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The Townshend Acts

Charles Townshend, known as “Champagne Charlie” to his friends, was the chancellor of the exchequer in the period following the repeal of the Stamp Act. Hoping to enhance his political career, he tackled the pressing problem of imperial finance. Riots in England convinced him that tax relief was needed at home, but he hoped to reduce the national debt by imposing taxes in the colonies. This made sense to Townshend and others because the recent French and Indian War had been fought on behalf of the colonies and had contributed mightily to the indebtedness. Townshend was perceptive enough to realize that during the Stamp Act Crisis, the Americans had objected to what they had described as internal taxation. That distinction puzzled the chancellor, but nonetheless he set about creating a clearly external tax, reasoning that the colonists could not possibly object. Legislation emerged from Parliament in 1767 and soon met with thunderous opposition in America, where Townshend quickly became a very unpopular figure. The Townshend Acts included the following:

  1. New York Restraining Act. In 1765, Parliament had imposed a Quartering Act that required the colonial assemblies to provided basic necessities for British soldiers stationed within their confines. The New York legislature objected, arguing that a disproportionate number of soldiers was stationed within its borders. They responded to the Parliamentary dictate by appropriating a lesser amount than that demanded; an angry Townshend arranged for the suspension of the recalcitrant assembly.
  2. Customs Service Reorganization. Townshend, like others before him, realized that the collection of customs duties was terribly inefficient. Earlier reforms had brought little real change. The following steps were taken in an attempt to thwart smuggling and increase revenues:
    • A new Board of Customs Commissioners was created and headquartered in Boston — the hotbed of resistance to the Acts of Trade.
    • The use of Writs of Assistance was specifically authorized to help discover contraband; this was a senseless move because the unpopular search warrants had already been upheld by the courts and a new airing of the issue served only to inflame American passions.
    • New admiralty courts were created in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston; the existing court in Halifax was deemed too far away to be effective.
  3. Townshend Duty Act. The chancellor succeeded in getting Parliament to enact new duties, clearly external in nature, on paint, paper, glass, lead and tea imported into the colonies. Other than tea, the specified items were not produced in any quantity in the colonies at that time, but the capability to manufacture them in America was apparent. Of special note in this legislation was the clear statement that the intent was to raise revenue for the payment of the salaries of royal officials in the colonies, thus bypassing a role traditionally played by the assemblies.
Townshend died shortly after Parliament enacted these measures and was succeeded by Lord North, who had the unenviable task of confronting the growing unrest. Fortunately for North, much of the violent opposition that had greeted the Stamp Act was absent this time. Instead, much of the protest came in written forms, such as John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and Samuel Adams’ circular letter on behalf of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Those writings helped to convince the public that they should abide by stringent Nonimportation Agreements, which had an almost immediate and devastating effect on trade with Britain. Outright violence was rare, but did occur in Boston in 1768 as a result of a feud between the popular merchant and politician, John Hancock, and the customs commissioners. Angry crowds took to the streets after the seizure of the ship Liberty in June of that year. Tensions in Massachusetts would continue to build and culminated in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Parliament eventually gave in to the protestations of the British manufacturers, who had noted the decline of their trade with America and the consequent growth of American industry. The Townshend duties were repealed in 1770, except for the tax on tea — a face-saving effort reminiscent of the earlier Declaratory Act (1766).
See timeline of the American Revolution.
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