Sugar Act Lesson Plan
The U.S. history lessons on the Sugar Act of 1764 is an excellent segue into other lessons on the American Revolution. The Sugar Act of 1764 fueled the fire for that important battle and other legislation, such as The Stamp Act of 1765 kept the embers burning.
Students will learn how The Sugar Act of 1764 played a major role in helping the colonists gain their freedom from Great Britain.
Students will learn how battles can be fought and won without violence.
Middle and High School
For many years Britain had ruled the American colonies under the terms of an economic theory called "mercantilism." This theory advocated that a nation should export more than it imports and accumulate gold to make up the difference. The development of colonies became very attractive during this era. Wealth could be kept by a nation if its colonies provided raw materials to the mother country and the mother country could sell finished goods to the colonies.
A ready source of revenue for Britain was The Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733. It had a tax of six pence per gallon on non-British sugar and molasses imported into the North American colonies. This tax was designed to force the colonists to buy from the sugar growers in the British West Indies, rather than the less expensive sugar of the competing Spanish and French islands.
George Grenville, who was Britain's Prime Minister, decided to change its provision to help offset the debt accumulated by the French and Indian War. The result was The Sugar Act of 1764. The actual title was The American Revenue Act of 1764. This new act reduced the rate of tax on molasses from six pence to three pence per gallon. The act also listed more foreign goods to be taxed–sugar, certain wines, coffee, pimiento, cambric, and printed calico. In addition, it regulated the export of lumber and iron. He also beefed up the navy to strictly enforce the new tax.
The colonists were in general agreement that the British Parliament had the right to regulate trade for the empire and had accepted The Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733. However, for a long time they had grown tired of having to pay taxes to the British government. The Sugar Act of 1764 was not regarded as trade regulation. Its specific aim was to raise revenue. This left a bitter taste in the colonists' mouths because they were accustomed to being taxed by their own assemblies, not by a faraway Parliament that didn't represent them.
The Sugar Act of 1764 was the first internal tax that fell directly on the goods and services in the colonies. It caused immediate economic hardship. Rum distilling slumped and exports dropped. Trade was sharply reduced with ports where lumber, flour, cheese, and assorted farm products had been sold.
Although the colonist felt that their basic rights were being taken away, the law was not met with violence. Their protests were couched in constitutional rather than economic terms. James Otis, who historians have tagged the "Pre-Revolutionist," was a lawyer. He argued that they shouldn't be taxed by the Parliament because they had no say in the Parliament. For more insight into Otis' philosophy, go to and read his pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. It was during the debates and protests that the cry of "no taxation without representation" was heard. To emphasize this point, the colonists decided to ignore the law and not pay British taxes and boycott British imports.
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were alive when The Sugar Act of 1764 was passed. Discuss what their thoughts might have been. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were adults (32, 29, and 21). Madison was a teenager (13). Monroe was a child (6).
The Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733 had a tax of six pence. The Sugar Act of 1764 had a tax of three pence. Discuss the value of a pence. Discuss why the colonists reacted as they did even though the tax was less.
Have the class discuss the smuggling and bribery that occurred. Discuss why they think the colonists did this and if this practice helped their cause.
Suggested Homework Topics
James Otis advocated fighting the battle over The Sugar Act of 1764 in the courts rather than in the streets. Have the students research and write an essay on his life and how he arrived at his opinion.
Have the class research and write an essay on mercantilism. Remind them that the workforce in the colonies included slaves and indentured servants and did that play a role in Grenville's continued support of that economic theory.