“The Right of Making Such a Law, Has Never Been Questioned:” Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act, Part 3 of 3

Prewar Politics (<1775)

June 18, 2020
by Ken Shumate Also by this Author


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Remonstrance Against the Renewal

Rhode Island merchants, prompted by the January letter from Boston merchants, requested that Governor Hopkins call a special meeting of the General Assembly. The merchants needed little prompting; they had already drafted preliminary essays explaining the economic problems caused by the Sugar Act. In fact, newspapers had for months been full of news and opinions about the enforcement of the laws of trade, and what action should be taken:“There can be no Doubt that upon a proper Representation to his Majesty and his Ministry, we shall have every just Cause of Complaint removed, and be allowed all the Advantages in Trade that we could reasonably ask.”[1]

Warrants for calling the General Assembly were issued by January 13, to meet on January 24. The purpose of the meeting was characterized as: “to give our Agent Instructions to Join with Those of the other Colonys to Lay a State of the Trade of These Northern Colonys before the Parliament, and to prevent if Possable the Continuance of the Sugar Act.”[2] Between the call for the meeting and its convening, a committee of merchants prepared a remonstrance against the renewal. It was presented on January 26 and, approved by the General Assembly, became the first American legislative protest against renewal of the Sugar Act of 1733. The remonstrance was directed to the Board of Trade: “To the Right Honorable the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations,” from “the Governor and Company of the English colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

Humbly show:
That the act passed in the sixth year of the reign of His late Majesty George II, commonly called the sugar act, being to expire at the end of the present session of Parliament;and as the same, if continued, may be highly injurious and detrimental to all His Majesty’s North American colonies in general, and to this colony in particular, the said Governor and Company presume to offer some considerations drawn from the particular state and circumstances of said colony, against the renewal of said act.

The remonstrance explained that the colony produced little to trade directly to the mother country. Nonetheless, the colony annually required British manufactures in the “amount at least to £120,000 Sterling.” The goods available for export “will answer at no market but in the West Indies.”

It necessarily follows that the trade thither must be the foundation of all our commerce; and it is undoubtedly true, that solely from the prosecution of this trade with the other branches that are pursued in consequence of it, arises the ability to pay for such quantities of British goods.

The result of trade with the foreign islands was the “import into this colony about fourteen thousand hogsheads of molasses.” But much less from the British islands, “a quantity not exceeding twenty-five hundred hogsheads.” Molasses was central to the economy of the colony; it “serves as an engine in the hands of the merchant to effect the great purpose of paying for British manufactures.” Part of the molasses was traded to other colonies; “the remainder (besides what is consumed by the inhabitants) is distilled into rum, and exported to the coast of Africa.”

This little colony, only, for more than thirty years past, have annually sent about eighteen sail of vessels to the coast, which have carried about eighteen hundred hogsheads of rum, together with a small quantity of provisions and some other articles, which have been sold for slaves, gold dust, elephants’ teeth, camwood, &c. The slaves have been sold in the English islands, in Carolina, and Virginia, for bills of exchange, and the other articles have been sent to Europe; and by this trade alone, remittances have been made from this colony to Great Britain, to the value of about £40,000 yearly.

The current cost of molasses was the highest at which “it can be distilled into rum for exportation.”

If a duty should be laid on this article, the enhanced price may amount to a prohibition; and it may with truth be said, that there is not so large a sum of silver and gold circulating in the colony, as the duty imposed by the aforesaid act upon foreign molasses, would amount to in one year, which makes it absolutely impossible for the importers to pay it.

The northern colonies must trade with the French and Dutch to export their products.

The British West India islands are not, nor in the nature of things, ever can be able to consume the produce of the [northern] colonies; and therefore, if [the northern colonies] cannot export it (which they never can, unless they are allowed to bring molasses home) a very great part of the produce of the said colonies must be entirely lost.

There were more tales of woe:

[Distilling rum is] the main hinge upon which the trade of the colony turns, and many hundreds of persons depend immediately upon it for a subsistence. These distil houses, for want of molasses, must be shut up, to the ruin of many families, and of our trade . . . to the coast of Africa, where the French will supply the natives with brandy, as they formerly did. Two-thirds of our vessels will become useless . . . and what must very sensibly affect the present and future naval power and commerce of Great Britain, a nursery of seamen . . . will be in a manner destroyed; and as an end will be put to our commerce, the merchants cannot import any more British manufactures, nor will the people be able to pay for those they have already received.

