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The Events Leading to Independence

9d. The Townshend Acts

House of Commons
Rudolph Ackermann 1808
The House of Commons and the House of Lords combine to form Britain's Parliament. Charles Townshend was a member of the House of Commons when he convinced Parliament to impose a new tax on the American colonies in 1767.

"Nervous tension" is the term that best describes the relationship between the American colonies and England in the aftermath of the Stamp Act repeal.

Several issues remained unresolved. First, Parliament had absolutely no wish to send a message across the Atlantic that ultimate authority lay in the colonial legislatures. Immediately after repealing the Stamp Act, Parliament issued the Declaratory Act.

This act proclaimed Parliament's ability "to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever." The message was clear: under no circumstances did Parliament abandon in principle its right to legislate for the 13 colonies.

In the Western Hemisphere, leaders were optimistic about the repeal of the Stamp Act but found the suggestions of the Declaratory Act threatening. Most American statesmen had drawn a clear line between legislation and taxation. In 1766, the notion of Parliamentary supremacy over the law was questioned only by a radical few, but the ability to tax without representation was another matter. The Declaratory Act made no such distinction. "All cases whatsoever" could surely mean the power to tax. Many assemblymen waited anxiously for the issue to resurface.


From infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Inquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons then given me by convincing me more fully of their truth and excellence. Benevolence toward mankind excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man, on every occasion, to the utmost of his power. As a charitable but poor person does not withhold his mite because he cannot relieve all the distresses of the miserable, so should not any honest man suppress his sentiments concerning freedom, however small their influence is likely to be. Perhaps he may "touch some wheel" that will have an effect greater than he could reasonably expect...

– John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1767)


Tormenting the Tories
As Britain continued to impose taxes on the colonists, reactions turned violent toward tories and British officials.

Sure enough, the "truce" did not last long. Back in London, Charles Townshend persuaded the House of Commons to once again tax the Americans, this time through an import tax on such items as glass, paper, lead, and tea.

The Ties that Bind

Townshend had ulterior motives, however. The revenue from these duties would now be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors. This was not an insignificant change. Traditionally, the legislatures of the colonies held the authority to pay the governors. It was not uncommon for a governor's salary to be withheld if the legislature became dissatisfied with any particular decision. The legislature could, in effect, blackmail the governor into submission. Once this important leverage was removed, the governors could be freer to oppose the assemblies.

Charles Townshend
Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, sponsored the Townshend Acts. He believed that the Townshend Acts would assert British authority over the colonies as well as increase revenue.

Townshend went further by appointing an American Board of Customs Commissioners. This body would be stationed in the colonies to enforce compliance with tax policy. Customs officials received bonuses for every convicted smuggler, so there were obvious incentives to capture Americans. Given that violators were tried in juryless admiralty courts, there was a high chance of conviction.

Townshend also pressed the Americans to the limit by suspending the New York legislature for failing to provide adequate supplies for the British troops stationed there. Another showdown appeared imminent.

Reactions in the colonies were similar to those during the Stamp Act Crisis. Once again nonimportation was implemented. Extralegal activities such as harassing tax collectors and merchants who violated the boycotts were common. The colonial assemblies sprung into action.

Boston Non-Importation Agreement

August 1, 1768

The merchants and traders in the town of Boston having taken into consideration the deplorable situation of the trade, and the many difficulties it at present labours under on account of the scarcity of money, which is daily increasing for want of the other remittances to discharge our debts in Great Britain, and the large sums collected by the officers of the customs for duties on goods imported; the heavy taxes levied to discharge the debts contracted by the government in the late war; the embarrassments and restrictions laid on trade by several late acts of parliament; together with the bad success of our cod fishery, by which our principal sources of remittance are like to be greatly diminished, and we thereby rendered unable to pay the debts we owe the merchants in Great Britain, and to continue the importation of goods from thence;

We, the subscribers, in order to relieve the trade under those discouragements, to promote industry, frugality, and economy, and to discourage luxury, and every kind of extravagance, do promise and engage to and with each other as follows:

First, That we will not send for or import from Great Britain, either upon our own account, or upon commission, thisfall, any other goods than what are already ordered for the fall supply.

Secondly, That we will not send for or import any kind of goods or merchandize from Great Britain, either on our own account, or on commissions, or any otherwise, from the 1st of January 1769, to the 1st of January 1770, except salt, coals, fish hooks and lines, hemp, and duck bar lead and shot, woolcards and card wire.

Thirdly, That we will not purchase of any factor, or others, any kind of goods imported from Great Britain, from January 1769, to January 1770.

Fourthly, That we will not import, on our own account, or on commissions or purchase of any who shall import from any other colony in America, from January 1769, to January 17 70, any tea, glass, paper, or other goods commonly imported from Great Britain.

Fifthly, That we will not, from and after the 1st of January 1769, import into this province any tea, paper, glass, or painters colours, until the act imposing duties on those articles shall be repealed.

