In 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act, with the goal of raising 100,000 pounds, an amount equal to one-fifth of the military expenses in North America. The Sugar Act signaled the end of colonial exemption from revenue-raising taxation. Previous acts, such as the long-standing Navigation Acts, had been passed as protectionist measures, regulating trade to boost the economy of the British Empire as a whole. Under the Navigation Acts, taxes were paid by British importers alone, rather than the colonists, and brought in just 1,800 pounds in 1763, compared with a cost of 8,000 pounds just to enforce the acts.
The Sugar Act lowered the duty on foreign-produced molasses from six pence per gallon to 3 pence per gallon, in attempts to discourage smuggling. The act further stipulated that Americans could export many commodities, including lumber, iron, skins, and whalebone, to foreign countries, only if they passed through British ports first. The act also placed a heavy tax on formerly duty- free Madeira wine from Portugal.
The Sugar Act complicated trade for American shippers by requiring them to fill out a number of confusing forms in order to legalize their shipments. If even the smallest technicality was not attended to, ships' captains could have their entire cargo seized. Further, the act could be employed in some cases regarding local trade along the east coast, and in many cases put unrealistic restrictions on this trade.
In addition to a restriction of trade, many colonists felt the Sugar Act constituted a restriction of justice. The act allowed customs officials to transfer smuggling cases from colonial courts with juries to juryless vice- admiralty courts in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Until 1768, vice-admiralty judges were awarded five percent of all confiscated cargo and ships, a clear incentive to come to a guilty verdict. The vice-admiralty courts also reversed traditional judicial ideology, by burdening the defendant with the task of disproving the charge of smuggling rather than assuming innocence until guilt was proven.
British Prime Minister George Grenville ordered the navy to enforce the Sugar Act, and it did so vigorously. Still colonists continued to smuggle molasses until 1766, when the duty on foreign molasses was lowered to one penny. The Sugar Act provided the British treasury with about 30,000 pounds per year between 1766 and 1775, a substantial source of income.
Nine provincial legislatures in America protested the passage of the Sugar Act, but seven of these objected on narrow grounds. Though many colonists objected to the act's revenue-raising taxation and regulation, opposition was minor, due to a lack of organization and the hesitancy of the legislatures to take a stand against Parliament.
The Sugar Act was one of the first tangible signs of Britain's intent to gain tighter control over colonial trade. Parliament predicted that if shippers had to stop at British ports en route to other destinations they would be more likely to purchase imperial goods to bring back with them to the colonies, and thus boost Britain's flailing economy. Parliament imagined it could further collect a great amount in revenue and discourage smuggling by lowering the duties. Parliamentary leaders reasoned that with the duty set at three pence, colonists would be less likely to smuggle than they had been when the duty was six pence, and thus more likely to pay, leading to a higher income for the British treasury. However, American smugglers had grown accustomed to paying one and a half pence per gallon of molasses to customs agents to look the other way, and continued this practice until 1776, when the duty was lowered to a penny, less than the amount smugglers had been paying in bribes. Meanwhile, the high tax on imported Madeira wine from the Azores and other Portuguese territories created a smuggling operation where none had existed before. Importing duty-free Portuguese wine had been a lucrative business for importers up until the passing of the Sugar Act, and they would not let it go easily.
The Sugar Act was another step in the direction of a strong British hand in colonial life. To the colonists, greater regulation of trade was not simply an economically restricting measure, but one which expanded the sphere of British involvement in the everyday activities of the colonists. The Sugar Act provided additional instances in which the writs of assistance might be employed. Further, the clause requiring shipping of many commodities through Britain struck many colonists as a symbol of Parliament's desire to strengthen both economic and governmental ties with the colonies while they strove to be free from British involvement.
Moreover, the Sugar Act seemed to many, in its methods of enforcement and adjudication, another defiance of the rights of Englishmen, namely, the right to a fair trial in front of a jury of one's peers. Not only did the Sugar Act provide for the relocation of trials from the colonies to Halifax, Nova Scotia, far from the setting in which infractions had taken place, it also allowed trials without a jury, in which the judge had a clear incentive to convict and the defendant was assumed to be guilty. This outraged many colonial leaders. However, most colonists were hesitant to claim that the Sugar Act was unconstitutional, because it seemed to be merely an amendment of the Molasses Act of 1733. Additionally, the tax burden fell most heavily upon Massachusetts New York, and Pennsylvania. While other colonies agreed that the Sugar Act was undesirable, they had less of an incentive to take a strong stand against Parliament, and organized opposition was never mounted.