7 5MAHMP: The Colonists, the Sugar Act, and the Tax Collector
How did the implementation of various taxes and regulations impact the rising tide of anger in the American Colonies against Great Britain? How did the Parliament motivate tax collectors in the colonies to crack down on smuggling? Who was John Robinson, and how did colonists react when he attempted to impound a sloop known as the Polly? We’ll sent time in this edition answering these questions.
As the 1760’s progressed more and more people who lived in the colonies felt estranged from the motherland. There was a mounting number of people near heavily traveled ports, such as Newport, Rhode Island, who increasingly shared a point of view commonly found in Boston. It should be no surprise that the good people of Massachusetts and Rhode Island were amongst the first to rise up against acts that they viewed as oppressive.
The views held by Rhode Islanders had long been a bit different from those of other colonists. In 1635, Roger Williams sought refuge in the area we know as Rhode Island because he advocated religious tolerance and the separation of church and state
were clearly in opposition to those held by many other Puritans. Williams’ settlement quickly became known as a political and religious refuge for those unhappy with the intolerance found in much of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In the 1760’s, The British Parliament viewed crops, natural resources and other products made on the American Continent as an untapped pocket which could be picked in order to offset the mounting British debt. One such encroachment into the pockets of American Colonists was an act which replaced the Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733. The original act had placed a six pence per gallon tax on all molasses imported from non-British colonies. It was primarily intended to curtail the amount of molasses imported from the French West Indies by means of regulation. The revenue raised by the act was secondary in importance. But colonists paid little attention to it and continued in their lucrative trade through smuggling.
Needless to say, the British were unhappy with the smuggling trade. In 1764, the Sugar Act was passed. As its official title stated, it was the American Revenue Act. It was actually the first act passed by Parliament which openly declared its purpose was to collect revenue from the colonies, albeit that it was purportedly necessary to raise funds to product the colonies.
Colonists initially attempted to politely communicate their disapproval regarding the act.
However, the British saw nothing alarming about the Sugar Act which included incentives for customs officials to curtail smuggling.
There is an interesting story I would like to tell you about which involved one such customs official. His name was John Robinson. When John Robinson arrived at his new post as a customs officer in Newport, Rhode Island, he was approached by a group of merchants. They offered him the customary “payment” of 70,000 pounds in local currency in exchange for his promise that he would not enforce the Sugar Act and turn a blind eye to smuggling at the port. How substantial was the bribe that was offered to Robinson? In 1759, a colonial teacher’s salary averaged 60 pounds a year. Consequently,70,000 pounds was a pretty pence or shilling to use the common currency of the day. Customs officials appointed prior to 1764 often relied upon bribes from local merchants to fund lavish lifestyles. The Sugar Act, however, included incentives for officials to crack down on smuggling. Included in those incentives were a share of the profits from all seized goods.
Not only did Robinson refuse to accept the bribe, but he openly criticized another common practice of the day. Routinely, judges in the local, or provincial, trial courts called the case of a smuggler to trial when it was known that the customs official needed to testify at the trial would be unavailable. Consequently, many of those smugglers walked away. Robinson, like other customs officials, began to see to it that such cases would be tried in vice-admiralty courts. Judges in those courts were paid directly by the Crown and were unsympathetic to plight of the colonists. The Sugar Act presumed that accused smugglers were guilty, and that they were responsible for proving their own innocence in those same unfriendly vice-admiralty courts. Needless to say, colonial merchants and traders were quite upset with the changes brought forth by the Sugar Act.
As you can imagine, customs officials themselves were not well liked by the colonists as well. John Robinson, in particular, was not well regarded by local members of the Newport community. He was repeatedly confronted by angry groups of colonists to the point that he became fearful of leaving his own home. However, Robinson was committed, or financially motivated, to aggressively complete his appointed task.
In April, 1765, he followed a sloop named The Polly approximately twenty miles from Newport to the harbor in Dighton, Massachusetts. He suspected there was unreported cargo aboard the vessel. After boarding the ship, his suspicions were substantiated when he found more than twice the amount of molasses as had been claimed on the cargo manifest. The amount was not merely a few casks, but more than sixty casks of smuggled goods. Robinson would be mightily rewarded for his discovery because of the share of the profits from confiscated goods promised to him by the Sugar Act.
John Robinson should have realized things would not go well for him when he was unable to find sailors who were willing to navigate The Polly back to the Newport harbor.
He left two assistants to watch the ship while he went in search of a crew. In another turn of bad luck for Robinson, the assistants abandoned the vessel and visited a local tavern. Soon afterward a group of more than forty blacken-faced colonists boarded The Polly. When the assistants returned to the ship, they saw the commotion and wisely decided to hide safely elsewhere. The colonists stripped the ship of its rigging, its sails, its cargo, and then ran it aground. Just for good measure, holes were cut in the ship’s hull to insure that it could not be moved. When John Robinson returned to the scene, he was not met by his assistants or the men who had boarded The Polly. Instead, he was met by the local sheriff. It seems that the owner of the ship, Job Smith of Taunton, Massachusetts, had been informed about the damage to his ship and its contents. He then filed a complaint and demanded 3000 pounds as repayment for the theft of the cargo and damage to his ship. Robinson suspected that Smith had been given the molasses by the group who boarded the ship. The sheriff, however, could not be persuaded of the facts as Robinson saw them. He arrested Robinson, and the customs official was forced to walk eight miles to Smith’s home. He was followed on his journey by an angry group of local residents. One might assume that many in that group who followed Robinson were the same men who had damaged The Polly. The sheriff eventually incarcerated Robinson. John Robinson remained in the local jail for several days until sympathizers arrived to post his bail.
What have we to learn from the story of John Robinson and the Polly? Americans have a long history of resistance to burdensome rules, regulations and taxes which have been thrust upon them. Samuel Adams argued: “What a man has honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken without his consent.”
We can also learn why the presumption of innocence, which is not expressly stated in the Bill of Rights but was established by the Supreme Court decision of Coffin et al v. United States in 1895, is such a valuable right to have in a court proceeding.
If you would like to hear the complete edition of this podcast, go to www.bingoforpatiots.com, and scroll down under the “subscribe to American History for the Modern Patriot Podcast” to the American History for the Modern Patriot Episodes tab. Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process.