In early 1764, four British colonies in North America protested the enforcement and planned renewal of the about-to-expire Sugar Act of 1733 (also known as the Molasses Act of 1733)—an act that levied duties on foreign sugar, rum and molasses. Each protest was a statement of reasons against the renewal. These protests—lodged before passage of the Sugar Act of 1764—represent a largely unexplored aspect of the American Revolution. The story begins in the early eighteenth century.
The economy of the northern continental colonies was dependent on imported molasses, there distilled into rum for domestic consumption and—of particular importance—as an export necessary to obtain specie required for the purchase of British manufactured goods. The Americans imported molasses from sugar islands in the West Indies, most often in exchange for fish, beef, lumber, horses and other provisions necessary for the livelihood of the largely single-crop plantations. British sugar planters, in dire competition with French and Dutch islands, resented that their sister colonies provided the foreign sugar islands with these indispensable supplies, and complained to British officials that the trade should be prohibited. The Americans maintained that the trade was necessary since the British islands could not provide sufficient molasses to meet the American needs; nor could the British islands take all the produce that needed to be exported from the northern colonies.
Eventually, British sugar planters petitioned Parliament to put an end to continental trade with “the foreign Sugar-Colonies in America” as being “injurious to the trade of this kingdom.” The method for doing so was to prohibit the importation of foreign sugar, rum and molasses into North America. Friends of the sugar planters brought in such a bill “For the better securing and encouraging the trade of his Majesty’s Sugar Colonies in America.” Friends of the continental colonies argued against the bill. First of all, “Every man who knows any thing of the trade and commerce of this nation, knows how much the whole depends upon our colonies in the West-Indies.” But the continental colonies were also important, and“we ought not to encourage or raise one colony upon the destruction or detriment of another.” The bill passed the House of Commons in 1731 and 1732, but was dropped in the House of Lords as being detrimental to trade. The advocates of prohibition, unable to overcome objections in the House of Lords, adopted a different approach.
Richard Partridge (London agent for Rhode Island and New York) wrote to Gov. John Wanton of Rhode Island on April 3, 1732 to report the new strategy of the sugar planters—not a prohibition, but a dutyintended to act as a prohibition. “I am told that it is intended next Sessions of Parliamt to lay a duty on Foreign Rum and Molasses imported into our Northn Colonies.” The duty was to be a sham, creating a trade regulation in the form of a revenue measure—the sugar planters expecting the House of Lords thereby to defer to the House of Commons.
The Sugar Act of 1733
The duplicitous scheme of using a duty to conceal a prohibition was successful, resulting in the Sugar Act of 1733 (6 George II. c. 13)—an act with built-in ambiguity. Act of prohibition? Act of revenue?
“An act for the better securing and encouraging the trade of his Majesty’s sugar colonies in America”
That the act has the same title as the earlier bills is telling; it exposes the true intent as being prohibition. The preamble mixes trade regulation and revenue.
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 herein after mentioned.
Supporting the trickery of a money bill, the preamble has words of donation associated with taxation: given and granted. That the title of the bill is that of a trade regulation, while the preamble suggests taxation, demonstrates the ambiguity.
Investigation into how this statute came to pass highlights the ambiguity. In the House of Commons on February 21, 1733, duties were proposed on foreign sugar, rum and molasses. Board of Trade member Col. Main Bladen, no friend of the Americans, proposed the duty on molasses.
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; he was not against a molasses duty, but against a prohibition.
It ought to be only a small Duty, for the sake of giving an Advantage to our own Sugar-Colonies in that Respect, not such an high Duty as was in a manner equal to a Prohibition; for that was really granting a Monopoly to our Sugar-Islands, with respect to a Commodity that is absolutely necessary for our Northern-Colonies.
Colonel Bladen replied that he “did not propose a prohibition.” The duties were intended only to put the British sugar islands “on an equal footing with the French.” After further debate, the duties were agreed to without division.
Partridge reported the result to Governor Wanton on February 28.
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. … I am of 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 Immunitys granted them [of] Natural born Subjects.
He feared the act would become a precedent for taxation.
It may be drawn into a President for the future, for by the same Rule that a British Parliamt 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 ad infinitum, which is an infringmt on Liberty and Property and as I apprehend a violation of the Right of the Subject.
On March 8, debate dealt with the issue of whether the bill was a revenue measure or solely a trade regulation. Barnard moved to bring up a petition from Rhode Island against the bill. Thomas Winnington objected. “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.” Barnard responded at length.
