The Sugar Act

The war with France that had stretched on for years and encircled the globe finally ends in 1763. Colonists are proud of their role in defeating the French, but England is faced with a vast territory to safeguard and a soaring debt to service. The French have been banished from the mainland continent of North America, but another threat persists. In 1763, in order to avoid confrontations with Indian nations, the English ministry issues a proclamation forbidding settlement to the west of the Appalachian Mountains.

In 1764, George Grenville, First Lord of the Treasury, proposes to strengthen the mother country's hold on its American investment. Addressing the King in his declaration of intent, Grenville argues that "it is just and necessary, that a revenue be raised, in your Majesty's said dominions in America, for defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same." Working within the framework of earlier legislation regulating trade but for the first time directly imposing a tax on the colonists.

British enforcement of trade regulations has been notoriously lax, and colonial merchants have grown rich and comfortable. The new Sugar Act, they are dismayed to find, cracks down on their smuggling, intrudes upon their lucrative West Indies trade, constrains commerce in a broad range of goods, ties up their vessels at port, creates a more elaborate and more invasive customs apparatus, and sends violators to jury-less vice admiralty courts for trial. The Sugar Act, the merchants fear, will take a bite out of their profits.

The colonies have already been mired in a post-war depression. The Sugar Act worsens their trade balance.

In Boston, town meeting (the local government) carefully considers the Sugar Act and the impending Stamp Act. "We . . . declare our just expectations," Bostonians announce, as they assert their rights and advise their representatives to the Massachusetts legislature to stand firm for traditional prerogatives. Meanwhile, in New York, American patriots urge their countrymen to cast off British luxuries and set about producing their own raw materials and home manufactures. Such self-sufficiency, they insist, will empower colonists to dispel their dread and become the "richest People upon Earth."

As members of the British empire, colonists have enjoyed the fruits of its robust, far-flung trade. As a quick glance through any newspaper will show, an array of goods are on offer in colonial markets: Cadiz salt; raisins; Madeira wine; rum from Barbados and Jamaica; coffee, cocoa, and Bohea tea; French indigo; watercolors and India ink; spermaceti candles; music and instruments; shoes and bonnets; travel books, poetry, and novels.

James Otis, a Boston lawyer and Massachusetts legislator, composes a pamphlet entitled Rights of the Colonies Asserted and Proved. If the colonists are not directly represented in Parliament, he argues, then Parliament has no authority to tax them. The Massachusetts Assembly votes its approval of the pamphlet, and in October it draws up a petition to the king that makes the same case.