Why did the colonists react so much more strongly to the Stamp Act than to the Sugar Act?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There were two main reasons that the colonists were more angered by the Stamp Act, passed in 1765, than the Sugar Act, passed one year earlier in 1764. The first was related to the two pieces of legislation themselves. The Sugar Act was really not a new tax. Rather, it was intended to help in enforcing an act that was already on the books—the Molasses Act, passed decades earlier. Its most obvious effects were actually to lower the import duty, or tariff, on imported molasses. At the same time, it created measures to actually enforce the law against smuggling molasses. This angered many merchants, as did the fact that offenders would be tried in admiralty courts rather than in the colonies themselves. Still, it did not amount to a new tax on the colonists.

The Stamp Act, on the other hand, was definitely a new form of taxation on the unwilling colonists. It was a direct tax on a wide variety of documents, including wills, newspapers, and many others. To the colonists, this was very different than the new strictures on smuggling. They saw it as an "external tax," not a trade regulation. It took money directly out of their pockets. They argued that, as Englishmen, they could only be taxed by their consent. Since they had no representation in Parliament, and therefore did not give consent, the tax was null and void.

The Stamp Act also angered the colonists because it came in the wake of the Sugar Act controversy (which was mild in comparison). Some argued that the attempt to regulate the sugar trade—especially in light of the admiralty court issue—followed by the Stamp Act was evidence of a conspiracy against their liberties. They argued that without active resistance Parliament and the King's corrupt ministers would strip them of the liberties that they saw as their birthright as Englishmen.

Finally, the Stamp Act simply affected more people. Many ordinary colonists saw it as an unjust, and potentially expensive, imposition. The effects of the Sugar Act were primarily limited to the smugglers it targeted. Documents like wills and newspapers, though, were used widely, and a tax on their use represented a real burden—and overreach—to the American colonists.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team