A one penny per gallon import duty on molasses was the only important exception to the American demand for “no taxation without representation.” The duty was a tax, levied by Parliament in 1766, and collected by British customs officials at American ports. It was paid by Americans with no protest to Parliament. And it provided more revenue than any other parliamentary tax collected in America. The foundation for this exception to the rule was established in the early eighteenth century.
Duty on Molasses: Sixpence
The economy of New England was dependent on imported molasses, which was distilled into rum for domestic consumption and for both intercolonial and foreign trade. Americans had two sources for molasses, both in the West Indies: British colonies (sugar island plantations), and competing foreign sugar islands, largely French and Dutch. The British islands did not produce enough molasses to meet American needs, but nonetheless, the sugar planters resented American trade with their competition; they appealed to the British government to stop the trade, and, in 1733, obtained partial relief.
Parliament enacted a statute, the Molasses Act, that levied tariffs on foreign sugar, rum and molasses imported into the continental colonies: “An Act for the better Securing and Encouraging the Trade of his Majesty’s Sugar Colonies in America.” Most threatening to New England was the sixpence per gallon duty on molasses (this applied only to “foreign” imports; British molasses was duty-free). Merchants thought the duty exorbitant—effectively a prohibition.
Obscure wording made the nature of the act ambiguous; it was a trade regulation in the form of a revenue act. Despite the purpose of “Securing and Encouraging the Trade,” the preamble to the act had words that implied taxation: “given and granted unto your Majesty.” The British considered it to be a revenue measure, later using it as a precedent for their right to impose taxes on the colonies. But the Americans never thought the act to be one of taxation; in their eyes, it was simply trade regulation similar to that enacted in the past.
In 1764, James Otis explained the American attitude: “The [Molasses Act], though it imposes a duty in terms, has been said to be designed for a prohibition, which is probable from the sums imposed; and ‘tis pity it had not been so expressed, as there is not the least doubt of the just and equitable right of the parliament to lay prohibitions through the dominions when they think the good of the whole requires it.”
British pamphleteer Richard Price was specific about the American response: “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 act in 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.”
As it turned out, the molasses duty never did much to restrict American commerce; merchants refused to pay the tariff and instead smuggled the molasses they needed. The strategy was successful, largely since British leaders, during the long period later called “wise and salutary neglect,” made little effort to enforce the act. In 1763, Americans, hearing of British plans to enforce the act, complained of the insupportable burden on the molasses trade and frequently suggested a lower duty. A common refrain was, “reduce the duty to a penny per gallon.” Such a duty “would be generally agreeable to the people here & the Merchant would readily pay it.”
Duty on Molasses: Threepence
The Sugar Act of 1764 (4 Geo. III. ch. 15) amended the Molasses Act. Parliament reduced the duty on imported foreign molasses to threepence. Again, British molasses was duty-free. Again, merchants saw the duty as exorbitant. This time around, the situation was more complicated for two reasons.
First, the constitutional issue was more confusing, with the molasses duty explicitly being made dual-purpose: partly a protective tariff to discourage importation from the French and Dutch, and partly for revenue. Prime Minister George Grenville declared that “the great object [is] to reconcile the regulation of commerce with an increase of revenue.” He described the act as giving “a preference to our own colonies’ manufactures.” After discussing the importance of trade regulation, he told the House of Commons: “But this is not enough; you must collect the revenue from the plantations.”
Showing its nature as a trade regulation, words of the act clearly stated its purpose: “preventing the clandestine conveyance of goods.” Other phrases branded it a revenue measure: “it is just and necessary that a revenue be raised,” and “give and grantunto your Majesty the several rates and duties herein.”
James Otis, in the same essay in which he discussed the Molasses Act, characterized the Sugar Act. “It is said that the duties imposed by the new act will amount to a prohibition: time only can ascertain this.” As it turned out, the molasses duty did act as a prohibition, and merchants continued to smuggle—at a cost of about one penny per gallon—rather than legally import molasses. And, as a prohibition, the duty still was considered by Americans to be legitimate trade regulation.
