The Molasses Act of 1733 levied a duty of six pence per gallon on foreign molasses imported into British colonies in North America. The duty was not intended to raise revenue, but to be a prohibition against the importation of molasses from foreign sugar plantations. It was at first a nullity, a dead letter, but three decades later was enforced and amended into an act intended to produce revenue, thereby becoming part of the dispute over the authority of Parliament to tax the colonies. Molasses was important; other duties were imposed by the Molasses Act, but the molasses prohibition was the motivation for its enactment. John Adams, in a reflective mood long after Britain and America went separate ways, wrote to a friend, “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.” There is a backstory to the Molasses Act, beginning in the early eighteenth century.
The Molasses Trade
British sugar colonies—islands in the West Indies—were in dire competition with foreign sugar islands (largely French). In addition to sugar, all these islands exported the by-product of sugar production: molasses. Over time, northern continental colonies had developed an economy dependent on plentiful and inexpensive molasses; it was there distilled into rum, an export necessary to obtain specie for further trade. These colonies imported molasses from all the sugar islands, most often in exchange for fish, lumber, horses, and other provisions necessary for the livelihood of the largely single-crop plantations. The British islands, not faring well against the competition, resented that their sister colonies supplied the French with these indispensable provisions, and complained to British officials that the trade should be prohibited.
After decades of futile argument, the British sugar planters planned to bring the matter before Parliament. This was not good news for the Americans as the sugar interests held substantial influence in the House of Commons. A blizzard of pamphlets followed, leading up to the 1731 session of Parliament.
Here is the gist of the arguments. In late 1730 the Board of Trade read this essay supporting the sugar islands. The foreign sugar islands could not, “subsist without the horses from New England, nor . . . without New England lumber, such as staves, hoops and beading especially, consequently [if they did not have such supplies] little sugar could be made among them.”
And British merchants submitted a petition on behalf of the American colonies.
It would be very impolitic to obstruct the [northern colonies] from taking melasses, and even rum, from the French islands . . . as our own sugar colonies are unable to supply the immense quantities of melasses [necessary for American trade]. . . . The prohibiting the continental people from purchasing of the foreign colonies their sugar, rum, and melasses, or even laying high duties on them, would utterly destroy a commerce of . . . great consequence to the northern colonies. . . . Neither could they dispose of the product of their lands and labour, a great part of the profits whereof centers in Great Britain, in payment of the manufactures they have from thence.
The Molasses Bill of 1731
The sugar islands directly petitioned Parliament on February 23, 1731:
That divers of his Majesty’s subjects, residing within his dominions in America, and elsewhere, had of late years carried on a trade to the foreign Sugar-Colonies in America, from whence they were supplied with sugar, rum, molosses . . . [the result being] injurious to the trade of this kingdom, and greatly impoverished the British Sugar-Colonies; and therefore the Petitioners prayed the consideration of the House, and such relief as the House should think fit.
The result was a bill to prohibit American trade with foreign sugar colonies entitled, “An Act for the better Securing and Encouraging the Trade of his Majesty’s Sugar Colonies in America.” The preamble makes no bones about favoritism:
Whereas the Welfare and Prosperity of his Majesty’s Sugar Colonies in America, are of the greatest Consequence and Importance to the Navigation, Strength, and Wealth of this Kingdom: And whereas, of late Years a Trade has been carried on by divers of his Majesty’s Subjects on the Continent of America to the Foreign Sugar Colonies there, to the great Prejudice and Discouragement of his Majesty’s said Sugar Colonies. For remedy whereof . . . .
Section 1. Enacted, that . . . no sugar, rum, or molasses, of [foreign sugar colonies] shall be imported into . . . his Majesty’s colonies or plantations of America. . . . And whereas great numbers of horses and great quantities of lumber have been exported [from North American colonies] to the foreign sugar colonies [such export is now prohibited]
This is an odd bill; although the right of Parliament to impose trade restrictions was well established, past restrictions had always been formulated in an evenhanded manner. This bill is different: it clearly favors one set of colonies over another. The bill passed the House of Commons on April 14, but was killed in the House of Lords as being detrimental to trade of the empire.
The Molasses Bill of 1732
Leading up to the 1732 session of Parliament (to again consider the bill of prohibition), there was another blizzard of argument regarding the trade involving molasses. The Board of Trade characterized the essays this way: “The papers . . . consist of many allegations, but of allegations only, and not of proofs, which has brought this matter hitherto no farther than to an issue upon the facts in dispute between the opposite parties.”
