The Sugar Act of 1764 was the first law enacted after the French and Indian War intended to help restock Great Britain’s coffers. It was passed 5 April 1764 and went into effect 29 September 1764.
It was an update to the Molasses Act of 1733, which charged a six pence per gallon tax on any molasses imported from non-British colonies.
The Sugar Act reduced the tax on molasses from six pence to three pence per gallon. That sounds good on its face, but the problem was this new tax would be strictly enforced, whereas the Molasses Act had not been, thanks to a policy referred to as Salutary Neglect. (Basically, that just meant the tax on imports wasn’t strictly enforced and Great Britain looked the other way while her young colonies attempted to find their feet and prosper.) Additionally, the Sugar Act also listed other foreign goods that would be taxed including:
- certain types of wines
- certain types of fabric (such as printed calico and cambric, a plain cotton or linen)
The export of materials such as lumber and iron were also regulated by the Sugar Act.
The impact of this new law affected the colonies in various ways, not the least of which was it led to a decrease in the production of rum in America. This was a huge problem, because rum was wildly popular in those days. The nation’s first president even learned early in his political career that free-flowing booze was an asset to a successful campaign. In his book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent writes:
“When twenty-four-year-old George Washington first ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he attributed his defeat to his failure to provide enough alcohol for the voters. When he tried again two years later, Washington floated into office partly on the 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer his election agent handed out—roughly half a gallon for every vote he received.”
The Sugar Act was repealed in 1766.