Townshend’s Folly

Portrait of Charles Townshend

Portrait of Charles Townshend by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Had Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend wanted to provoke the American colonies into rebellion, he could not have devised a better scheme than his Revenue Act of 1767.  This act imposed duties on imported lead, glass, paint, paper and tea.  Revenues would pay for salaries of some royal colonial officials, salaries previously paid by the colonial assemblies.  Now Townshend and Parliament hoped to take “the power of the purse” away from the colonies and make most colonial administrators answerable only to the King. 

To collect these new duties, the Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767 unleashed an army of royal customs commissioners whose main purpose was to enforce trade regulations and collect fines.  The Revenue Act also reaffirmed the legality of writs of assistance, which allowed customs officials to search houses and businesses for smuggled goods.

Townshend knew his new program would be controversial in the colonies but argued, “The superiority of the mother country can at no time be better exerted than now.”

Responding to these “Townshend acts,” John Dickinson published a series of 12 essays entitled “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to Inhabitants of the British Colonies.”  He argued that taxes imposed on the colonies by Parliament for the purpose of raising revenue were unconstitutional and an affront to all English people.  Even though tax rates were low, he warned colonists not to agree to them because this would set a dangerous precedent.  Widely re-published throughout the colonies and Great Britain, his letters ushered the cause of American liberty onto the global stage.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts General Court (legislature) began a campaign against the Townshend acts.  First, a petition was sent to the King asking for repeal of the Revenue Act.  Then Sam Adams penned the Massachusetts Circular Letter, approved by the court on February 11, 1768.  Sent to the other 12 colonies, this letter pointed out these duties constituted “taxation without representation” and violated the British Constitution and natural rights of the colonists.   It further stated that governors and judges must be answerable to the colonial legislatures, and it argued for the previous arrangement whereby the colonies were taxed only by their own colonial assemblies.  The letter concluded with a call to active resistance. 

Secretary of State Lord Hillsborough in London ordered the Massachusetts General Court to revoke the letter, but the body voted against this action.  In response, Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard dissolved the assembly on the grounds of sedition.  Mob violence ensued with attacks on custom officials, and Lord Hillsborough countered by sending four regiments of British soldiers to Boston.  Their arrival in October 1768 did nothing to calm the stormy waters.

The colonies were becoming accustomed to taking united action against what they saw as their common enemy.  Boycotts of British goods were renewed, with such a devastating impact to British merchants that widespread popular and parliamentary support grew for a more liberal colonial policy.

On March 5, 1770, new Prime Minister Lord North presented a motion to repeal the Townshend duties – all but the tax on tea.  Ironically, this was the same day as the Boston Massacre, an incident in which British soldiers killed five men.   Repeal came the following month.

Alas, Charles Townshend was not destined to see the results of his handiwork.  He contracted typhus and died suddenly on September 4, 1767.

One Respons to “Townshend’s Folly”

  1. Penny Imes July 27, 2012 Reply

    Finally a person that puts some real work into a blog. I do like what you have done with the blog.

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