The debate on another bill to encourage “the Trade of his Majesty’s Sugar Colonies in America” began on February 23, 1732 in the House of Commons. After a period of rancorous argument, James Oglethorpe made this point:
There never was perhaps before this House an Affair of greater Moment, than the Affair which is now before us. The whole British Trade, all our Colonies and Settlements in America, may be ruined and undone, or very much encouraged and strengthened by the Resolutions we come to upon the present Occasion.
He advocated balance, pointing out the advantages of both the sugar islands and New England. Then:
We ought not to encourage or raise one Colony upon the Destruction or Detriment of another; much less ought we to grant a Favour to any Subject, or to any particular Set of People, which may prove to be against the publick Good of the Nation in general.
Oglethorpe believed the bill was flawed; the Commons should not send, “up a Bill to the other House, so irregular or so improper, that they may find themselves under a Necessity of throwing it out.”
But on March 15, the bill passed and was sent up to the House of Lords. After careful deliberation, the Lords again killed the bill.
Richard Partridge (agent for Rhode Island and New York) wrote to Gov. Wanton of Rhode Island on April 3 to explain a change of direction in the strategy of the sugar planters—not a prohibition, but a duty intended to act as a prohibition: “But I am told that it is intended next Sessions of Parliam to lay a duty on Foreign Rum and Molasses imported into our North Colonies.” This was an ominous step. The duty would be a sham, embedded in what was claimed to be a revenue act, a money bill, thereby giving greater weight to desires of the House of Commons.
The Molasses Act of 1733
Using the same title as the bill of 1731—”An Act for the better Securing and Encouraging the Trade of his Majesty’s Sugar Colonies in America”—the 1733 bill reaffirmed the essential nature of the act: prohibition, not revenue. The new preamble retained the flavor of favoritism.
Whereas, the welfare and prosperity of your Majesty’s sugar colonies in America are of the greatest consequence and importance to the trade, navigation, and strength of this kingdom; and whereas, the planters of the said sugar colonies have of late years fallen under such great discouragements that they are unable to improve or carry on the sugar trade upon an equal footing with the foreign sugar colonies without some advantage and relief be given to them from Great Britain; for remedy whereof, and for the good and welfare of your Majesty’s subjects, we, your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the commons of Great Britain, assembled in Parliament, have given and granted unto your Majesty the several and respective rates and duties hereinafter mentioned.
Here was the molasses duty.
That from and after [December 25, 1733] there shall be raised, levied, collected and paid [duties on rum and other spirits, payable in money of Great Britain] and upon all molasses or syrups of such foreign produce or manufacture . . . the sum of sixpence of like money for every gallon thereof.
The prohibitive import duty should have been enough to stop the American trade with the foreign islands; the prohibition against export of horses and lumber prominent in the 1731 bill had been dropped.
The bill included enforcement provisions:
And be it further enacted, that in case any of the said commodities shall be landed . . . before the duties [are paid, all such goods] shall be forfeited; and all and every such goods as shall be so landed or put on shore, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act, shall, and may be seized by the governor or [customs officials] and all and every such offence and forfeiture, shall, and may be prosecuted for and recovered in any court of admiralty in his majesty’s colonies or plantations in America [or in a court of record] at the election of the informer or prosecutor. . . . Penalties and forfeitures so recovered there shall be divided as follows: one third part for the use of his majesty . . . to be applied for the support of the government of the colony or plantation where the same shall be recovered, one third part to the governor or commander in chief of the said colony or plantation, and the other third part to the informer or prosecutor, who shall sue for the same. [And on and on.]
In 1818, in private correspondence, John Adams quoted the enforcement provisions and called the act: “the most arbitrary among Statutes that were all arbitrary, the most unconstitutional among Laws which were all unconstitutional.”
Debate in the House of Commons
Debate on the bill further muddied the water about whether it was intended to prohibit importation or to result in revenue. Our interest starts with this motion made by Colonel Bladen on February 21, 1733, “That a Duty of 6d. per Gallon, Sterling Money, be laid on all foreign Molasses and Syrups imported into any of his Majesty’s Colonies or Plantations in America.”
Sir John Barnard rose in opposition to ask if the duty was intended to be prohibitory, cutting off all trade with the foreign islands. Bladen replied:
The duties proposed would not prove an absolute prohibition, but [they are intended] as something that should come very near it, for in the way the northern colonies are, they raise the French islands at the expense of ours, and raise themselves . . . to an independency.
While the House of Commons was debating the bill, Partridge reported to Governor Wanton on February 28. Here he characterized the duty as a tax.
