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7 AHMP The Colonists The Sugar Act and The Tax Collector

7 AHMP: 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.

The colony of Rhode Island was named by Dutch explorer Adrian Block. He named it “Roodt Eylandt”, or “Red Island” for the red clay that is found along the shoreline in the area. This edition focuses on why the American colonists were seeing red in the years prior to the American Revolution, and how some of them chose to rebel against tyranny. As the 1760’s progressed, many colonists continued to seek ways to peacefully work with the British Parliament. However, more and more people who lived in the colonies felt astranged 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. The swiftly rising level of regulation and taxation on goods and merchandise that briskly moved through the ports of Boston and Newport were viewed as an outrageous violation of the colonists’ rights as Englishmen. 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. After repeated threats from local officials in Massachusetts, charges had been brought against Williams because he advocated religious tolerance and the separation of church and state.

His views were clearly in opposition to many of other Puritans. He fled the area after he was convicted of sedition and heresy by the Massachusetts General Court. Williams founded colony of Rhode Island after purchasing land from the Narragansett tribe. The cooperative relationship that existed between the colonists and the native population, in and of itself, was a bit different. Williams’ initial settlement quickly became known as a political and religious refuge for those unhappy with the intolerance found in much of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The premises of religious freedom and tolerance are referenced directly in the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations created in 1663.

“And whereas, in theire humble addresse, they have ffreely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a livlie experiment, that a most flourishing civill state may stand and best bee maintained, and that among our English subjects. with a full libertie in religious concernements; and that true pietye rightly grounded upon gospell principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignetye, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyaltye: Now know bee, that wee beinge willinge to encourage the hopefull undertakeinge of oure sayd lovall and loveinge subjects, and to secure them in the free exercise and enjovment of all theire civill and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loveing subjects; and to preserve unto them that libertye, in the true Christian ffaith and worshipp of God, which they have sought with soe much travaill, and with peaceable myndes, and lovall subjectione to our royall progenitors and ourselves, to enjoye; and because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colonie cannot, in theire private opinions, conforms to the publique exercise of religion, according to the litturgy, formes and ceremonyes of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalfe; and for that the same, by reason of the remote distances of those places, will (as wee hope) bee noe breach of the unitie and unifformitie established in this nation: Have therefore thought ffit, and doe hereby publish, graunt, ordeyne and declare, That our royall will and pleasure is, that noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lance hereafter mentioned; they behaving themselves peaceablie and quietlie, and not useing this libertie to lycentiousnesse and profanenesse, nor to the civill injurye or outward disturbeance of others; any lawe, statute, or clause, therein contayned, or to bee contayned, usage or custome of this realme, to the contrary hereof, in any wise, notwithstanding. And that they may bee in the better capacity to defend themselves, in theire just rights and libertyes against all the enemies of the Christian ffaith, and others, in all respects, wee have further thought fit, and at the humble petition of the persons aforesayd are gratiously pleased to declare, That they shall have and enjoye the benefist of our late act of indempnity and ffree pardon, as the rest of our subjects in other our dominions and territoryes have; and to create and make them a bodye politique or corporate, with the powers and priviledges hereinafter mentioned.”

In the 1760’s, Rhode Islanders, like other colonists, objected to the mounting level of regulations and taxes thrust upon them by the British Parliament. The 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 and interest thereupon. One such encroachment into the pockets of American Colonists was passed by the Parliament on April 5, 1764. The Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733 was about to expire, and the British took the opportunity to amend the original act. The original act, officially known as, “An act for the better securing and encouraging the trade of his Majesty’s sugar colonies in America,” had placed a six pence per gallon tax on all molasses imported from non-British colonies. The original act 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. It had been passed after changes in  French policies led to increased trade between the northern colonies and the French West Indies. Lumber, fish, and other agricultural products were traded for rum, molasses, and sugar. French policies prohibited the importation of rum, thus protecting the sales of French brandy, and this led to protests by those seeking to export agricultural products from the British sugar islands. Although the act was renewed several times by the Parliament, the colonists paid little attention to it and continued a lucrative trade with the French West Indies through smuggling.

Needless to say, the British were unhappy with the smuggling trade. In 1764, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act, or as they referred to it the American Revenue Act Although the act declared that increased revenue was necessary to pay for the “defending, protecting, and securing the Colonies,” that was by no means the entire reason behind it. Mounting debt in Britain and increasing doubts about colonial loyalty had prompted  Parliamentary leader, Lord Grenville, to seek changes which would minimize the practice of smuggling and maximize revenue which was derived from the American Colonies.

The Sugar Act was actually the first act passed by Parliament which openly declared its purpose was to collect revenue from the colonies. The first paragraph of the act specifically stated it was “an act for the better securing and encouraging the trade of his Majesty’s sugar colonies in America; for applying the produce of such duties, and of the duties to arise by virtue of the said act, towards defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the said colonies and plantations…and more effectually preventing the clandestine conveyance of goods to and from the said colonies and plantation, and improving and securing the trade between the same and Great Britain.”

Colonists initially attempted to politely communicate their disapproval regarding the act. Future member of the Continental Congress, Thomas Cushing, wrote to Jasper Mauduit in London on November 17, 1764: the People throughout ye Continent are greatly alarm’d at this Infringement, as they apprehend, of their most Essential Rights,”

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 that involved on 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, and a pistol could be purchase for a mere 1 or 2 pounds. 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. While John Robinson was, no doubt, an honorable man, the Sugar Act raised his salary. It also awarded a share of the profits from all seized goods to him, as well as officers of the Royal Navy who took part in uncovering unreported cargo. Consequently, there was a great incentive for him enforce each and every aspect of the act.

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 related to the matter would be unavailable to make an appearance. Consequently, many of those smugglers walked away because there was no witness to support claims made by the prosecution. Robinson, in concert with other customs officials, saw to it that smuggling cases would be tried in vice-admiralty courts as called for by the act, rather than allowing colonial-friendly provincial courts to try the matters. Judges who officiated in vice-admiralty courts were paid directly by the Crown. Those judges were generally known to be 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.

Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, vigilant, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website,, with more than 500 pages of documents, products, and information designed to motivate the modern patriot.


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