The Essay “well deserves the candid Reader’s attentive perusal:” Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act, Part 2 of 3

Stephen Hopkins. (New York Public Library)

The writings abridged below, all asserting reasons against the renewal of the Sugar Act, mark the end of the long period of the colonies being “led by a thread.” They were the opening salvo to a decade of protest against British attempts to draw a revenue from the North American colonies.

Reasons against the renewal of the Sugar Act, Province of the Massachusetts-Bay
An Essay on the Trade of the Northern Colonies, Rhode Island Governor Stephen Hopkins
Remonstrance against the renewal, English colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
Remarks on the Trade of the Colony, Connecticut merchants
Memorial in Opposition to the Renewal, merchants of the city of New York (approved by the New York General Assembly)

Reasons against the renewal of the Sugar Act

In December 1763, the Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce within the Province of Massachusetts Bay “drew up a memorial, containing a statement of reasons [against renewal], and presented it to the General Court.”[1] It was presented on December 27, “praying that his Excellency and Honors would take into Consideration the Act of Parliament known by the Name of the Sugar Act . . . and make such Application for their Relief as they in their great Wisdom shall judge best.”[2]

As the Act, commonly called the Sugar Act, has been passed upwards of thirty years without any Benefit to the Crown, the Duties arising from it, having never been appropriated by Parliament to any particular Use; and as this Act will expire this Winter, the following Considerations are offered as Reasons why it should not be renewed.

Enforcement of the act would put an end to all trade with the foreign islands:

FIRST, It is apprehended that the Trade is so far from being able to bear the high Duties imposed by this Act, that it will not bear any Duty at all.[3] [At the current cost of molasses] it will barely answer to distil it into Rum for Exportation. Should this Duty be added, it would have the Effect of an absolute Prohibition on the Importation of Molasses and Sugar from the foreign Islands;[4] and consequently the same effect on the Exportation of Fish, Lumber and other Commodities from hence to those Islands; as the French, Dutch and other Foreigners whom we supply with those Articles, will not permit us to bring away their Money; so that unless we can take their ordinary Sugars and Molasses in Return, this Trade will be lost.

That loss of trade with the foreign islands would doom the fishery, a business based on providing high-quality (or “merchantable”) fish to the European market:

SECONDLY, The Loss of the Trade to the foreign Islands on which great Part of our other Trade depends, must greatly affect all the Northern Colonies, and entirely destroy the Fishery in this Province.

The effect would be indirect; the fishery could be profitable only if undesirable fish could find a market in the West Indies. Since “our own Islands take off” only a small portion of the undesirable fish, “the Remainder will be lost if we are prevented from supplying the foreign Islands, there being no other Market where it can be disposed of.”

THIRDLY, A Prohibition on the Trade to foreign Islands will greatly promote the French Fishery: If the French Islands can be supplied with Fish for Molasses, it will be cheaper for them to purchase it of us than to catch it themselves.

But if American merchants could not profitably trade fish for molasses, the French would expand their own fishery. And “their establishing such a Fishery will be very prejudicial to Great Britain.”

FOURTHLY, The Fishery being a great Nursery of Seamen for his Majesty’s Navy, the Destruction thereof must very much weaken the Naval Power of Great Britain.

And there were other adverse consequences. Trade of Great Britain:

FIFTHLY, The Destruction of the Fishery will be very prejudicial to the Trade of Great Britain by lessening the Demand for her Manufactures (of which that Branch of Business occasions a very large Consumption). The Imports into Great Britain from the Sugar Islands may appear more considerable than the Imports from the Northern Colonies, but the Exports of the Manufactures of Great Britain to the Northern Colonies (on which the Wealth of the Nation so much depends) exceed those to the Sugar Islands.

Trade of the colonies:

SIXTHLY, The Destruction of the Fishery will not only lessen the Importation of Goods from Great Britain, but must greatly prejudice the whole Trade of the Province. The Trade to the foreign Islands is become very considerable, [they being] supplied with Provisions, Fish, Lumber, Horses, Onions and other Articles exported from the Northern Colonies; for which we receive Molasses in Return; this is distilled into Rum for the Fishery, and to export to the Southern Colonies . . . and to Africa to purchase Slaves for our own Islands in the West-Indies.[5] It is said by the Planters in the West-Indies that they can supply us with Rum and Molasses for the Fishery, and our own Consumption . . . To which it may be answered [no they cannot].