This now comes to acquaint thee that thro the restlessness of the West India Gentlemen (who have the ministry on their side), the House of Commons have lately come into Resolutions to impose a duty upon Foreign Sugar, molasses and Rum that shall be imported into our Plantations . . . and it is generally thought the Bill will pass. . . . I am of the opinion if such a Law take place, (besides the present Injury it will do), it will be rather worse in the consequence of it than the Bill of prohibition last year, because of the levying a Subsidy upon a free People without their knowledge against their consent, who have the libertys and immunities granted them [of] Natural born Subjects.
He explained why it was worse—and was prescient about the act being called a precedent for further taxation.
. . . besides it may be drawn into a President for the future, for by the same Rule that a British Parliament imposes a duty on the Kings Subjects abroad, who have no Representatives in the State here, they may from 4/ advance to 20/— to £100, on different things, and so on ad infinitem which is an infringement on liberty and property and as I apprehend a violation of the right of the subject.
This was a pivotal issue—the distinction between the right of Parliament to restrict trade (an accepted precedent), and the taxation of American imports for revenue (an innovation). In later years, this distinction became one of the central issues in the controversy over the authority of Parliament.
Debate on a Petition: money bill or trade regulation?
On March 8, the House was asked to admit a petition from Rhode Island against the bill. The resulting debate primarily dealt not with the merits of the petition itself, but whether the petition should be heard. Barnard argued that: “the Bill may absolutely ruin their trade, and since they were subjects of England, and were not represented, it was but just they should be heard.”
Sir William Yonge was against hearing the petition.
The petition [prays] for leave to be heard against a Bill now pending in this house, by which some certain duties are to be laid on several commodities mentioned in the Bill. I believe, Sir, it has been the constant usage of this house for many years, to receive no petitions against duties to be laid on.
He then objected to the nature of the petition.
However, Sir, I must take notice of another thing, which I observe in the petition . . . They therein tell us, that as to the Bill now depending before us they apprehend it to be against their charter. This, I must say, is something very extraordinary, and, in my opinion, looks [as if] aiming at an independency, and disclaiming the authority and jurisdiction of this House; as if this House had not a power to tax them, or to make any laws for the regulating of the affairs of their colony.
Thomas Winnington supported Yonge. “It has been a Custom always observed in this House, not to receive any Petitions against those Bills which were brought in for the laying on of any new Duties.” He had more to say on charter.
The honourable Gentleman near me took notice of the petitioners pretending, that the Bill now before us is against their charter; I hope, Sir, they have no charter which debars this House from taxing them as well as any other subject of this nation; I am sure they can have no such charter.
Back to Barnard.
[Even if there] were a constant and perpetual rule not to receive petitions against such duties, yet certainly that rule could relate only to those duties which were to be laid on for raising money for the current service of the public; it could not be presumed to relate to those duties which were to be laid on for the regulation of trade only; and this last is the case now before us.
That was pretty blunt about the purpose of the duty. He next dealt further and even more explicitly with the hypocrisy of the bill.
The duties to be laid on by this Bill are so far from being duties for the supply of the government, that I do not believe that even those gentlemen, who appear so fond of the duties to be laid on by it, so much as expect or wish that any money shall be thereby raised for the use of the public; the Bill is not intended for any such end; it is rather in the nature of a prohibition, and it was never pretended that no petitions were ever to be received against a Bill for prohibiting any sort of commerce.
He renewed his argument for hearing the petition.
It may be the case that this House has sometimes refused to receive petitions from some parts of Britain against duties to be laid on; but this can be no reason why the petition I have now in my hand should be rejected . . . The people [of Rhode Island] have no particular representatives in this House; and therefore they have no other way of applying or of offering their reasons to this House, but in the way of being heard at the bar of the House by their agent here in England; therefore if that general rule of not receiving petitions against duties to be laid on, be ever to be receded from, the case now before us ought to be an exception to the general rule.
John Conduit returned to the argument against hearing the petition.
I apprehend it has always been the custom of this House . . . to refuse receiving petitions against any duties to be laid on, and that without any distinction whether the duties to be laid on were for the raising of money, or for the regulation of trade. As our colonies are all a part of the people of Great Britain, they are generally represented in this House as well as the rest of the people are.
After more debate along these same lines, “The question being put for bringing up the petition, passed in the negative.” This refusal to bring up the petition put the imprimatur of the House of Commons on the statute: a money bill. The bill passed in the Commons on March 21.
Not a Common Money Bill
Agent Partridge, in an attempt to influence the House of Lords, wrote to the Duke of Newcastle on March 28. His plea went beyond condemning the proposed duty from an economic point of view, also alluding to “rights and privileges.”