The remonstrance ended with a direct appeal to the Board of Trade:

From the facts and arguments contained in the aforegoing representation, it is submitted to Your Lordships, whether the renewal of the said law may not, instead of answering any useful purposes, be highly injurious to the interest both of Great Britain and these northern colonies.[3]

On January 27, the General Assembly approved a letter to agent Joseph Sherwood instructing him, “to present the [Remonstrance] to the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations and take the most effectual Measures in Conjunction with the Agents of the Northern Colonies to Accomplish the Purpose intended by said Remonstrance.”[4]

Remarks on the Trade of the Colony

The Boston letter also prompted action from Connecticut merchants. As in Rhode Island, the merchants needed little prompting; even before hearing from Boston, early news of enforcement, “threw the Connecticut importers into a panic.”[5]

On January 20, the merchants presented a memorial to the General Assembly that “his Majesty has been pleased of late to Inforce the Execution of the Sugar Act,” and that it “Expires about this time & will probably be again revived unless prevented by a Seasonable remonstrance on the part of the Northern Colonies.” The merchants requested that Connecticut join with other colonies in remonstrating against enforcement and renewal of the act.

The General Assembly took no timely action, but the merchants published a pamphlet later in the month: Remarks on the Trade of the Colony.

As the Sugar Act comonly so cal’d expires this Winter, its the Interest of the Northern Colonies to use their best Endeavours to prevent its being revived.
The Trade of the Colony of Connecticut consists in Shipbuilding . . . and Exportation of Beef, Pork . . . Rum, Sugar & Molasses to [neighboring] Provinces to pay for British Manufactures bought of them for the Consumption of the Inhabitants of the Colonys and to purchase Codfish, Mackrel, and Oyle for the West India Market. Also in exporting Horses, Cattle, Sheep . . . to the English & Foreign Ports in the West Indies. And Rum distilled here to Africa to purchase Slaves for the West India Market, for all which we receive Rum, Sugar & Molasses in Return.

High import duties were a prohibition.

Should the [said] Sugar Act be reviv’d & put in full Execution, it will amount to a total prohibition of the Northern Colonies suplying any Foreign Port in the West Indies with those Articles, & the English Islands must consiquently be the only purchasers.

That was a problem. “The supply [of horses, cattle, etc.] will be vastly more than those Islands have a demand for.” And there was a broader problem:

If the Trade from the Northern Colonies to Forreign Ports in the West Indies is prohibited, no one will deny that the French will open a Trade to Missisipi and Increase their Fishery, to Supply the French as well as the Spanish Dutch & Danish West Indies.

There was a political issue:

The Number of Inhabitants in the Northern Colonies when compared to the Inhabitants of the English West India Islands, are supos’d to be in proportion as Twenty to One, & notwithstanding the great superiority of the Northern Colonies in Number, they have not One Member in the British Parliament and the West India Islands have Fifty Six. Can this difference proceed from the Poverty of the Proprietors of the Sugar Islands, or from their Affluence, which solely arises from the Produce of their Sugar Plantations.

And a financial issue:

[It is not in] the Interest of Great Brittain that an Act of Parliament should be revivd to increase the Proffits ariseing to the Proprietors of the English Sugar Islands (already greater than any Land Holders in the Kings Dominons) when the damage will be so amazeingly great to the Northern Colonies . . . that it will leave at least one half their Navigation & Seamen unimploy’d, the demand for Shipbuilding will cease, the Land Holders, & Tradesmen be discourag’d, prevent the large importation of British Manufactures, & render the Colonies unable to pay their Debts already contracted in Great Britain.[6]

Memorial in Opposition to the Renewal

New York merchants were also active in opposition to renewal of the Sugar Act. In February, they prepared a memorial in opposition to the renewal, requested that the assembly direct the agent “to go hand in hand with the other governments,” and requested that Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden forward the memorial to the Board of Trade. And they wrote to merchants in Philadelphia, explaining their actions and that they were, “heartily joining the eastern governments in soliciting a discontinuance of the most unjust of all laws, the Sugar Act.”[7]

On March 9, the lieutenant governor wrote the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, forwarding the memorial as requested.