Economy of the colonies:

SEVENTHLY, The Destruction of the Fishery will be the Ruin of those concerned in that Business, and that are dependent on it.

The King’s revenue:

EIGHTHLY, The Sugar Act, if put in Execution, will greatly affect the King’s Revenue, by lessening the Importation of Rum and Sugar into Great Britain. The Duties paid upon Rum, it is said, amount to upwards of £50,000 Sterling per Annum; this will be wholly lost to the Crown, as the Northern Colonies will take all the Rum our Islands can make; consequently none can be shipped to Great Britain.

The Sugar Act worked to benefit only a privileged few.

NINTHLY, This Act was procured by the Interest of the West-India Planters, with no other View than to enrich themselves by obliging the northern Colonies to take their whole Supply from them; and they still endeavour the Continuance of it under a Pretence that they can supply Great Britain and all her Colonies with West-India Goods, which is perfectly chimerical.

The memorial ended with a summary of the situation, and a view of the future.

Upon the whole, It is plain that our Islands are able neither to supply us with what we want from them, nor to take from us what Lumber and Fish we are obliged to export: and they will be still less able to do either; for our Demands will be growing faster than their Produce, and our Fishery which has been increasing, will continue still to increase, if not obstructed, while their Demands have not increased in any Proportion, and never can.[6]

On January 4, the Boston merchants wrote to their counterparts in Rhode Island (and five days later, Connecticut) referring to the memorial as the State of the Trade.

The Act commonly known by the Name of the Sugar 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.
As this Act is now about to expire, it behoves us all to unite our endeavors to prevent, if possible, the revival of it.
To this Purpose the Merchants in this Town, sometime since, met together and chose a Committee to prepare a State of the Trade of this Province so far as it is affected by this act.

They explained that the Massachusetts General Court would “send the necessary Instructions to their Agent, and will oppose the Renewal of the Act to the utmost of their Power.”

It will not be deny’d that the Trade of all the Governments of North America is affected by this Act. They are all therefore interested in the Affair, and as they have very powerful Antagonists to encounter, the united strength of them all will be necessary, if they mean to do anything to Effect.

They enclosed the “State of the Trade,” and looked for assistance “in our Endeavours to defeat the iniquitous Schemes of these overgrown West Indians.”In addition to actions of the General Court, “the Merchants here will severally write to their respective Correspondents in England & endeavour to convince them that the Act in Question is and will be prejudicial to the Trade of Great Britain.”[7]

On January 7, 1764, Bernard wrote to Richard Jackson.

The publication of orders for the strict execution of the Melasses Act has caused a [great] alarm in this Country . . . Petitions from the trading Towns have been presented to the general Court, and a large committee of both houses is setting every day to prepare instructions for their Agent. In the Mean time the Merchants say, there is an end of the trade of this Province; that it is sacrificed to the West Indian Planters.

He went on at length that Great Britain would suffer harm.

It is certain that whatever detriment the continuation & strict execution of the Melasses Act will bring to the trade of North America (and surely more or less it will bring), it will soon come home to Great Britain. And then the British Merchants will see their imprudence in sitting still as unconcerned Spectators, whilst the West Indians are confining the Trade of this extensive & improving Country within their own narrow & unextendible Circle. For nothing is more plain than that if the exports of North America are diminisht (be it by one fourth one third or one half) her imports from Great Britain must be lessened in the same proportion.

He supported his assertions with specific data from the merchant’s memorial.

Last year were imported into this Province 15,000 hogsheads of Melasses, all of which, except less than 500 came from ports which are now foreign. The value of this at 1s. 4d. pr. gallon (which is a middling price as sold out of Merchants storehouses) is 100,000 pounds Sterling, to purchase which fish & Lumber of near the same Value must be sent from Hence. Now suppose this trade prohibited, (for a Duty of 50 percent amounts to a prohibition) the consequences must be that this province must import 100,000 pounds less of British goods.[8]

In the weeks following presentation to the General Court, the memorial was refined (principally in minorrephrasing), then printed as a pamphlet: Reasons against the renewal of the Sugar Act as it will be prejudicial to the trade, not only of the northern colonies, but to that of Great-Britain also. The body of the pamphlet was preceded by an advertisement.

The Reasons offered in the following Pages against the Renewal of the Act of Parliament, imposing a Duty on foreign Sugar and Molasses imported into the British Colonies, are founded principally on the pernicious Effect this Act will have on the Trade of the Massachusetts Province in particular, and the Detriment which will hereby accrue to the Trade and Manufactures of Great Britain.