Granting that it 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.
He was blunt about the hypocrisy of treating the bill as a revenue measure; no one expected, or even wished, “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.
After further debate along these lines, “the question was put for bringing up the petition, which passed in the negative.” This refusal to bring up the petition put the imprimatur of the House of Commons on the bill: a revenue measure. The bill passed in the Commons on March 21.
Richard 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 a constitutional issue: rights and privileges.
Inasmuch as there is a bill lately passt the House of Commons for imposing high duties on the importation of sugar etc. into the Northern Colonys from the Foreign Sugar Plantations, and is like to be brought up soon to the 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 the Bill of prohibitions last year, for that besides the injury it will be of in itself almost tantamount to a prohibition; it is divesting them of their rights and privilidges as the King’s natural born subjects and English men in levying subsidies upon them against their consent … and that it will be drawn into a president hereafter whereby an incredible inconvenience may ensue; and as we humbly conceive it will not be deem’d a breach of the rules of the House to hear us before sentence pass upon us,as it is not a common money bill(which is for raising a duty out of the Kingdom). We pray this petition may be presented to the House of Lords in a proper time after the bill has been read the first time.
I am, in behalf of the New York Gentlemen, Thy Friend, Richd. Partridge.
Although the duties appeared to be a tax, the Lords might consider the petition since the duties were nota tax: “not a common money bill.”The Lords did hear petitions, but accepted the bill on May 4; it received the royal assent on May 17, 1733.
American merchants thought the sixpence duty exorbitant, effectively a prohibition. But in the event, the molasses duty never did much to restrict American commerce; through bribery and smuggling the Americans imported the molasses they needed—at a cost of about one penny per gallon. The strategy was successful, largely since British leaders (during the long period later called “salutary neglect”) made little effort to enforce the act. Furthermore, the act was difficult to enforce. Gov. Jonathan Belcher of Massachusetts wrote the Board of Trade on March 2, 1737. “The Sea Coast of the Province is so extensive & has so many Commodious harbours, that the small number of Custom House Officers are often complaining they are not able to do much for preventing illegal Trade.”
Strictly Enforce the Laws of Trade
In early 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, British leaders decided to retain a large army of regular regiments in North America, and to draw revenue from the colonies in order to pay for part of the expense. The revenue was to be obtained by strictly enforcing the laws of trade. The ministry chose as its initial vehicle the soon-to-expire Sugar Act of 1733, planning to enforce payment of the duties in 1763 and to renew the act in 1764. The renewal was to include lowering the molasses duty to a level no longer prohibitory, removing the incentive to bribe and smuggle, and hence increasing legal, duty-paid importation.
Based on reports early in the year from Massachusetts agent Jasper Mauduit, Boston merchants were apprehensive (“fears had been aroused of a renewal”) about British plans for the Sugar Act. On April 14, the merchants formally organized “the Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce within the Province of Massachusetts Bay.” The “immediate purpose of the Society was to prevent the renewal” of the Sugar Act. The following letters set the stage for a pamphlet from the society.
On August 3, Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard wrote to the politically well-connected Richard Jackson in London with concern about renewal and enforcement (warning about the Molasses Act, an alternative name for the Sugar Act of 1733).
The Danger of the Melasses Act being renewed & carried into full execution is Very alarming. The mischeivous consequences of such a Measure, I fear, will not appear so certain on your side of the Water as they do here. . . . If the Northern Colonies are not allowed to import foreign Sugars & Melasses upon Practicable terms, they will become desperate. . . . I dread the consequences of such a resolution.
Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson also wrote Jackson on August 3.
The Molosses Act as it now stands was undoubtedly intended to have the force of a prohibition. To reduce the duty to apenny per gallon I find would be generally agreeable to the people here & the Merchant would readily pay it, but do they see the consequence. Will not this be introductory to taxes duties & excises upon other articles & would this consist with the so much esteemed privilege of English Subjects the being taxed by their own representatives?
In a letter to the Board of Trade on September 5, Bernard gave his reasons against enforcement.
