The Sugar Act and the American Revolution


April 10, 2023
by John Gilbert McCurdy Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sugar Act and the American Revolution by Ken Shumate (Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2023)

In the leadup to the Revolution, several Parliamentary laws evoked the enmity of Americans and pushed them to declare independence. Usually the Stamp Act, Townshend duties, and Tea Act tower over the other laws as they elicited the most dramatic responses. Yet the lesser known laws are also worthy of our attention, and as Ken Shumate demonstrates, they can offer a refreshingly new perspective on the creation of the United States.

The Sugar Act and the American Revolution is an in-depth examination of the 1764 Parliamentary law. Like other books by Shumate, Sugar Act is tightly focused. It quotes liberally from the law itself as well as from pamphlets and letters of the ministers and merchants who interacted with the law. The result is an enjoyable exploration of eighteenth-century Anglo-American rhetoric and politics.

The Sugar Act often plays a supporting role in the story of the American Revolution. To wit, probably the most thorough analysis of the law to date is The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution by Edmund and Helen Morgan. Shumate corrects this by focusing on the 1764 act, its antecedents, and successors. In so doing, he reveals that “the story of the Sugar Act is one of the longest, most complex stories of the American Revolution” (page vii).

In the early 1730s, planters in the British West Indies complained to Parliament that American colonists were ruining their livelihoods by importing sugar and its byproduct molasses (which was distilled into rum) from foreign sources. The planters demanded that Parliament halt the colonial trade and ban the importation of sugar products into North America. When such a draconian response failed, Parliament passed the Molasses Act of 1733. This placed duties on foreign sugar, rum, molasses, and syrups imported to the American colonies.

Shumate notes that the Molasses Act of 1733 “was the first act of Parliament dealing with America” which used the language of a revenue act “to serve as regulation of trade” (p. 3). Since the West Indian planters could not prohibit Americans from importing foreign sugars, they had Parliament make it cost prohibitive to do so. Although this should have raised constitutional questions, “the duty never did much to restrict American commerce” as the colonists simply ignored the Molasses Act (p. 14).

Following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, the moribund law garnered interest on the part of British ministers looking for new revenue and a way to bind the colonies to the mother country. Prime minister George Grenville laid out new methods for enforcing the law and signaled that he would be updating it to make it more effective. Merchants and politicians in New England and New York dispatched petitions to Parliament to halt the change, but none made it to Westminster in time. More importantly, “none of the protests made an appeal to constitutional issues” (p. 37).

In March 1764, Grenville began the process of revising the Molasses Act. He calculated that if the existing six pence duty on molasses were cut in half, it would prompt Americans to pay it willingly while still generating enough revenue to pay for the ten thousand British soldiers in North America. A month later, the act called 4 Geo. III c. 15 was given the royal assent and a host of new duties were laid on American imports. At this point, Shumate describes the long and complicated law, detailing the new taxes that were placed on foreign sugars, coffee, wine, and molasses, and how the importation of foreign rum was prohibited. Merchants were required to obtain bonds on each shipment and all goods had to be unloaded and inspected to ensure compliance with the law. The Royal Navy tasked with enforcing the Sugar Act and suspected offenders were adjudicated by vice admiralty courts that sat without a jury.

Shumate’s careful account of the Sugar Act offers fresh insight on the law. Although the Sugar Act required all duties to be paid in hard currency, the intent was not to drain the colonies of specie. Instead, the money collected was to pay British troops in America and thus gold and silver would remain in the colonies. Second, although the Sugar Act “was genuinely enacted for — and stated as having the purpose of — raising revenue,” the colonial response was muted (p. 84). American merchants complained about the cost, but they made few constitutional arguments against it. In large part, this was because the Americans’ response to the Stamp Act of 1765 eclipsed their complaints about the Sugar Act. As Benjamin Franklin and other nascent Patriots insisted on the distinction between internal and external taxes, their arguments against taxation without representation implicitly acknowledged that the Sugar Act was merely a means of regulating trade and thus perfectly constitutional.

Often the Sugar Act falls out of the narrative once the Stamp Act protests begin, but Shumate explores what happened next. In early 1766, as Parliament sought to tamp down on colonial unrest and boycotts, the Rockingham ministry worked to reform colonial trade laws. With respect to the Sugar Act, Parliament voted to reduce the duty on molasses to one penny, confident that this would appease the colonists and still bring in a considerable amount of revenue. However, the Sugar Act of 1766 also changed the focus from foreign molasses to allsugar products imported into the colonies. This made the Parliament’s intent crystal clear. “The duty on foreign molasses — previously wearing the fig leaf of a preferential tariff — lost its status as a trade regulation”; now, the Sugar Act was “simply a tax” (p. 120).

Although strict enforcement actually increased with the 1766 revision, the Americans raised few objections to the Sugar Act. Instead, between 1768 and 1772, the law brought in nearly £165,000 from duties on molasses, sugar, madeira, and other goods. But taxing British sugars did little to stem the tide of foreign products as 97 percent of the four million gallons of molasses that came into America derived from foreign sources.

Colonial ambivalence toward the Sugar Act continued despite the Townshend duties of 1767. Although Boston merchants demanded that no British goods would be imported until all taxes were repealed — including the Sugar Act — resistance from merchants in Philadelphia and New York forced them to drop this demand. Indeed, it was not until after the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the Coercive Acts of 1774 that Americans turned against the Sugar Act. Yet even when the First Continental Congress demanded the repeal of the Sugar Act, it reiterated the colonists’ acquiescence to “parliamentary regulation to external commerce” (p. 161).

The Sugar Act and the American Revolution is a welcome addition to the scholarship of the American Revolution because of the ways it complicates our understanding of the coming of independence. Its detailed discussion of the law, nuanced depiction of the colonial response to it, and sincere effort to place one act in a larger context are notable strengths.

The book also leaves you wanting more. Because Shumate focuses on the political and rhetorical aspects of the Sugar Act, there is little room to explore how the law affected Americans’ lives and how it was understood by them. I also wondered about how British trade regulations of sugar related to French and Spanish efforts to control trade within an Atlantic world. Yet anyone wanting to take a fresh look at something that is usually glossed over in the coming of the American Revolution will find much to enjoy in this book.

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