In the only substantive change to the memorial as presented to the General Court, the ending of the pamphlet was expanded by preceding the final paragraph with a summary of the reasons against renewal.

Upon the whole, it is evident that the renewal of this act, will be followed by the most pernicious consequences. Instead of encreasing, it will sink the king’s revenue. It will weaken the naval power of Great Britain, by destroying our fishery, that great nursery of British seamen, and at the same time, it will strengthen the marine of France, by encouraging the French fishery. It will be highly prejudicial to the trade of Britain, and even destructive to that of these colonies: for our islands are able neither to supply us . . . [and so on, as in the memorial].[9]

On February 10, the merchants sent two hundred and fifty copies of the pamphlet to their counterparts in London. The pamphlet also was sent to other towns in Massachusetts and to neighboring colonies. Local distribution drew commentary from Governor Bernard; he wrote to John Pownall on February 10, “I send you herewith some printed papers about the Melasses Act; the stitchd piece is the produce of this Town, but, tho containing a good deal of matter, it’s not in my opinion very judiciously handled.”[10]

Nature of the Protests

The protest from Massachusetts addressed only economic considerations; it treated the Sugar Act as a regulation of trade. There was no appeal to constitutional issues, no complaint that American rights were violated, no claim that Parliament lacked authority to levy such duties. Nor was there any such constitutional discussion in the later writings from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. James Otis explained the American attitude.

The act of the 6th of his late Majesty, tho’ 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 thro’ the dominions when they think the good of the whole requires it.[11]

British philosopher and 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.[12]

There was, however, some recognition that the act might be a precedent for later taxation. Cushing wrote to Mauduit late in January 1764.

The Generall Court have mett and have chose a large Committee of both Houses to consider how our Trade is affected by the Act of Parliament laying a duty upon Molasses, etc. The Committee have mett and we are preparing Instructions for you upon this matter. I find the Committee in general are of opinion that this Act is at this time put in rigorous execution in order to obtain our Consent to some Dutys being laid, but this is look’d upon of dangerous consequence as it will be conceeding to the Parliaments having a Right to Tax our trade which we can’t by any means think of admitting, as it would be contrary to a fundamentall Principall of our Constitution vizt. That all Taxes ought to originate with the people.[13]

And he wrote to Mauduit again on February 11:

Since my last the General Court have finished your Instructions relative to the Sugar Act and the Secretary forwarded you the same by the last conveyance.[14]

The instructions did not reach Mauduit in time to influence the renewal of the Sugar Act. The timing of events in London and Boston was part of the story. At this point, Mauduit had already written that renewal of the Sugar Act of 1733 was underway. In a letter of December 30, 1763—the letter being in transit in early February 1764—he explained about reduction of the molasses duty.

This scheme is resumed, and the quantum of the duty is to be one of the first things considered immediately of the meeting of the parliament. All agree that a practicable duty should be laid, and the payment of it enforced. To attempt to controvert either of these would be to no manner of purpose.[15]

So the instructions to oppose the duties on a constitutional basis were on the way to Mauduit at the same time the letter informing his employers of the futility of such opposition was on its way to Massachusetts.

An Essay on the Trade of the Northern Colonies

The Providence Gazette, on January 14, published an anonymous essay laying out the harmful effect of the Sugar Act on the economy of the northern colonies: An Essay on the Trade of the Northern Colonies.

The commerce of the British northern colonies in America is so peculiarly circumstanced, and from permanent causes, so perplexed and embarrassed, that it is a business of great difficulty to investigate it, and put it in any tolerable point of light.
That which most particularly and unhappily distinguishes most of these northern British colonies from all others, either British or any other nation, is that the soil and climate of them is incapable of producing almost anything which will serve to send directly home to the mother country.

In addition, “their situation and circumstances are such as to be obliged to take off, and consume [great] quantities of British Manufactures.” Having almost nothing to directly trade, purchases from Great Britain had to be made with specie. The consequence was: “Unable to make remittances in a direct way, they are obliged to do it by a circuity of commerce unpracticed by and unnecessary in any other colony.” When they could sell products for specie, they had to be satisfied to “procure such things in return as may [require] several commercial exchanges to make a remittance home.” Exports started with fish from the northernmost colonies.

