Sugar Act of 1764 | Summary, Effects, Facts, Reaction


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    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      The Sugar Act of 1764 was a law passed by the British parliament on the Thirteen Colonies. The act imposed stricter trade controls and updated tax rules, making it harder for colonial traders to turn a profit on goods such as molasses and rum.

      In this guide, we’ve summarised the Sugar Act. We’ve also explained how this law worked, and how people in the colonies reacted to its implementation.


      In 1763, the Seven Years’ War ended in British victory.

      Although they won the war, the conflict was very expensive for the British. It involved maintaining their army overseas across multiple continents, which resulted in a huge increase in the national debt.

      To repay their war debt, the British decided to try and raise taxation revenue in the Thirteen Colonies.

      On April 5 1764, the British parliament passed the Sugar Act, which replaced the existing Molasses Act of 1733.

      Under the Sugar Act:

      • New taxes were implemented on imports of refined sugar, wine, coffee, and other goods.
      • Sweeping changes were made to colonial import and export controls, making it much harder to evade taxes on imported goods. For example, ship captains had to maintain a detailed log of their boat’s cargo, and a ship’s cargo could be seized by the British if they did not follow customs rules.
      • Anyone who violated the new rules could be tried by a judge in a British-controlled court, rather than being tried by a jury in a local court. Before the Sugar Act, colonial juries tended to let smugglers off with relatively light punishments.
      • The tax on molasses (used to make rum, and sweeten food) was reduced from six pence per gallon to three pence per gallon.

      The language of the Sugar Act stated that it was specifically designed to raise revenue for Britain. Therefore, it may seem a bit strange that the rate of tax on molasses was cut in half.

      At the previous rate, the tax was considered unreasonably high, and was rarely collected. Instead of following the regular process of buying from British traders, molasses was imported from cheaper sources, such as the Dutch and Spanish West Indies, despite the difficulty in doing this compared to buying from the British.

      Often, foreign molasses was smuggled in illegally, and the tax was avoided completely.

      The British thought that by reducing the tax, they could raise more revenue by discouraging smuggling, and also sell more molasses from their colonies in the West Indies.

      Effect of the Sugar Act

      Before the introduction of the Sugar Act, many in the colonies made a living by importing foreign goods, such as refined sugar or molasses.

      After the Sugar Act introduced stricter import rules, molasses smuggling still occurred, but it was much more risky, thanks to the tighter enforcement of the law and harsher punishments on those who broke it.

      By cutting off access to cheap foreign molasses and sugar, the British made things very difficult for rum distillers, who were mostly based in New England. This had a knock-on effect on the New England economy more broadly, especially its ports, which began exporting less and less rum.

      The Sugar Act also hurt other merchants, thanks to the new taxes levied on products such as coffee, and the increased difficulty of getting goods through customs and into the Thirteen Colonies.

      Colonial reaction

      Politicians such as Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr. spoke out against the Sugar Act, labeling it an infringement of colonists’ rights.

      Also, merchants in New England and Boston organized protests and boycotts of British imported goods.

      Ordinary people were upset by the Sugar Act as well. It made rum and other goods more expensive, at a time when most of the Thirteen Colonies were in an economic downturn after the Seven Years’ War ended.

      However, there were no widespread protests or unrest in response to the Sugar Act. For the most part, it was considered a reasonable measure to reduce smuggling and clamp down on illegal trading.

      Importantly, the Sugar Act did not introduce new taxes on consumers – the new regulations were mostly indirect taxes that affected merchants. As a result, the Sugar Act did not attract widespread criticism from the citizens of the Thirteen Colonies.

      Only a year later, when the Stamp Act was implemented, did widespread resistance to the British government begin in America.


      The Stamp Act was unsuccessful in raising revenue for the British.

      Apart from the discontent among merchants it caused, the new rules made colonial traders less profitable, and disrupted trade, affecting the British economy. The legislation was also very expensive to enforce.

      The Sugar Act was repealed on June 6 1766, and simultaneously replaced with the Revenue Act of 1766.

      The change reduced the tax on molasses to one penny per gallon, and some of the customs enforcement measures were also relaxed.

      Facts about the Sugar Act

      • The official name of the Sugar Act was the American Revenue Act of 1764.
      • The Sugar Act was also known unofficially as the Plantation Act.
      • The Sugar Act was drafted by the British Prime Minister at the time, George Grenville.
      • While the Sugar Act did not lead to widespread discontent, it was the first in a series of new British laws that caused significant unrest in the colonies, eventually leading to the American Revolution.
      • The Sugar Act mostly had the opposite effect than intended – it disrupted colonial trade with the British, and failed to increase taxation revenue.
      • Molasses is a thick, dark, sticky substance, made from refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. The sugarcane is crushed to extract its juice, which is then boiled down to remove sugar crystals, leaving behind molasses. In the 1800s, molasses was primarily used to make rum.
      • Often, rum made from molasses was exported to Africa in exchange for slaves.

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