The best of Cod goes to Spain Portugal & Italy, the produce whereof is chiefly remitted to England; the Worst sort is sent to the West Indies. . . . These several kinds of fish together with boards staves shingles & hoops commonly called lumber, with some provisions . . . make up the freights to the West Indies: the returns are made partly in remittances to England & partly in rum, Sugar & Melasses. The latter Article . . . is distilled into rum, which is used in the trade . . . & some part (perhaps too much) consumed by the inland inhabitants. But upon the Whole, I consider the Melasses distilling as very necessary to the chief part of the trade of this province; and if it should be obstructed either by a severe execution of the present laws or by the enacting of new ones for that purpose, I fear that the consequences would soon be felt by the English Merchants trading to this Country.
On September 14, the first official notice of British intent to strictly enforce the laws of trade arrived in Boston: a circular letter from Secretary of State Egremont to the colonial governors.
Whitehall, July 9, 1763
It having appeared, that the Publick Revenue has been greatly diminished, and the fair Trader much prejudiced, by the fraudulent Methods used to introduce into His Majesty’s Dominions . . . Commodities of Foreign Growth, in National, as well as Foreign, Bottoms, by means of small Vessels hovering on the Coasts; And that this iniquitous Practice has been carried to a great Heighth in America; an Act was passed the last Session of Parliament, intituled, An Act for the further Improvement of His Majesty’s Revenue of Customs; And for the Encouragement of Officers making Seizures, and for the Prevention of the Clandestine Running of Goods into any Part of His Majesty’s Dominions;by which the former Laws, relative to this Matter, are enforced, and extended to the British Dominions in all Parts of the World.
Eventually, Egremont got to the action required: the governors were directed “to put an effectual Stop to the clandestine Running of Goods into any place within your Jurisdiction.”
The King wishes that all possible Means should be used to root out so iniquitous a Practice; a Practice carried on in Contravention of many express & repeated Laws, [leading] to the Diminution & Impoverishment of the Public Revenue.
Egremont went on and on, explaining other enforcement actions taken by the ministry, and further emphasized the importance to the King of “Improvement of the Public Revenue” as a matter on which “His Majesty lays so much stress.”
Hutchinson discussed the letter when writing Richard Jackson on September 17.
I wonder we heard nothing of the Act of Parliament giving new powers to the Comanders of His Majestys Ships for seizing illicit traders. The first intelligence was from the Act itself & [the Egremont letter]. I fancy many of the W India traders will be surprized. Such indulgence has been shewn of late to that branch of illicit trade that no body has considered it as such vessels arriving & making their entries for some small acknowledgments as openly as from our own Islands & without paying the duties.
Governor Bernard responded to Egremont on October 25.
Ever since I have been in this Government, I have exerted the best of my powers to maintain a due obedience to the [applicable] Laws; and I can with pleasure add, that I believe they are nowhere better supported than they are in this province.
But he was willing to overlook minor infractions.
There has been an Indulgence time out of mind allowed in a trifling but necessary article; I mean the permitting Lisbon Lemons & Wine in small quantities to pass as Ships stores. I have allways understood that this was well known in England & allowed, as being no object of trade, or, if it was, no ways injurious to that of Great Britain.
On October 28, Thomas Cushing, an influential member of the Massachusetts General Court (and a merchant and member of the Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce) wrote to Jasper Mauduit.
I now take the Liberty to write you upon a subject that very nearly affects the trade of this Province. It’s relative to an Act of Parliament passed the last session Intituled an Act for the further improvement of his majesty’s Revenue of Customs. . . in pursuance of which Act a Number of men of warr have been Stationed upon these Coasts, the Captains of which . . . have strict orders rigorously to execute the Act of Parliament pass’d in the year 1733, laying a Duty upon all foreign Mollasses, Rum and Sugar; this has much Alarm’d us as it is Sudden and unexpected.
He emphasized the disruption that was sure to follow enforcement of the Sugar Act.
The Rigourous executionof this Act laying a duty on molasses, etc., will be extremely prejudicial if not altogether destructive to the trade of this and the neighboring Governments, it demands therefore our greatest Attention and I doubt not the General Court at the next session will fully Instruct you upon this Head. In the mean time, it is presumed, that you (together with the other Agents of the Northern Colonies) will exert yourself upon this occasion, and when the Parliament meet endeavour to gett this Act repealed or in some way or other obtain reliefs for us under this insupportable Burden.
All the money we gett . . . is not sufficient to pay for the goods we want.. . . It’s evident the English Islands don’t in the least need any such Support and Encouragement, as they have vastly the advantage of these Colonies in their Trade already. In short it will enable them to gain a monopoly of what they cannot supply, and make them the Sole purchasers of what they cannot take off.