The second complication was that now the British were determined to enforce the act, instituting strict regulatory procedures and using the Royal Navy to act against smugglers.
The Stamp Act Crisis
American attitudes toward the molasses duty were influenced by the Stamp Act Crisis. Before the contest between smugglers and the Royal Navy played out, the Stamp Act was announced in 1764 and enacted in 1765. It was clearly taxation of the internal affairs of the colonies, placing taxes on legal documents and newspapers.
Throughout the resulting controversy, Americans argued that Parliament had no rightful authority to tax the colonies—no taxation without representation.But while making the argument that the Stamp Act was unconstitutional, protests against the duties of the Sugar Act primarily dealt with the economic burden. Protests against the molasses duty asserted over and over that, even at threepence, it was impossible to pay and was effectively a prohibition. The duties, “save on the rarest of occasions, [were] not explicitly condemned as unconstitutional by the colonists.” Any underlying objection to taxation, “merged with constitutional arguments against other taxes and does not again appear as popular clamor against the molasses duty.”
The drumbeat of protest against the “extremely burthensome” molasses duty, and the absence of protest about the constitutional issue, solidified a mindset that the duty was a trade regulation within the rights of Parliament. In 1765, protests against the Stamp Act turned violent, almost forcing civil war in 1766. But Britain backed down, repealing the Stamp Act and satisfying the Americans about the molasses duty.
Duty on Molasses: One Penny
In 1766, Parliament amended the Sugar Act, “lowering the duty on molasses, British or foreign, from three pence a gallon to one penny . . . while the duty on molasses was lowered, the act itself remained an act for revenue.” The 1766 act (6 Geo. III. ch. 52) had an apt long title, summarizing the revisions to the Sugar Act of 1764: An Act for repealing certain Duties in the British Colonies and Plantations . . . and for granting other Duties instead thereof; and for further encouraging, regulating, and securing, several Branches of the Trade of this Kingdom, and the British Dominions in America.
This amending act, standing alone, is sometimes called the Revenue Act of 1766, but is more often combined with the act of 1764 to take over the name Sugar Act. The repealing and granting was specific: all previous molasses duties would “cease, determine, and be no longer paid,” and for every gallon of molasses “which shall be imported or brought [into America], one Penny.” That the duty applied to all molasses made it a tax, no longer a trade regulation. “The requirement that both British and foreign molasses pay [the duty] converted this portion of the Act from a regulatory to a revenue producing measure.”
The change in the nature of the molasses duty was quietly accepted. “There was some protest at the penny duty on molasses in the Revenue Act of 1766, but no colonial seemed to realize its real significance.” The reduced duty made smuggling unattractive, resulting in legal, duty-paid importation. The resulting flow of revenue proved correct those who had claimed that the merchants would readily pay a duty of one penny. The upshot was that, “the only successful law was the Revenue Act of 1766.”
The money collected demonstrated the futility of the Molasses Act of 1733, and of the [Sugar] Act of 1764. . . . Of the 4,000,000 gallons imported annually by the mainland colonies between 1768 and 1772, only 3 per cent came from the British islands.
Because the one-penny duty was the same burden as the previous expense of smuggling, it had no effect on the price of molasses (or the rum distilled from molasses); whether the one penny was a tax or the cost of smuggling made no difference to the consumer.
Lack of Protest: 1766
The lack of protest against the tax on molasses is best illustrated by the harmony between British and American interests at the end of 1766: “After great perturbations for two years and a half, with little interruption, there was a short space of tranquillity. Besides the repeal of the stamp act, the duty on molasses had been reduced from three-pence to one penny per gallon.”
Molasses Good; Tea Bad
The tranquility was broken in June 1767 when Parliament, in the Townshend Revenue Act, levied duties on a number of products imported from Great Britain such as paper and glass, including, famously, the tax on tea. The duties were established in exactly the same form as the duty on molasses: import duties collected by British customs officials at American ports. There was no pretense of being regulation of trade. While imposing a duty on tea collected at American ports, Parliament removed an even larger duty that had been collected in Great Britain, the result being to reduce the cost of tea to the colonial consumer.
