shipped through Britain by the Navigation Acts to, for example, coffee, iron, and timber. In return, the colonies received new bounties for the production of hemp and flax, a continuation of a bounty for South Carolina indigo, and the freedom to export rice directly to Latin America.

Although the Sugar Act covered a great deal of commercial ground, it was the molasses duty that received the most attention in the colonies, especially in New England. Samuel Adams and James Otis argued that it invaded the colony’s charter rights to govern itself by imposing taxation without representation. At a Boston Town Meeting in the spring of 1764, one speaker pointed out, ”If our Trade may be taxed, why not our lands. . .and everything we possess or make use of?” Concern outside of New England was rather less considerable. The Act had very little direct impact on Virginia and Maryland, for example, unless one counts the quite small percentage of the population that drank madeira or coffee. One London correspondent reported that Chesapeake interests and “made no figure at all” during debates over the Act and almost no protest after it passed. In any case, annoyance with the Sugar Act was soon overshadowed by concern over the proposed Stamp Act, except in New England, where it remained a source of political and commercial aggravation through 1776.

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