And he stated the appropriate level of duty:
Upon the whole I apprehend the best way of settling this dispute woud be for the Parliament to lower the duty to half-penny per Gallon. A penny might do, but that’s the utmost the trade wou’d bare.
Governor Bernard shared his apprehension with John Pownall, Secretary to the Board of Trade.
Castle William, October 30, 1763
The People here are greatly alarmed at a report that it is determined to carry the Molasses Act into full Execution. I could write a Volume against this measure if I was at Liberty, but I dont think it prudent to obtrude my advice, especially as it is probable that the contrary to it is resolved upon. So that I will only say, & that in Confidence to you, that I dread the Consequence of such a resolution.
It can’t be imagined that NAmerica will be sacrificed at this time of day to the West Indies; and therefore the only motive to such a step is supposed to be the raising a good sum of money. But it is my opinion paradoxical as it may seem, that more mony could be raised by a penny a Gallon than by Six pence. And tho’ possibly the trade may bear, three half pence, it would be better to set out with a penny tho’ it was determined to add another half penny soon after. For this reason if there was no other: everyone will readily submit to one penny tho’ it is to be doubted whether three half pence will be so well received.
On November 11, Cushing wrote to Mauduit again to further explain his concerns.
I beg leave to observe that it will be impossible for the Ministry to gain a revenue out of the Duty as it now stands; it amounts to an absolute Prohibition of the Trade. If the duty of six pence per Gallon is continued and rigorously exacted, all must desist altogether from importing molasses or run it in clandestinely.
Many of Cushing’s letters went on at great length, providing a preview of the reasons provided in the later pamphlet from the Boston merchants. At the end of this letter he wryly commented: “I fear I shall quite tire you out with writing upon this subject.”
Whitehall, October 11, 1763
The Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury having represented to His Majesty, that they find upon a consideration of the present state of the Duties of Customs imposed on His Majesty’s Subjects in America, that the Revenue arising therefrom is very small & inconsiderable, having in no degree increased with the Commerce of those Countries, and is not yet sufficient to defray a fourth part of the expence necessary for collecting it, and that through neglect connivance & fraud, not only the Revenue is impaired, but the Commerce of the Colonies is diverted from it’s natural course, & the salutary provisions of many wise Laws are in great measure defeated.
The direction was clear.
His Majesty has commanded us to require & enjoin you in the strictest manner to make the Suppresion of the clandestine & prohibited Trade with foreign Nations, & the improvement of the Revenue the constant & immediate Objects of your care; & by a vigorous discharge of the Duty required of you by several Acts of Parliament, and a due execution of your legal Authority, to give the Officers of the Revenue all possible protection & Support.
Bernard responded on December 26. He claimed, “no neglect that I know of in executing the laws of trade within this province.” However, “the Melesses Act [has] never been duly executed; altho’ at the same time I must, for my own defence, say, that I never knew an instance of the breach of it.” But there was a problem with ambiguity.
This act has been a perpetual stumbling block to Customhouse officers: and it will be most agreeable to them to have it anyways removed. The Question seems to be whether it should be an act of prohibition or an act of revenue.
It was originally, I believe, designed for the former; and if it shall be thought advisable to continue it as such, it will want no more than to be fully executed. But if it is meant to be an Act of Revenue, the best means to make it Effectual, that is to raise the greatest Revenue by it, will be to lower the Duties in such a proportion as will secure the entire collection of them & encourage the importation of the goods on which they will be laid.
In any event:
It is, in my opinion, a false state of this Question, to consider it as a Contest between the West Indies & North America: it is really a contest between the West Indies & Great Britain; . . . The Trade of North America is really the Trade of Great Britain.
(to be continued . . . )
Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England. From the Norman Conquest, in 1066, to the Year 1803. AD 1722-1733 (London: Printed by T.C. Hansard, 1811), 8: 856-57, 918, 1000-01. The 1731 bill also prohibited American produce from being exported to the foreign islands—a restriction later dropped as being unnecessary, the import prohibition alone being sufficient to put an end to all trade.
The distinction was important, long contested. In 1774, Edmund Burke 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.” The Parliamentary History of England, From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. AD 1771-1774 (London: Printed by T.C. Hansard, 1813), 17: 1235. John Lind, writing on behalf of the ministry, expressed a different view. He criticized Burke’s analysis, and asserted that the words of donation did makethis an act of revenue. “The act uses the technical words of ‘give, and grant.’ Here then at least, one would think, was clearly a dutyimposed for the purpose of raising a revenue.” John Lind, Remarks on the Principal Acts of the Thirteenth Parliament of Great Britain (London: Printed for T. Payne, 1775), 1: 219.