At the desire of his Majesty’s Council of this Province and of the merchants of this place, I transmit to your Lordships a Copy of a Memorial which the Merchants have ordered their Agent to present to the House of Commons.

Colden was sympathetic to the position of the northern colonies, taking the time to “mention some reflections” and his “private sentiments,” including: “The more Trade the Colonies in North America have with the foreign Colonies, the more they consume of the British manufactures.”[8]

The New York General Assembly acted on April 20.

Alderman Livingston, in Behalf of the Merchants of the City of New-York, laid before the house, a Copy of a Memorial, drawn up by the said Merchants, in order to be presented to the Parliament of Great Britain, complaining of the Hardships the Trade of this Colony labours under, by Reason of a Statute of the sixth of his late Majesty King George the Second, commonly called the Sugar Act; and praying Relief in the Premises.
Resolved, Nemine Contradicente, That the House do approve of the said Memorial.
To the Honourable the Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses, in Parliament assembled. The Memorial of the Merchants of the City of New-York, in the Colony of New-York, in America.
Humbly Sheweth,
That the declining State of the Commerce of this and the other Northern Colonies, from the present rigorous Executions of the Statute of the sixth of his late Majesty King George the Second, called the Sugar Act, is become an Object of such serious and universal Concern that [they cannot] remain silent Spectators of the impending Ruin.

After praising the “Impartiality, Justice, and Wisdom of the British Parliament,” they expressed full confidence that Parliament would “effectually secure them an adequate Redress.” The remainder of the memorial was a lengthy representation of why such redress should be granted. “The Soil produces little or nothing that affords” the ability to pay for British manufactures, thus forcing dependence on foreign trade.

The Suppression of their Trade with the foreign Sugar Islands . . . must necessarily end not only in the utter Impoverishment of his Majesty’s Northern Colonies, and the Destruction of their Navigation, but in the grievous Detriment of the British Manufactures and Artificers, and the great Diminution of the Trade, Power, Wealth and naval Strength of Great Britain.

Reasons against renewal were advanced at great length, repeating the arguments of the other colonies; for example, “Flour, Beef, Pork, Lumber and Horses . . . [are] sold in the foreign Colonies, either for Specie, Sugar or Molasses,” the specie being remitted to Great Britain. The New York economy was dependent upon a course of trade, what Hopkins in January had called the circuity of commerce.

Sugar and Molasses have been shewn to be the very Sinews of our Commerce, and the Sources from which, in a Course of Trade, we draw the most valuable Remittances; it would therefore seem necessary that they should be imported in Quantities Sufficient to supply the various Demands of our several commercial Interchanges, as well as our own Consumption; but our Sugar Colonies are unable to afford this ample Supply, nor if they were, could they take of our Produce, which alone would capacitate us to purchase it.

The memorial ended with a long harangue rebutting past assertions of the West Indian planters.

The General Assembly took this additional action.

Ordered, That the Committee of Correspondence, direct the Agent of this Colony to give all possible Opposition to the Renewal, or Continuation, of the said Act of the sixth of his late Majesty King George the Second; and acquaint him, that this House will pay all such Expenses as may accrue by Means of the said Opposition.[9]

A Watershed Moment

The reasons advanced by the four northern colonies were the “first intercolonial movement of the pre-Revolutionary period designed to exert political pressure in England.”[10] But they failed to prevent renewal of the 1733 Sugar Act.[11] The essential arguments behind the reasons—particularly the effect of a molasses duty preventing all trade—were unpersuasive, even unbelievable.[12] The renewal, and reduction of the molasses duty, was accomplished by “An act for granting certain duties in the British colonies and plantations in America.” This act of 1764 is known in modern writing as the Sugar Act.[13] (The 1733 statute is left with the name Molasses Act.)