[The fish] that are called merchantable are sent directly to Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and there sold for money or bills of exchange, which are sent directly to England. . . . A considerable part of the fish yet remaining, which is unfit for the European markets, serves for feeding the slaves in the West Indies; as much of this is sold in the English islands as they will purchase, and the residue sold in the French and Dutch Colonies, and in the end is turned into a remittance home.[16]

“The colonies next to the southward” relied on the circuity of commerce to transform exports into molasses, molasses into rum, and eventually into specie.

Lumber, horses, pork, beef . . . [are] sold to the French and Dutch for molasses; this molasses is brought into these colonies, and there distilled into rum, which is sent to the coast of Africa, and there sold for gold, ivory, and slaves: the two first of these are sent directly home; the slaves are carried to the English West-Indies and sold for money or bills of exchange, which are also remitted to England.[17]

None of the trade was “detrimental to the true interests of Great Britain, or in any degree injurious to the British sugar colonies.” Such trade, “we reasonably expect will be totally prohibited.” The essay provided a specific example of a “supposed injury” to the British planters, that the foreign trade raised “the price of northern produce” or lowered “the price of their own.”

[But, all] that is proposed and aimed at by the northern colonies, in this trade with the French and Dutch, is to put off their own produce for money or melasses, neither of which the British sugar colonies have to spare.

In fact, the British sugar islands were

constantly supplied with every sort of northern produce at fifty per cent less than the same kinds of goods are sold for to the French and Dutch, when at the same time every thing purchased in these English marketscosts fifty per cent more than the same articles are bought for amongst the French and Dutch.

After further general discussion of the commerce of the northern colonies—along the way disparaging “the rich, proud, and overbearing planters of the West Indies”—the essay returned to the specific issue of the Sugar Act.

The last point to be considered is the consequences that must follow upon the limitation, restriction, or absolute prohibition of this Northern commerce. And here, if we consult experience, the surest guide to right reasoning on such subjects, we shall find, that the act of the 6th of George the Second, commonly called the Sugar Act, laying so high a duty on all foreign sugar, melasses, and rum imported into the British plantations, as amounts, in effect, to a prohibition, hath never in any degree increased the royal revenue, or brought any other real advantage to the mother country; Neither hath it been at all more beneficial to the British sugar colonies, at whose instance it was procured.

A high duty invited corruption.

But altho’ no salutary consequences have any where followed this act, yet many and great mischiefs and disadvantages, as well as corrupt and scandalous practices, have flowed from it in all the English colonies: The merchants, unwilling to quit a trade which was in a great measure the foundation of their whole circle of commerce, have gone into many illicit methods to cover them in still carrying it on; while the custom-house officers have made a very lucrative jobb of shutting their eyes, or at least of opening them no farther than their own private interest required.

And it reduced revenue.

[The duties are] vastly greater than the trade itself can possibly bear. . . . And if the design of the British legislature was, by this act, to increase the king’s revenue, and not prohibit the trade, [the duty should have been] instead of sixpence for every gallon of melasses . . . a halfpenny upon each gallon. . . . As the trade might have borne such a duty it would have been chearfully paid by the merchants, and would even at this rate, produce a far greater revenue yearly to the crown than has ever yet been paid by all the continent in America.

Loss of revenue would lead to loss of jobs.

It requires no great share of sagacity to perceive that all the affairs of these colonies must put on a very gloomy appearance, when twenty thousand seamen and fishermen are turned out of employ; when the shipping they used to navigate and improve are all hauled up and laid by as useless.

And it would reduce imports from Great Britain.

It may be depended on as an axiom, that nothing limits the consumption of British manufactures in the northern colonies, but the people’s ability to pay for them; and that whatever lessens that ability will in the same proportion lessen the consumption.

The essay wrapped things up on a high note, advising that the colonies not evade the law, and instead initiate united action appealing to the wonderful British government. “All the colonies concerned ought to unite, and appoint proper persons, who may prepare a true state of the commerce of these colonies.” Such a “proper application to the British legislature” should be “sent to their several agents,” laid before the Board of Trade, and eventually brought before Parliament.

If their cause be good, as most certainly it is, what have they to fear from such a procedure? Or rather, what have they not to hope from such an application and appeal to a king who delights in doing good to all his subjects; to a peerage, wise, and accurate, guided by the principles of honor and beneficence; and a representative body, penetrating and prudent, who consider the good of the whole, and make that the measure of their public resolves.[18]

Published anonymously, it later became known that Gov. Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island was the author. The essay was reprinted by newspapers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and later published as a pamphlet in London. The June 1764 issue of the London Monthly Review was complimentary. “The subject of this Essay is of a very interesting nature, and treated in a masterly and judicious manner by one who appears to be perfectly well acquainted with it.” And after a summary, stated that the essay “well deserves the candid Reader’s attentive perusal.”[19]

(to be continued)


[1]Andrews, “Boston Merchants,” 19: 166. The memorial contains substantial data regarding trade with the West Indies and the implications of its restriction. I omit such detail, condensing only the textual assertions and conclusions.

