A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Rowe's Revolution

"Was much out of order today occasioned by the Distress the Town is in, occasioned principally by the failure of Mr Wheelwright. Was sent for this forenoon on My Friend Jos. Scot's affairs. He seemed greatly distressed. Was sent for by Sheriff Greenleaf on John Scollay's affairs. Did not go to Church, my mind too much disturbed."

Diary of John Rowe,
20 January 1765

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The Sugar Act

Introduction

In 1760, twenty-two-year-old monarch George III ascended the throne of England. 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, Grenville devises an act with teeth. 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 just as Grenville and Parliament throw another punch. Henceforth, provincial governments are not allowed to issue their own paper currency. Since the colonists import (buy) more goods than they export (sell), British pounds sterling, the coin of the realm, are inexorably drawn back to the motherland. Given colonists' sinking credit, sinking fortunes bottom out. Colonial merchants complain, "Our Trade Is Most Grieviously Embarrassed," entreating their English friends and partners to take notice.

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."

After the the Sugar Act goes into effect, Boston representative Thomas Cushing angrily writes Jasper Mauduit, Massachusetts' Parliamentary agent. The Assembly's petition to the king, Cushing complains, has been watered down by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the legislature's upper house. Cushing directs Maudit to James Otis's Rights of the Colonies Asserted and Proved for a clear and direct statement of the "exclusive Right of the People."

The colonies are poised for the drama's next act. The cursed stamps are, gossip has it, bound for the colonies.