Cecil Headlam and Arthur Percival Newton, eds., Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1733 (London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1939), 66. On page xxxiii, the editors comment on the New York petition. “It will be noted that the petition goes far beyond the economic question as to the advisability of the proposed duty. It 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.”
The term of the statute was five years; it was continued from time to time after 1738.For detail on the genesis of the act and the surrounding controversy, see Frank Wesley Pitman, The Development of the British West Indies, 1700-1763 (New Haven: Archon Books, 1917), 242-63. In contemporary writing, the act was usually referred to as the Sugar Act. In modern discourse it is known as the Molasses Act. See also Albert B. Southwick, “The Molasses Act—Source of Precedents,” The William and Mary Quarterly 8, no. 3 (1951): 389-405, and Ken Shumate, “The Molasses Act: a Brief History,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 24, 2019.
Charles M. Andrews, “The Boston Merchants and the Non-importation Movement,”Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Transactions, 1916-1917 (Boston, 1918), 19: 159-259 (quotations, 161, 166). Later reports justified the fear of renewal. By early March it was open British policy that the colonies were to pay for the “American Force.” On March 23, Mauduit reported that Charles Townshend, the President of the Board of Trade, proposed lowering the duty on molasses from sixpence to twopence in order to more effectively collect the duty. But shortly after organization, the merchants learned that the British would make no immediate reduction: Mauduit wrote on April 8 that “the Bill for lowering the Duty on French Molasses is put off till another Year.” Jasper Mauduit: Agent in London for the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay 1762-1765. Massachusetts Historical Society Collections (Boston, 1918), 74: 101, 159.
The letters brought to America fateful decisions made by British leaders in 1763, decisions that amounted to a change in colonial policy. Benjamin Franklin was among the first to note that 1763 was a tipping point in the American attitude toward the mother country. In his testimony before Parliament on February 13, 1766, the question was put to him, “What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the year 1763?” His answer, “The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to acts of parliament. . . . They were governed by this country at the expence only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread.” But afterward, the temper was “very much altered.” The Parliamentary History of England, From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. A. D. 1765-1771 (London: Printed by T.C. Hansard,1813), 16: 137-60 (quotations, 140-41). His testimony was also reprinted as a pamphlet: The Examination of Doctor Benjamin Franklin, before an August Assembly.
Lawrence Henry Gipson calls this statute, commonly called the Hovering Act, both a revenue act and a trade enforcement statute. The letter from Egremont was prompted by a Privy Council order of June 1, 1763 declaring this law in force. See Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Triumphant Empire: Thunder-Clouds Gather in the West, 1763-1766. The British Empire before the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1961), 10: 204, 206. The Hovering act authorized officers of British men-of-war in American waters to seize ships and prosecute smugglers.
Nicolson, ed., Papers of Francis Bernard, 73: 381-82.The editor of the Bernard papers comments that “the ensuing controversy is traditionally regarded as the onset of the imperial crisis that presaged the Revolution.”
Tyler and Dubrulle, eds., Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson, 84: 182. Hutchinson was alluding (“small acknowledgments”) to bribes to the poorly paid deputies of customs officers resident in Great Britain. “The real cause of the illicit trade in this province has been the indulgence of the officers of the customs . . . that without bribery & corruption they must starve.”
The Board of Trade sent this circular letter to the colonial governors in obedience to a Privy Council order of October 5, 1763. “The following memorial of 4 Oct. from the Treasury is approved, and the Earl of Halifax, Secretary of State, the Admiralty, and the Board of Trade instructed to give directions in accordance therewith.” The lengthy (and famous) memorial—the basis for British action in 1764—addressed trade policy in the American colonies. “Their vast Increase in Territory and Population makes the proper Regulation of their Trade of immediate Necessity.” James Munro, ed., Acts of the Privy Council of England: Colonial Series, AD 1745-1766 (London, 1911), 4: 569. For explanation of events leading up to this Order in Council, and for detail on fateful decisions being made in Great Britain during 1763, see Thomas C. Barrow, “Background to the Grenville Program, 1757-1763,” The William and Mary Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1965): 93-104.