Inasmuch as there is a bill lately passt ye House of Commons [for imposing] high duties on ye importation of sugar etc. into ye Northern Colonys from ye Foreign Sugar Plantations and [the bill] is likely to be brought up soon to ye House of Lords, the gentlemen of New York apprehend [i.e., in a petition] if it should pass into a law will be rather worse in the consequence of it than ye bill of prohibitions last year. Besides ye injury, it will be of in itself almost tantamount to a prohibition. It is divesting them of their rights and privileges as ye King’s natural born subjects and Englishmen in levying subsidies against their consent when they . . . have no representatives in Parliament, nor any part of ye Legislature of this Kingdom, and that it will be drawn into a president hereafter whereby an incredible inconvenience may ensue . . . As it is not a common money bill for raising a duty out of ye Kingdom, we pray this petition may be presented to ye House of Lords in a proper time after the bill has been read a first time.
I am, in behalf of the New York Gentlemen, Thy Friend, Richd. Partridge
The letter highlighted the intrinsic ambiguity of the bill. The duty was an inappropriate invasion of American rights as a tax (“levying subsidies against their consent”), but yet the Lords could consider the petition since the duty was nota tax (“As it is not a common money bill”).
Consent, Assent, Effect
The Lords did hear petitions, but consented to the bill on May 4; it received the royal assent on May 17, 1733.
The duty never did much to restrict American commerce (nor did it raise revenue); the Americans smuggled the molasses they needed. The strategy was successful, largely since the British, during the long period later called “wise and salutary neglect,” made little effort (despite ongoing complaints from the sugar planters) to enforce the act. In addition, the act was difficult to enforce. A typical observation is this from the Massachusetts Governor to the Board of Trade, March 2, 1737: “The Sea Coast of the Province is so extensive & has so many Commodious harbours, that the small number of Customs House Officers are often complaining they are not able to do much for preventing illegal Trade.”
Parliament. Right to Regulate? Right to Tax?
The Americans had contested furiously, but—with the exception of Partridge and his clients—on an economic basis only. The bogus duty created ambiguity—trade regulation vs. taxation—that cast a long shadow, contributing to the British-American controversy three decades later.
It was natural—since Parliament had been regulating the trade of the colonies almost from their first founding—that American protests against the bills of 1731 and 1732 were directed wholly against the economic burden that would result from the prohibition of trade. But there also was no constitution-based protest against the money bill of 1733.
While the Lords were considering the bill, Pennsylvania submitted this protest:
That a bill is brought up to [your lordships] named an act for the better securing and encourageing the trade of his Majestys sugar colonies in America, which bill, should be the same passed into a law, would have the same consequence as might have attended two former bills of the like title brought up to [your lordships] the two last sessions of Parliament but which [your lordships] did not think proper to pass.
This protest makes no distinction between the two earlier bills of prohibition and the new bill to levy a duty. The ambiguity of the bill, and the hidden nature of the taxation, resulted in there being no widespread American protest on a constitutional basis. Pennsylvania, for example, simply asserted that the bill “would fully and effectually prohibit the legal trade and commerce” of North America.
From the British point of view, the Molasses Act was clearly a money bill, and hence a precedent for later taxation. From the American point of view, the act was trade regulation, and not a precedent for later taxation. Richard Price succinctly captured the nature of the Molasses Act and the American reaction.
In this act, the duties imposed are said to be given and granted by the Parliament to the King; and this is the first American actin which these words have been used. But notwithstanding this, as the act had the appearance of being only a regulation of trade, the colonies submitted to it.
In 1763, in order to derive a revenue from the American colonies, the British decided to enforce the Molasses Act. (George Grenville, the prime minister, also decided to reduce the molasses duty to three pence in order to encourage legal duty-paid importation of molasses in preference to continued smuggling. The amended Molasses Act is now known as the Sugar Act of 1764, and is a different story.)
The Board of Trade sent instructions to the governors on October 11. Because of “neglect, connivance and fraud, not only the revenue is impaired, but the commerce of the colonies is diverted from its natural course, and the salutary provisions of many wise laws are in great measure defeated.” Therefore, “His Majesty has commanded us to require and enjoin you, in the strictest manner, to make the suppression of the clandestine and prohibited trade with foreign nations, and the improvement of the revenue, the constant and immediate objects of your care.”
Gov. Francis Bernard of Massachusetts responded to the Board of Trade on December 26. He pointed out this problem: “[The Molasses Act] has been a perpetual stumbling-block to the Custom-house officers. . . . The question seems to be, whether it should be an Act of Prohibition, or an Act of Revenue.”