Surprising British leaders, Americans saw the duties of 1767 as taxes that violated the constitution. American resistance included political protest, violence, and boycott of—imported goods from Great Britain. The boycott prohibited import of those items taxed in 1767, and on-and-off banned all products from Britain (but not molasses from the West Indies).But Americans still liked their tea, which could be legally imported only from Great Britain; they evaded the duty on tea by smuggling from other places, as they had previously smuggled molasses. Protests continued throughout 1768 and 1769.
The molasses duty garnered occasional criticism, but no protest to Parliament. Any underlying grievance that the duty was a tax became wrapped up into objections to all taxation. The Massachusetts House of Representatives made this sort of generalized protest against taxation in a petition of January 20, 1768: “It is with the deepest concern that your humble suppliants would represent to your Majesty, that your Parliament, the rectitude of whose intentions is never to be questioned, has thought proper to pass divers acts imposing taxeson your Majesty’s subjects in America, with the sole and express purpose of raising a Revenue.”
A few grumbles against the molasses tax were expressed in intercolonial correspondence. On October 25, 1769, Boston merchants wrote to their counterparts in Philadelphia that all the revenue acts were unconstitutional and that non-importation should continue until they were all repealed. In their November response, the Committee of Merchants at Philadelphia agreed regarding the Sugar Acts of 1764 and 1766—at least to the concept. “The acts of the 4th and 6th George 3rd, being expressly for the purpose of raising a revenue and containing many grievous and unreasonable burdens upon trade” should be repealed, along with the Townshend duties. But neither Boston nor Philadelphia put the concept into practice. And molasses continued to be legally imported, and the duty paid.
In March 1770 Parliament, responding to American protests, repealed all the new duties except that on tea. A British official explained the American reaction: the merchants “agreed to an importation of all goods except tea.” But the people would still drink tea. “There will not be a pound less imported, but it will come from Holland instead of England.”
Lack of Protest: 1770
The repeal action of 1770, and the consequent end of boycott except for tea, led to a period of accord similar to the tranquility of late 1766. With the repeal of the duties and “the consequent renewal of the mercantile intercourse between Great Britain and hercolonies, many hoped, that the contention between the two countries was finally closed. . . . A political calm once more took place. . . . Neither the reservation of the duty on tea, by the British parliament, nor the exceptions made by the colonists, of importing no tea on which a duty was imposed, would, if they had been left to their own operation, have disturbed the returning harmony of the two countries. Without fresh irritation, their wounds might have healed, and not a scar been left behind.”
This period of harmony—with a continuing boycott only of tea—again shows American acceptance of the tax on molasses.
Molasses Good; Tea Dire
In June 1773 Parliament, creating fresh irritation, enacted another obnoxious statute dealing with tea (establishing a monopoly advantage for the British East India Company). Americans were once again provoked by the tea tax; popular leaders made plans to reject the first shipments of tea from the East India Company. The tea was not to be sold, or even landed, but to be shipped back to Great Britain.
Lack of Protest: 1773
The remainder of the year saw protests against tea, but not molasses. “In 1773 Americans virtually ignored the parliamentary taxes on molasses, sugar, and wine, which were producing the largest revenue ever collected in America.” But the new legislation regarding tea caused a great storm. “As in the days of non-importation, the popular leaders . . . led the movement.” And by October, their “resolutions declared the tea tax to be taxation without consent.”
The Boston newspapers were full of opinion about payment of duties. One loyalist merchant argued that objecting to the tea duty was inconsistent with acceptance of “the Articles of Sugar, Molasses, and Wine, from which more than three quarter parts of the American Revenue has and always will arise, and when the Acts of Parliament imposing Duties on these Articles stand on the same Footing as that respecting Tea.”