In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands, this first day of August, 1768.

– Boston Non-Importation Agreement (August 1, 1768)

Take It Back

In a circular letter to the other colonies, the Massachusetts legislature recommended collective action against the British Parliament. Parliament, in turn, threatened to disband the body unless they repealed the letter. By a vote of 92 to 17, the Massachusetts lawmakers refused and were duly dissolved. Other colonial assemblies voiced support of Massachusetts by affirming the circular letter.

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The Massachusetts Cicular Letter was penned by Samuel Adams in 1768. It voiced Massachusetts opposition to taxation without representation and was sent to several colonial legislatures inviting them to unite in their actions against British government. In response, Lord Hillsborough warned colonial legislatures to treat the Circular Letter with contempt and threatened dissolution to any legislative body that adhered to Massachusetts' plea. His words fell on deaf ears as legislative assemblies throughout the colonies, including New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, rose to the occasion and accepted the petition set forth by Samuel Adams and Massachusetts.

PERIODBRITISH PRIME MINISTEREVENT
1762-63John Stuart, Earl of BruteEnd of Seven Years War, Treaty of Paris
1763-65George GrenvilleIssue Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Currency Act
1765-66Charles-Watson Wentworth, Marquess of RockinghamRepeal Stamp Act, Issue Declaratory Act
1766-68William Pitt the Elder, Earl of ChathamIssue Townshend Acts
1768-70Augustus Fitzroy, Duke of GraftonUnable to implement policy of conciliation towards colonies because of chaos in Parliament
1770-82Lord NorthBoston Massacre, Repeal Townshend Duties, Issue Tea Act and Intolerable Acts, American Revolution begins with Battles of Lexington and Concord
1782Charles-Watson Wentworth, Marquess of RockinghamOpen peace negotiations with America
1782-83William Fitzmaurice, Earl of ShelburneEnd of American Revolution, Treaty of Paris, 1783

The tighter the British grip grew, the more widespread was the resistance. By 1769, British merchants began to feel the sting of nonimportation. In April 1770, news of a partial repeal — the tax on tea was maintained — reached America's shores.

The second compromise came at a high price. It was reached only after a military occupation of Boston and the ensuing Boston Massacre.

On the Web
King George III
Responsible for taxing the Americans and leading Britain to war with the colonies, King George III lost more than the American colonies — he also lost his sanity. For more information, check out this brief biography on the British monarch from Britannia.
Gunston Hall Plantation: George Mason and the American Revolution
Virginian George Mason was involved in the American Revolution from the issuance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 through the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Along with George Washington, Mason drafted Virginia's non-importation resolutions in response to the Townshend Acts. George Mason's home, Gunston Hall Plantation, is now a National Historic Landmark with a beautiful and comprehensive website that address Mason's life, especially his contributions throughout the American Revolution.
John Dickinson, "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania"
John Dickinson considered himself a loyal British subject, but argued eloquently against Parliament's taxation of the colonies in his series of newspaper articles called "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania".
John Dickinson
John Dickinson was a Pennsylvania lawyer who wrote a series of influential anti-British taxation articles called "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania." Dickinson asserted that British taxes were "unconstitutional and destructive to the liberty of these colonies." This website from the state of Delaware, is a nice introduction to an important Revolutionary figure, often called the Penman of the Revolution.
The Declaratory Act
On the same day that the House of Commons repealed the Stamp Act, it adopted the Declaratory Act without a division (i.e., without a recorded vote). In the House of Lords, however, William Pitt's friends attacked the measure strongly because it did not exclude internal taxation of the colonists from the scope of parliamentary supremacy. This website presents the text of the Declaratory Act and includes a link to the text of the Townshend Revenue Act.
Nonimportation Agreements
In their attempt to rebel against the various acts imposed on them by the British (specifically, the Townshend Acts) the colonists began a tradition of nonimportation, in which colonies refused to import or buy British goods. Goods that aren't bought can'
To Tax or Not To Tax
Were the British being unreasonable in their attempts to tax the American colonies? Did the colonies overreact to the acts and taxes imposed by Parliament? This website from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands offers a detailed look at the rights of Parliament to tax the colonies. From the Sugar Act of 1763 through the Intolerable Acts. The site also includes a section on the Townshend Acts.
Documents on the Townshend Acts
The Townshend Acts were actually a series of taxes and laws imposed upon the colonists. The first, the Townshend Revenue Act, placed a tax on glass, paint, oil, lead, paper, and tea. Other bills included in the Townshend Acts contributed to the colonists' angry reaction. This Carleton University website provides the texts of the Townshend Revenue Act, the New York Suspending Act, and documents American colonists created in response to the British laws.
Remarkable Women
And, don't forget about the women in the Revolutionary War era!
The colonies' nonimportation agreement hit Britain right where it hurt — in the pocket. By 1769, colonial exports exceeded imports by over £800,000.
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