Townshend Acts of 1767 – The British government faced looming debts from the Seven Years’ War after the Stamp Act Crisis. The American colonies were also under political pressure to prove Parliament’s taxing authority. With William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, at the head of the ministry from 1766, Charles Townshend was at the Exchequer, or finance ministry, and General Henry Conway and Lord Shelburne were in the cabinet as supporters of the Marquis of Rockingham. Colonial interests were also important to Rockingham.
Among them were Pitt, who had supported the repeal of the Stamp Act, and Conway, who had been a colonial sympathizer for many years. A 20 percent reduction in the customary land tax from 4 shillings to 3 shillings was forced on Townshend by Rockingham’s supporters in February 1767, resulting in a crushing financial defeat for Townshend. It was therefore more crucial than ever to raise revenue.
As Townshend pointed out in March 1767, the Stamp Act had been an internal tax, but the new proposal was external, covered by the Declaratory Act, and only applied to items imported willingly by the colonists. Thus, the Stamp Act had been an internal tax. Additionally, Townshend gambled that the items themselves, such as Spanish and Portuguese fruit and wines, tea, paint, pane glass, and paper, would affect only the wealthy, preventing agitation among the lower classes.
Wine and fruit were eventually removed from the act after merchants argued that it contradicted the Navigation Acts by allowing Iberia to trade directly with America. The House of Commons passed Townshend’s new tax bill without much debate on June 29, 1767, when it was thinly attended at the end of the spring session. Americans were only able to protest the new taxes personally and through petitions during the summer recess of colonial assemblies.
Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, who wrote as Junius Americanus, presented pamphlets in London, but the entire issue was overshadowed by Wilkes’ outrageous attempts to reenter the House of Commons. Samuel Adams, an American radical, attempted to organize boycotts similar to those that had led to the repeal of the Stamp Act.
While some patriots refused tea and let their houses go unpainted, merchants and many Southern colonies did not support the war enthusiastically. As a result of the 1765 boycotts, London merchants found that their European markets had been expanded, and they did not add their voices to those of the colonists calling for a repeal of the laws.
Townshend presented and the House of Commons passed a series of related bills that really threatened colonial leaders. The new taxes would not pay the war debt or cover the costs of garrisoning the army, but rather would make colonial officials independent from their legislatures. Additionally, there would be three new Admiralty courts in Charles Town, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as Halifax, and an American-based Board of Customs Commissioners in Boston to prosecute smuggling without juries.
New England customs collectors used Writs of Assistance to arrest colonists without cause and hold them indefinitely; these warrants were expanded throughout the colonies. Massachusetts voted a resolution in October endorsing boycotts and defiance; the letter was sent to the other colonies as a circular letter authored by Samuel Adams. Upon being ordered to rescind the document, the assembly voted no and was dismissed by the London ministry.
Assembly members who voted to obey the government’s orders were harassed and thrown out. While all other colonies voted in support of the circular letter, their actual commitment was lukewarm, as some were already taxed to pay their officials, and they were not adversely affected by the taxes.
In Pennsylvania, lawyer John Dickinson published a series of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in the Pennsylvania Gazette between December 1767 and February 1768, arguing that although Britain could regulate imperial trade, no tax, internal or external, could be levied on the colonies without their consent, a more stringent position than the British authorities had previously been presented.
After Townshend died unexpectedly of typhus on September 4, 1767, his policies were never implemented. Lord North succeeded him as Exchequer. An appalled ministry moved 4,000 troops into Boston-including two regiments recently employed in Ireland to put down a malt tax protest and dispatched naval patrols to Boston Harbor. Although Samuel Adams encouraged resistance to the troops, they landed without incident and took up garrison duty in a resentful city that had to feed and quarter them.
There were riots over seized ships (John Hancock’s smuggler, Liberty, was taken) and harassment of customs officials, which led to more hostile relations with the troops, resulting in the Boston Massacre of 1770. A growing number of colonists signed nonimportation agreements against British goods in 1770, motivated by Dickinson and Adams and frightened by the growing enforcement powers of the government in London.
There was only one Townshend Act that survived the repeal on April 12, 1770. The British politicians involved attributed the repeal more to internal British politics than colonial pressure, as Lord North used it to form a new cabinet. Parliament kept the tea tax as symbolic proof of its power to levy taxes on colonies, despite it being the least lucrative of the items. Read More – Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Life Story