Path to the Revolution: Townshend Acts
The Townshend Acts were one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution that includes:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
The Townshend Acts or Townshend Duties, refers to a series of British acts of Parliament passed during 1767 and 1768 relating to the British colonies in America. They are named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who proposed the program. Historians vary slightly as to which acts they include under the heading “Townshend Acts”, but five are often listed:
- The New York Restraining Act of 1767 passed on June 5, 1767
- The Revenue Act of 1767 passed on June 26, 1767
- The Indemnity Act of 1767 passed on June 29, 1767
- The Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767 passed on June 29, 1767
- The Vice Admiralty Court Act of 1768 passed on July 6, 1768
The purposes of the acts were to:
- raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so that they would remain loyal to Great Britain
- create more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations
- punish the Province of New York for failing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act
- establish the precedent that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies
The Townshend Acts were met with resistance in the colonies, which eventually resulted in the Boston Massacre of 1770. They placed an indirect tax on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea, all of which had to be imported from Britain. This form of revenue generation was Townshend’s response to the failure of the Stamp Act of 1765, which had provided the first form of direct taxation placed upon the colonies. However, the import duties proved to be similarly controversial.
Colonial indignation over the acts was expressed in John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” and in the Massachusetts Circular Letter. There was widespread protest, and American port cities refused to import British goods, so Parliament began to partially repeal the Townshend duties. In March 1770, most of the taxes from the Townshend Acts were repealed by Parliament under Frederick, Lord North. However, the import duty on tea was retained in order to demonstrate to the colonists that Parliament held the sovereign authority to tax its colonies, in accordance with the Declaratory Act of 1766.
The British government continued to tax the American colonies without providing representation in Parliament. American resentment, corrupt British officials, and abusive enforcement spurred colonial attacks on British ships, including the burning of the Gaspee in 1772.
The Townshend Acts’ taxation on imported tea was enforced once again by the Tea Act of 1773, and this led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 in which Bostonians destroyed a shipment of taxed tea. Parliament responded with severe punishments in the Intolerable Acts of 1774. The Thirteen Colonies drilled their militia units, and war finally erupted in Lexington and Concord in April 1775, launching the American Revolution.
The Five Townshend Acts
- The New York Restraining Act 1767 – This was the first of the five acts, passed on June 5, 1767. It forbade the New York Assembly and the governor of New York from passing any new bills until they agreed to comply with the Quartering Act 1765, which required them to pay for and provide housing, food and supplies for British troops in the colony. New York resisted the Quartering Act because it amounted to taxation without representation, since they had no representatives in Parliament. Further, New York and the other colonies did not believe British soldiers were any longer necessary in the colonies, since the French and Indian War had come to an end. However, New York reluctantly agreed to pay for at least some of the soldiers’ needs as they understood they were going to be punished by Parliament unless they acted. The New York Restraining Act was never implemented because the New York Assembly acted in time
- The Revenue Act of 1767 – This was the second of the five acts, passed on June 26, 1767. It placed taxes on glass, lead, painters’ colors, and paper. It gave customs officials broad authority to enforce the taxes and punish smugglers through the use of “writs of assistance”, general warrants that could be used to search private property for smuggled goods. There was an angry response from colonists, who deemed the taxes a threat to their rights as British subjects. The use of writs of assistance was significantly controversial, since the right to be secure in one’s private property was an established right in Britain.
- The Indemnity Act of 1767 – This act was the (joint) third act, passed on June 29, 1767, the same day as the Commissioners of Customs Act (see below). ‘Indemnity’ means ‘security or protection against a loss or other financial burden’. The Indemnity Act 1767 reduced taxes on the British East India Company when they imported tea into England. This allowed them to re-export the tea to the colonies more cheaply and resell it to the colonists. Until this time, all items had to be shipped to England first from wherever they were made, and then re-exported to their destination, including to the colonies. This followed from the principle of mercantilism in England, which meant the colonies were forced to trade only with England.
- The British East India Company was one of England’s largest companies, but was on the verge of collapse due to much cheaper smuggled Dutch tea. Part of the purpose of the entire series of Townshend Acts was to save the company from imploding. Since tea smuggling had become a common and successful practice, Parliament realized how difficult it was to enforce the taxing of tea. The Act stated that no more taxes would be placed on tea, and it made the cost of the East India Company’s tea less than tea that was smuggled via Holland. It was an incentive for the colonists to purchase the East India Company tea.
- The Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767 – This act was passed on June 29, 1767 also. It created a new Customs Board for the North American colonies, to be headquartered in Boston with five customs commissioners. New offices were eventually opened in other ports as well. The Board was created to enforce shipping regulations and increase tax revenue. Previously, customs enforcement was handled by the Customs Board back in England. Due to the distance, enforcement was poor, taxes were avoided and smuggling was rampant. Once the new Customs Board was in operation, enforcement increased, leading to confrontation with smuggling colonists. Incidents between customs and officials, military personnel and colonists broke out across the colonies, eventually leading to the occupation of Boston by British troops. This led to the Boston Massacre.
