The Townshend duties


townshend duties
‘A Society of Patriotic Ladies’ signing a petition of protest against the Townshend duties

In London, hardliners seethed over the embarrassment of the Stamp Act and the government’s inability to make the American colonies at least partly self-funding. One of these politicians, Charles Townshend, had been appointed chancellor of the exchequer (treasurer) in 1766 and faced difficulties in balancing the budget. He came up with a simple solution for the American issue, which involved extracting revenue through import duties rather than direct taxation. Goods shipped into the colonies from Britain or British merchants would have a duty added; much like the Stamp Act the anticipated revenue would be used to pay the salaries of British officials in America. To strengthen collection procedures, the Townshend acts established three new admiralty courts and authorised writs of assistance (allowing royal officials to search and seize from private ships or buildings). These moves were a reintroduction of the principles of the Sugar Act and a further strengthening of its powers and procedures. Coming as they did after the crises of 1765-66, the Townshend acts stirred not only the merchants and traders but the population at large, now sensitive to the actions of Westminster.


The Townshend duties came into effect in 1767 and were levied on a variety of important but commonplace items, like paper, paint, oil, glass, tea and lead. The colonists, however, considered the duties to be taxation by another name and determined that they would not be paid. The best way to avoid them was to cease the importation of British goods, seeking alternatives where possible and going without where necessary. Existing Sons of Liberty chapters or local communities signed non-importation or boycott agreements, pledging not to buy British goods and to avoid traders who sold them. Even gatherings of women, normally excluded from political meetings and activities, rallied to this cause and signed boycott agreements (a British cartoon, shown right, mocks such a group). Colonial assemblies also backed the non-importation pacts and agreed to resist the duties and their collection in whatever ways were possible. And gangs of thugs continued their work, molesting and beating up customs officials to prevent them carrying out their work. The incident with John Hancock’s brig Liberty was a typical response to the hated duties.

“To relate the argument to the Townshend Acts controversy, we need only refer to Franklin’s testimony at the bar of the House of Commons. A diary of a member reports that Franklin made three contentions. 1. That the Americans in general never disputed the controlling power of this kingdom to regulate their trade. 2. That regulation attended with an internal tax would be objected to. 3. That they would not object to a duty laid upon imports, considering the sea as belonging to Great Britain.”
John Philip Reid, historian