[2]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts: 1763-1764 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1970), 40: 132.

[3]Jack Sosin disagrees. “This last contention was not true, as events later proved, but for the present the merchants persuaded the various New England legislatures to adopt their arguments and support their cause.” He is at sharp odds with the entire economic argument of the Americans. Jack M. Sosin, Agents and Merchants: British Colonial Policy and the Origins of the American Revolution, 1763-1775 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 42-49 (quotation, 43n). Although the idea “that it will not bear any Duty at all” was echoed by other colonies, as a practical matter it was understood that a low molasses duty would be acceptable, would not interfere with trade to the foreign islands; it would be offset by saving the expense of smuggling or bribery.

[4]Lawrence Henry Gipson disputes this effect of the sixpence duty. The assertion that a price increase could not be passed on to the rum customer “has an air of utter unreality.” Gipson, Triumphant Empire: Thunder-Clouds Gather, 10: 221.

[5]As appalling as was the slavery in the West Indies, the slave trade and treatment of slaves must be addressed as an integral part of eighteenth century commerce.“Slavery is of course fundamental to the history of the eighteenth-century West Indies.” The islands’ wealth was based on, “the ruthless exploitation of a labour force of some half a million enslaved Africans and their constant replenishment by new imports.” P. J. Marshall, Edmund Burke and the British Empire in the West Indies: Wealth, Power, and Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 2.

[6]Charles M. Andrews, “State of the Trade, 1763,”Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Transactions, 1916-1917 (Boston, 1918), 19:379-90 (quotations, 382-90).This memorial, and all the later reasons against the renewal from other colonies, were to some extent simply bits of puffery, exaggerating the likely effect of the high tariff on molasses.

[7]Ibid., 19: 380-81.

[8]Colin Nicolson, ed., The Papers of Francis Bernard: Governor of Colonial Massachusetts, 1760-69, Volume II: 1764-1765 (Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2012), 81: 29.

[9]Reasons against the renewal of the Sugar Actas it will be prejudicial to the trade, not only of the northern colonies, but to that of Great-Britain also. Province of the Massachusetts-Bay (Boston: Printed for Thomas Leverett in Cornhill, 1764).

[10]Nicolson, ed., Papers of Francis Bernard, 81: 52-53.

[11]James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764), 62.

[12]Richard Price, Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America (London: Printed for T. Cadell, 1776), 25.

[13]Jasper Mauduit: Agent in London, 74: 145-46.

[14]Ibid., 74: 146-49. In this same letter, Cushing made this early mention of stamp duties. “I hope you will be able to gett the affair relative to Duties upon Molasses settled this winter. . . . It has been suggested that the Ministry will attempt to obtain a stampt Act laying a duty upon all writings in the Colonies. I doubt not you will oppose strenuously such an attempt with all other Projects of the like nature.”

[15]Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the Year 1798 (Boston: The Society, 1798), 6: 193.

[16]Although casual acceptance of the use of inferior food for the feeding of African slaves was common, an occasional contemporary tract decried such treatment. “The negroes in our colonies endure a slavery more compleat, and attended with far worse circumstances, than what any people in their condition suffer in any other part of the world, or have suffered in any other period of time. Proofs of this are not wanting. The prodigious waste which we experience in this unhappy part of our species is a full and melancholy evidence of this truth.” Edmund Burke and William Burke, An account of the European settlements in America (London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall., 1757), 2: 120.

[17]An argument can be made that the American protests overstate the importance of trade to Africa. New England rum “was produced primarily for domestic consumption, not as part of a ‘triangle trade’ in exchange for slaves in Africa.” Gilman M. Ostrander, “The Colonial Molasses Trade,” Agricultural History 30, no. 2 (1956): 77-84 (quotation, 84).

[18]Providence Gazette, January 14 and 21. The essay also appeared in the Newport Mercury, February 6 and 13, as reprinted in Merrill Jensen, ed., Tracts of the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), 3-18.

[19]Monthly Review, or Literary Journal (London: Printed for R. Griffiths, at the Dunciad in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1764), 30: 464-66.

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