Tea Bad; Molasses Bad
The rest of the story is well known: the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, resulting in punitive action by Parliament in 1774, followed by American protests, culminating in a congress of the colonies. Americans were finally ready to assert that the molasses duty was a tax—that what looked like a trade regulation based on its history had only the single purpose of revenue. On October 14, 1774 the First Continental Congress stated grievances, the very first being: “[Whereas] the British parliament . . .in some acts expressly imposed taxes on them, and in others, under various pretences, but in fact for the purpose of raising a revenue, hath imposed rates and duties payable in these colonies . . . .”
The resolve dealing with acts of taxation was specific in calling out both the Sugar Act of 1764 and its amendment in 1766 as violations of American rights: “The following acts of parliament are infringements and violations of the rights of the colonists; and that the repeal of them is essentially necessary in order to restore harmony between Great Britain and the American colonies. . . . The several acts of 4 Geo. III. ch. 15 . . .6 Geo. III. ch. 52 [and others] . . . are subversive of American rights.”
Why Was the Tax Accepted for Years?
There is no simple reason why Americans accepted the tax on molasses. But acceptance started with the Americans getting what they asked for regarding the level of the duty. One colonial agent made this clear when writing his governor to report reduction of the duty to a penny. After explaining that “the trade and navigation of America have been agitated in the House of Commons with great warmth and industry,” he announced that based on approval of resolutions from a committee, “you will see that every grievance of which you complained, is now absolutely and totally removed.” Beyond that, it is less clear why the Americans made no significant protest. Agitation for non-importation—or at least a remonstrance against the molasses tax—might have come from either the merchants charged with paying the duty or from popular leaders (think Samuel Adams) who might have used the taxation as grounds for continued resistance against British authority.
A likely explanation for the lack of protest from the merchants is that they had a history of thinking about the duty as a regulation of trade. In 1766, the duty having been reduced to the level they had long desired, there was no reason to protest (the extra duty paid on molasses imported from British sugar islands was inconsequential.) It was easy to overlook the constitutional issue that it had become a tax.
An explanation for the lack of protest from popular leaders is more complex. British friends of America, who in 1766 had argued that repeal of the Stamp Act and reduction of the molasses duty would restore tranquility to the colonies, would lose credibility if protests continued. In order to not compromise the political position of those supporters, it was necessary that Americans accept the concessions without complaint. In 1766, “a whole series of letters was sent across the Atlantic, urging the need to avert ‘improper triumph’ on the news of repeal.” The theme of the letters was that the British retreat should be met with a “spirit of gratitude and obedience really manifested by the restoration of public and private tranquility.” If the British retreat “is talked of as a victory” for America, then “your friends must certainly lose all power to serve you.” It was therefore “necessary and incumbent” upon American leaders to “impress the minds of all people with a dutiful sense and spirit of gratitude, submission, peace, and good order.”
In the short run then, in order to not undercut friends of America, the likely reason popular leaders did not protest the tax on molasses was that “political considerations dictated that it not be actively opposed.” In the long run, residual unhappiness about a tax on molasses became swamped in the tsunami of objections to the tax on tea.
Despite the fact that the act of 1766 was as clearly a revenue measure as any other law of the times, almost no attention seems to have been paid to it on either side of the water. Perhaps this was because the Townshend program followed closely on its heels.
Ultimately, Americans accepted the tax because they chose to ignore that it was imposed without their consent. “If the colonists had been more intent on their theoretical rights than on immediate business concessions,” they would have foreseen the threat.
Far more ominous to American liberties than [any other statute] was the fact that the new molasses duty applied to all molasses imported, British as well as foreign. By no possible interpretation could it be construed in any other light than a tariff for revenue. It was an unvarnished contradictionof the colonial claim to “no taxation without representation.”
The amount of revenue collected from the molasses duty is not as important as the fact that it was collected without protest, but it does drive home that revenue resulting from the duty, and the act of 1766, was substantial: “The Act produced more revenue in the colonies than any other Act ever passed by Parliament.”