The fact that these reasons against renewal did not make a constitutional argument against the right of Parliament to levy duties for revenue opened the door to later British assertions that such duties were acceptable to the Americans. Charles McLean Andrews addresses this issue of acceptance of Parliament’s authority. “The vigorous protests of the New England merchants” against renewal of the act of 1733, “do not contain a single word that can be construed as a denial of the legality of the act itself.” He quotes the Rhode Island remonstrance as a specific instance.

They declared it to be “highly injurious and detrimental to all His Majesty’s North American colonies in general” and to their own colony in particular, but not once did they say that parliament had no legal right to pass such a measure.[14]

Historian Bernard Bailyn makes the point that “these statements of colonial opinion, written before the passage of the Sugar Act, are of considerable importance.”

For not only do they express the colonists’ objections to the economic reorganization of the empire, but they mark the last point at which objections to Parliamentary action affecting them could generally be voiced without reference to ideology. 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.[15]

Thomas Whately, in early 1765, took the lack of appeal to constitutional issues as justification for parliamentary taxation.

The Colonies . . . have acquiesced under several parliamentary Taxes. The 6 Geo. II. c. 13. . . . 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.

He addressed the position taken by the Americans: “These, however, it may be said, are Duties upon Imports only.” But, he argues:

It is in vain to call these only Regulations of Trade; the Trade of British Subjects may not be regulated by such Means, without the Concurrence of their Representatives. Duties laid for these Purposes, as well as for the Purposes of Revenue, are full Levies of Money upon the People.[16]

The colonies protested what they saw as exorbitant duties legitimately (if unwisely) imposed by Parliament to regulate trade; Whately interpreted such limited protest as acquiescence to parliamentary taxation. This British viewpoint led to passage of the Sugar Act of 1764 (and to later taxation).[17]

These essays and petitions appeared at a watershed moment in the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies in North America. The enforcement and renewal of the Molasses Act—that is, passage of the Sugar Act as a replacement—represented a change in British colonial policy: from commercial regulation only, to the addition of parliamentary taxation for revenue. This moment was the beginning of the end to “widespread general satisfaction with the system as it existed prior to 1764.”[18] In 1789, historian David Ramsey explained the consequences.

The sad story of colonial oppression commenced in the year 1764. Great Britain then adopted new regulations respecting her colonies, which, after disturbing the ancient harmony of the two countries for about twelve years, terminated in a dismemberment of the empire.[19]

The reasons against renewal advanced by the four northern colonies were the last statements of American opinion regarding trade restrictions before implementation of the changed British policy in 1764. And, straddling the watershed, they were also the first coordinated protests against parliamentary action at the beginning of troubles between Great Britain and America.


[1]The suggestion first appeared on October 30, 1763 in the New York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy and was reprinted a week later in the Providence Gazette. Frederick Bernays Wiener, “The Rhode Island Merchants and the Sugar Act,” The New England Quarterly 3, no. 3 (1930): 464-500 (quotation, 473-74).

[2]Ibid., 491.

[3]John Russell Bartlett, ed.,Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England: 1757-1769 (Providence: By Order of the General Assembly, 1861), 6:378-83. The remonstrance holds its own against the better-known essay by Hopkins. “The best exposition of the case of the colonies is the official petition of Rhode Island.” See George Louis Beer, British Colonial Policy: 1754-1765 (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 293.

[4]The letter was approved on January 26 by the Lower House, and later the same day amended by the Upper House to impose this condition: “Provided the Agents of the Northern Colonies that is from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire inclusive or any Three of them unite with him in the same.” Wiener, “Rhode Island Merchants,” 492-93.

[5]Lawrence Henry Gipson, Jared Ingersoll: a Study of American Loyalism in Relation to British Colonial Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1920), 112-14. Gipson also discusses the circumstances surrounding actions of the merchants.

[6]Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Vol. 18. The Fitch Papers, Volume II: January 1759-May 1766 (Hartford: The Society, 1920),18: 275-79.

[7]Andrews, “Boston Merchants,” 19: 166n. Pennsylvania played little role in the organized protest as the province was embroiled in a controversy over a proposed change in government from proprietary to royal.

[8]The Colden Letter Books, Vol. I: 1760-1765 (New York: Printed for the New York Historical Society, 1877), 9: 312-13.

