What is the Sugar Act of 1764? - Definition, Summary & Facts

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  • 0:00 Coming Up Short
  • 0:52 The Background
  • 2:32 Victory Has Consequences
  • 3:46 The Sugar Act
  • 6:09 American Reaction
  • 7:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
In this lesson, we'll be looking at the Sugar Act of 1764, which helped move the American colonies closer to revolution and independence. You'll learn about this transition along with other interesting facts and then you'll be able to test your new knowledge with a quiz!

Coming up Short

Imagine you are in charge of your household budget, and you realize you are going to come up a little short this month. What are your options? Well, you can either cut how much you're spending (start carpooling instead of spending money on gas, for instance), or you can increase how much you're bringing in (maybe by asking for a raise).

If it makes you feel better, governments have the same troubles as you and often must cut spending or raise revenue , which is money coming in. And just like you, there are costs to everything, whether it's as simple as a loss of services everyone likes or needs, or as potentially damaging as long-term anger and disappointment.

The Sugar Act of 1764 is the story of one government's decision to raise revenue, in a manner it thought was pretty simple and straightforward--and the gigantic mess that the effort eventually caused.

The Background

In 1764, Great Britain was triumphant. It had just concluded the Treaty of Paris the previous year, an agreement with its traditional enemy, France. The Treaty of Paris had ended the lengthy, destructive The Seven Years' War, although it is better known in America as The French and Indian War because the British were fighting the French and their Native American allies. The American role in this war is important, but first, a little background.

There are many complex reasons for why the Seven Years' War began, but for our purposes, it is important to know the war was a continuation of another war, the War of the Austrian Succession, which happened in1740 to1748. It involved a number of European powers--including Great Britain and France--duking it out for global supremacy. Both nations had extensive overseas empires, and the war was about who would control the most colonies and trade routes around the globe.

The short version of this war goes as follows: from 1756 until around 1761, France was dominant. After several reversals in the field and a few different versions of government, the British turned things around and emerged victorious by 1763. The settlement at the Treaty of Paris was fairly simple, too: everything stayed the same in Europe, territorially speaking--but in North America, everything changed. France gave up its colonial possession, New France (but not Louisiana) to Great Britain, which also got Florida from Spain. The takeaway from all this, is that Britain won a smashing victory and nearly doubled the size of its colonial holdings.

So this is a cause for celebration, right? Well, of course, but, as with many things in history, there is a dark cloud behind that silver lining.

British territory in North America after the Treaty of Paris, 1763
Treaty of Paris

Victory has Consequences

After the glow of victory began to subside, the British government faced a few new problems:

1) Debt: Britain had won the war in part by going deeply--very deeply--in debt. Prior to the war, Great Britain had a debt of around 75 million pounds, which grew to around 130 million by 1764.

2) Territorial obligations: Just because Britain had won all this new territory in North America didn't mean all its problems were solved; in fact, they were just beginning. New land had to be protected--and even though France had departed, its Native American allies hadn't, and they were still likely to attack settlements on the frontier.

3) Relations with the colonials: American colonists had fought right alongside their British cousins in the late war, but it hadn't gone all that smoothly. The British Army thought very little of the colonial militia, finding them cranky, argumentative, and not very keen to fight. Americans, on the other hand, found the British annoyingly superior, arrogant, and unwilling to listen to people who had grown up in the places they were now fighting. The increased tensions between the two sides were going to play a major role in what happened next.

The Sugar Act

The British government now faced the issue described earlier--cut spending or raise revenue. The economy, after the war, was going through a standard contraction (less war means less spending, which means the loss of jobs and wages), so cutting spending wasn't a good option. The government decided to raise revenue--but on what? And on whom?

The average British subject, in England, had a fairly high tax burden already; and colonial subjects, though technically 'Englishmen,' didn't really pay taxes at all. Now, colonists would argue that they already paid plenty to the Empire, but in a different manner--their relationship with Great Britain was built around mercantilism, which was the policy by which colonies shipped raw materials to the home nation, which produced finished products from those materials and sold them, often, right back to the colonies. Americans would argue that, since they were required by law to buy British goods and no one else's, they were doing their part for the Empire's financial well being.

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