Oliver Dickerson has provided a detailed analysis of revenue results for the Sugar Act. His best data are for the years 1768 to 1772, including a table titled: “Collections under the Sugar Act of 1764 As Modified in 1766.” The following figures are a summary version of that table, rounded to thousands of pounds sterling.
Molasses £ 82
Sugar, foreign, brown £ 45
Madeira wine, Azores £ 30
Other £ 8
Total for Sugar Act £165
Edward Channing has published similar revenue data. His numbers for molasses duties in 1773 and 1774 support the Dickerson results, with an even higher proportion of revenue from the molasses tax. In addition, Channing’s figures demonstrate that the uproar over the new tea act did not disturb the continued payment of duties for molasses. He shows molasses duties paid in 1773 of almost £15,000, and an increase in 1774 to over £17,000. In contrast, duties paid on tea dropped by over seventy-five percent.
Dickerson combines data from many sources, giving this summary: “We have a total for the eleven years of the life of the Sugar Act of a little more than £295,000.” Parliament’s reduction of the molasses duty turned out not to be a retreat at all; instead, “modification of the molasses duty made it a more effective revenue-spinner, and was a direct continuation of Grenville’s fiscal policy in [the Sugar Act] of 1764.”
In sum, the molasses duty was a pure tax, levied for no purpose other than revenue. American merchants routinely paid the tax, making no significant protest. The molasses duty was the exception to “no taxation without representation.”
For background see Ken Shumate, “The Molasses Act: a Brief History,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 24, 2019. And for elaboration on the importance of molasses to Great Britain and the colonies, see Frank Wesley Pitman, The Development of the British West Indies, 1700-1763 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917).
James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764), 62 (emphasis added). Some British leaders agreed with Otis. In 1774, Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, asserted that the title was more important than the words of the preamble. “The title of this Act of George the 2nd, notwithstanding the words of donation, considers it merely as a regulation of trade.” See The Parliamentary History of England, From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. AD 1771-1774 (London, 1813), 17: 1235.
Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson explained the attitude of the merchants in a letter of August 3, 1763. See John W. Tyler, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson, Volume I: 1740-1766 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2014), 84:179. Hutchinson also observed that acceptance of a one penny duty might “be introductory to taxes duties & excises upon other articles,” and be inconsistent “with the so much esteemed privilege of English Subjects the being taxed by their own representatives.”
Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 135; Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951), 173.
A British official in America reported in September 1769 about a meeting of the merchants of Boston. They declared that the promised repeal of some duties “would not relieve them from their grievances unless the duties on tea, sugar, wine, and molasses, were likewise repealed, without considering whether they were for the purpose of revenue, or a regulation of trade and commerce.” See William James Smith, ed., The Grenville Papers: Being the Correspondence of Richard Grenville(London: J. Murray, 1853), 4: 439.
Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, in a letter of July 26, 1766. See K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution (Colonial Office Series) Volume II, Transcripts, 1770 (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1972), 153.
Joseph Sherwood to Samuel Ward, May 15, 1766, in John Russell Bartlett, ed.,Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England: 1757-1769 (Providence: A. C. Greene and brothers, 1861), 6: 491. Sherwood also reported that the duty would be imposed on all imported molasses.
Letters from British friends of America as quoted in Smith, Grenville Papers, 3: 237-38n; and Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series (Boston, 1897), 11: 448.
Dickerson, Navigation Acts, 179-185 (table on 185). There were a few minor exceptions such as duties (true taxes) on coffee and pimento from British islands in the West Indies. The other duties, although intended to generate revenue, were dual-purpose: they also served as protective tariffs. (Dickerson points out that “for the five years covered by this report, collections under the Sugar Act amounted to eighty-two per cent of all sums exacted from the Americans by parliamentary taxation.”)
John Adams later wrote, “What an enormous revenue for that age!” See Charles Francis Adams, Works of John Adams, 10: 346. This total includes data from George Louis Beer, British Colonial Policy: 1754-1765(New York: Macmillan, 1907), 283.