- The Vice Admiralty Court Act of 1768 – This was the last of the five acts passed. It was not passed until July 6, 1768, a full year after the other four. Lord Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after whom the Townshend Acts were named, had died suddenly in September, 1767. Because of this, some scholars do not include the Vice-Admiralty Court Act with the other Townshend Acts, but most do since it deals with the same issues. The Act was not passed by Parliament, but by the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, with the approval of the King.
- The Act was passed to aid the prosecution of smugglers. It gave Royal naval courts, rather than colonial courts, jurisdiction over all matters concerning customs violations and smuggling. Before the Act, customs violators could be tried in an admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia, if royal prosecutors believed they would not get a favorable outcome using a local judge and jury. The Vice-Admiralty Court Act added three new royal admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston to aid in more effective prosecutions. These courts were run by judges appointed by the Crown and who were awarded 5% of any fine the judge levied when they found someone guilty. The decisions were made solely by the judge, without the option of trial by jury, which was considered to be a fundamental right of British subjects. In addition, the accused person had to travel to the court of jurisdiction at his own expense; if he did not appear, he was automatically considered guilty
Merchants in the colonies, some of them smugglers, organized economic boycotts to put pressure on their British counterparts to work for repeal of the Townshend Acts. Boston merchants organized the first non-importation agreement, which called for merchants to suspend importation of certain British goods effective January 1, 1768. Merchants in other colonial ports, including New York City and Philadelphia, eventually joined the boycott.
In Virginia, the non-importation effort was organized by George Washington and George Mason. When the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a resolution stating that Parliament had no right to tax Virginians without their consent, Governor Lord Botetourt dissolved the assembly. The members met at Raleigh Tavern and adopted a boycott agreement known as the “Association”.
The non-importation movement was not as effective as promoters had hoped. British exports to the colonies declined by 38 percent in 1769, but there were many merchants who did not participate in the boycott. The boycott movement began to fail by 1770, and came to an end in 1771.
The newly created American Customs Board was seated in Boston, and so it was there that the Board concentrated on strictly enforcing the Townshend Acts. The acts were so unpopular in Boston that the Customs Board requested naval and military assistance. Commodore Samuel Hood complied by sending the fifty-gun warship HMS Romney, which arrived in Boston Harbor in May 1768.
On June 10, 1768, customs officials seized the Liberty, a sloop owned by leading Boston merchant John Hancock, on allegations that the ship had been involved in smuggling. Bostonians, already angry because the captain of the Romney had been impressing local sailors, began to riot. Customs officials fled to Castle William for protection. With John Adams serving as his lawyer, Hancock was prosecuted in a highly publicized trial by a vice-admiralty court, but the charges were eventually dropped.
Given the unstable state of affairs in Massachusetts, Governor Francis Bernard was instructed to try to find evidence of treason in Boston. Parliament had determined that the Treason Act of 1543 was still in force, which would allow Bostonians to be transported to England to stand trial for treason. Bernard could find no one who was willing to provide reliable evidence, however, and so there were no treason trials. The possibility that American colonists might be arrested and sent to England for trial produced alarm and outrage in the colonies.
Even before the Liberty riot, the British had decided to send troops to Boston. On June 8, 1768, he instructed General Thomas Gage, Commander-in-Chief, North America, to send “such Force as You shall think necessary to Boston”, although he conceded that this might lead to “consequences not easily foreseen”. It was suggested that Gage might send one regiment to Boston, but the Liberty incident convinced officials that more than one regiment would be needed.
People in Massachusetts learned in September 1768 that troops were on the way. Samuel Adams organized an emergency, extralegal convention of towns and passed resolutions against the imminent occupation of Boston, but on October 1, 1768, the first of four regiments of the British Army began disembarking in Boston, and the Customs Commissioners returned to town. The “Journal of Occurrences”, an anonymously written series of newspaper articles, chronicled clashes between civilians and soldiers during the military occupation of Boston, apparently with some exaggeration.
Tensions rose after Christopher Seider, a Boston teenager, was killed by a customs employee on February 22, 1770. Although British soldiers were not involved in that incident, resentment against the occupation escalated in the days that followed, resulting in the killing of five civilians in the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770. After the incident, the troops were withdrawn to Castle William.
On the 5th of March 1770— the same day as the Boston Massacre although news traveled slowly at the time, and neither side of the Atlantic were aware of this coincidence—Lord North, the new Prime Minister, presented a motion in the House of Commons that called for partial repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. Although some in Parliament advocated a complete repeal of the act, North disagreed, arguing that the tea duty should be retained to assert “the right of taxing the Americans”. After debate, the Repeal Act received the Royal Assent on 12 April 1770.
Historian Robert Chaffin argued that little had actually changed:
It would be inaccurate to claim that a major part of the Townshend Acts had been repealed. The revenue-producing tea levy, the American Board of Customs and, most important, the principle of making governors and magistrates independent all remained. In fact, the modification of the Townshend Duties Act was scarcely any change at all.
The Townshend duty on tea was retained when the 1773 Tea Act was passed, which allowed the East India Company to ship tea directly to the colonies. The Boston Tea Party soon followed, which set the stage for the American Revolution.