His next assertion, that it was “designed for the former,” reflected the broad American understanding. In early 1764, the colonies remonstrated against enforcement. The action began with Boston merchants publishing a pamphlet of protest and writing to their counterparts in neighboring colonies.
Boston, January 9, 1764
[The Molasses Act] has long & justly been complain’d of by the Northern Colonies as a great Grievance; and should it be continued & put in Execution, with any Degree of Rigour (as is like to be the Case hereafter) it will give a Mortal Wound to the Peace of these Colonies.
Three additional colonies—Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York—published essays and petitions against the enforcement of the Molasses Act. All four protests objected only to the economic burden of the act, not its violation of the rights of Americans.
Charles McLean Andrews points out that “The vigorous protests of the New England merchants . . . do not contain a single word that can be construed as a denial of the legality of the act itself. . . . Not once did they say that parliament had no legal right to pass such a measure.”
Bernard Bailyn makes the same point: “The most striking fact about these addresses and petitions is their entire devotion to economic arguments: nowhere do they appeal to constitutional issues; nowhere was Parliament’s right to pass such laws officially questioned.”
This lack of objection based on a constitutional argument was later brought forth to support the British rationale for taxation: a “President,” just as Partridge had anticipated. Thomas Whately, trusted lieutenant and spokesman for Grenville, made the justification as explicit as could be.
The Colonies have . . . acquiesced under several parliamentary Taxes. [The Molasses Act] lays heavy Duties on all foreign Rum, Sugar, and Melasses imported into the British Plantations. The Amount of the Impositions has been complained of; the Policy of the Laws has been objected to; but the Right of making such a Law has never been questioned.
And therefore, the argument goes, Parliament has rightful authority to impose such duties for revenue.
The enforcement of the Molasses Act (and its amendment in 1764) was the first step in changing British colonial policy: from commercial regulation only, to the addition of parliamentary taxation. Pitman states the consequence: “It was the serious attempt by the British government . . . to enforce this law [i.e., the Molasses Act], and again in 1764, by lower duties, to interfere with trade to the foreign West Indies, that ushered in the revolutionary movement.”
John Adams to William Tudor, Sr., August 11, 1818, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6959.
For general background, see Frank Wesley Pitman, The Development of the British West Indies, 1700-1763 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917). Pitman’s work colors much of the following discussion of the economics of the molasses trade.
Anderson’s Historical And Chronological Deduction Of The Origin Of Commerce, From The Earliest Accounts: Containing An History Of The Great Commercial Interests Of The British Empire (London, 1787), 180-82.
6 George II c. 13 (May 17, 1733), Danby Pickering, Statutes at Large (Cambridge, England: Joseph Bentham, 1762-1807), XVI: 374-379. Although the act imposed other duties, the molasses duty was the most important, and most resented. In contemporary writing, the act was known as the Sugar Act. In modern discourse, it is known as the Molasses Act.
Decades later, John Lind asserted that words of donation alone were sufficient to make this a revenue act, not a trade regulation. “The act uses the technical words of ‘give, and grant.’ Here then at least, one would think, was clearly a duty imposed for the purpose of raising a revenue.” See Remarks on the Principal Acts of the Thirteenth Parliament of Great Britain (London, 1775): 219. Edmund Burke had a different view: “The title of this Act of George the 2nd, notwithstanding the words of donation, considers it merely as a regulation of trade.” See Speech on American Taxation, April 19, 1774, in The Parliamentary History of England, From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. Vol. XVII A. D. 1771-1774 (London, 1813), 1235.
Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series, America and West Indies (London, 1733): 66. On page xxxiii, the authors of the Calendar point out that the petition referred to by Partridge “raises in unmistakable words the constitutional plea of ‘No taxation without representation,’ which was to play such an outstanding part in the controversies preceding the American Revolution.”
Southwick, because of the unusually adverse effect of the prohibition, feels strongly about the lack of American protest. He points out that “The most striking thing about the whole affair, when we consider later colonial history, is the fact that the colonies made no claim whatsoever against the constitutionality of the proposed law.” He concludes: they “did not question the authority of Parliament” to take such dramatic action. See Albert B. Southwick, “The Molasses Act—Source of Precedents,” The William and Mary Quarterly 8, no. 3 (1951), 398-99. This paper also provides additional background on the genesis of the Molasses Act and the surrounding controversy.
Ken Shumate, “The Sugar Act: a Brief History,” Journal of the American Revolution, September 17, 2018.
Burke (Speech on American Taxation: 1241) asserted that it, “opened a new principle: and here properly began the second period of the policy of this country with regard to the Colonies; by which the scheme of a regular Plantation Parliamentary revenue was adopted in theory, and settled in practice.”