[9]Journal of the Votes and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Colony of New-York. Began the 8th Day of November, 1743; and Ended the 23d of December, 1765 (New York: Published by Order of the General Assembly, 1766), 2:740-44.

[10]Bernhard Knollenberg, Origin of the American Revolution: 1759–1766 (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 148.

[11]In fact, none of these writings reached colonial agents in time to influence British decisions in early 1764. But the rationale, the argument that high duties would ruin the economy of the northern colonies, had been earlier presented to British officials. The most comprehensive statement was put forth in a tractof February 9 written by Israel Mauduit (Jasper’s brother): A Memorial to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury.“The memorial set forth at some length the importance of rum to commerce, noting that it was a chief means whereby the province obtained money to buy English goods, that molasses from the English islands was insufficient to support the rum trade, and that strict enforcement of duties on molasses would only encourage the French to become competitors in manufacturing and selling rum. [The memorial] affirmed that no more than one penny per gallon should be assessed if trade was not to be stifled.” Robert J. Taylor, “Israel Mauduit,” The New England Quarterly 24, no. 2 (1951): 208-30 (quotation, 213-14). The memorial was rejected by the Treasury on February 27.

[12]The Americans were protesting what Oliver Dickerson calls a “change of policy beginning in 1764, where the dominant motive was not regulation and development, but regulation for the sake of revenue.” Although Dickerson criticizes the change in policy as “political exploitation,” he disparages the American reasoning against renewal. Specifically critical of the memorial by Israel Mauduit, he asserts that, “His arguments, and those of the other agents, were assumptions as to how the act might work, and not statements of how it operated in practice. Probably no one, even the agents themselves, took such arguments seriously.” Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), xiv, 173.

[13]Danby Pickering, Statutes at Large(Cambridge: Printed by J. Bentham, 1764), 26:33-52 (quotation, 33). The Sugar Act of 1764 (4 George III. c. 15) was introduced to the House of Commons in March; it received the royal assent on April 5. With little debate, it amended and made perpetual the act of 1733, and clarified that the duties imposed were for the purpose of raising a revenue. As expected, it did reduce the duty on molasses; but only to three pence, a level thought still exorbitant by the Americans. The act also added strict shipping regulations and elaborate requirements to document cargo, all in order to improve enforcement of the laws of trade. As a practical matter, it was a replacement for the act of 1733. For additional background, see Allen S. Johnson, “The Passage of the Sugar Act,” The William and Mary Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1959): 507-14, and Ken Shumate, “The Sugar Act: a Brief History,” Journal of the American Revolution, September 17, 2018.

[14]Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Background of the American Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1924), 62.

[15]Bernard Bailyn, ed.,Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776: Volume I, 1750-1765 (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), 1: 358-59. He includes among the statements of colonial opinion yet another essay against renewal, the anonymous 1764 Considerations Upon the Act of Parliament Whereby a Duty is laid of six Pence Sterling per Gallon on Molasses.

[16]Thomas Whately, The Regulations Lately Made Concerning the Colonies, and the Taxes Imposed Upon Them, Considered (London: Printed for J. Wilkie, 1765), 104-105. The pamphlet was at first attributed to George Grenville, then prime minister; it was little short of an official statement of the government, serving as an explanation and defense of the actions taken by Parliament in 1764.

[17]The Parliamentary History of England, From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. AD 1753-1765 (London: Printed by T.C. Hansard, 1813), 15: 1429n-30n.

[18]Dickerson, Navigation Acts, xiii.

[19]David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (Dublin: William Jones, 1795. First published. Philadelphia, 1789), 1:39.

One thought on ““The Right of Making Such a Law, Has Never Been Questioned:” Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act, Part 3 of 3

  • Rhode Island alone sold enough rum to the other North American colonies so that every man, woman, and child (including blacks and Indians) could have a whole bottle a day. Although some of that rum was being drunk, most of it was used as a food preservative. A typical house had five barrels of rum in the larder: one for meat, one for fish, one for vegetables, one for fruit, and the fifth for flour. Yes, flour soaked in rum will become soggy (and you’re going to make it soggy in the recipe anyway) but at least it won’t be overtaken by lots of bugs. Nowhere in the article is it made clear what all this rum was used for — so, now you know!.

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