The Townshend Acts
The year 1767 brought another series of measures that stirred
anew all the elements of discord. Charles Townshend, British
chancellor of the exchequer, attempted a new fiscal program in
the face of continued discontent over high taxes at home. Intent
upon reducing British taxes by making more efficient the
collection of duties levied on American trade, he tightened
customs administration and enacted duties on colonial imports of
paper, glass, lead, and tea from Britain. The "Townshend
Acts" were based on the premise that taxes imposed on goods
imported by the colonies were legal while internal taxes (like
the Stamp Act) were not.
The Townshend Acts were designed to raise revenue that would
be used in part to support colonial officials and maintain the
British army in America. In response, Philadelphia lawyer John
Dickinson, in Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, argued
that Parliament had the right to control imperial commerce but
did not have the right to tax the colonies, whether the duties
were external or internal.
The agitation following enactment of the Townshend duties was
less violent than that stirred by the Stamp Act, but it was
nevertheless strong, particularly in the cities of the Eastern
seaboard. Merchants once again resorted to non-importation
agreements, and people made do with local products. Colonists,
for example, dressed in homespun clothing and found substitutes
for tea. They used homemade paper and their houses went
unpainted. In Boston, enforcement of the new regulations
provoked violence. When customs officials sought to collect
duties, they were set upon by the populace and roughly handled.
For this infraction, two British regiments were dispatched to
protect the customs commissioners.
The presence of British troops in Boston was a standing
invitation to disorder. On March 5, 1770, antagonism between
citizens and British soldiers again flared into violence. What
began as a harmless snowballing of British soldiers degenerated
into a mob attack. Someone gave the order to fire. When
the smoke had cleared, three Bostonians lay dead in the snow.
Dubbed the "Boston Massacre," the incident was dramatically
pictured as proof of British heartlessness and tyranny.
Faced with such opposition, Parliament in 1770 opted for a
strategic retreat and repealed all the Townshend duties except
that on tea, which was a luxury item in the colonies, imbibed
only by a very small minority. To most, the action of Parliament
signified that the colonists had won a major concession, and the
campaign against England was largely dropped. A colonial embargo
on "English tea" continued but was not too scrupulously
observed. Prosperity was increasing and most colonial leaders
were willing to let the future take care of itself.
Click here to print. Answer Key: (1) Charles Townshend, (2) that taxes imposed on goods imported by the colonies were legal while internal taxes (like the Stamp Act) were not, (3) John Dickinson, (4) Boston Massacre.
Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005