The Townshend duties

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

The Townshend duties, more formally known as the Revenue Act, was an item of British legislation passed in June 1767. As the name suggests, it was another attempt to collect revenue from North America. It did so by introducing customs duties placed in a range of items imported into the American colonies. The Townshend duties were expected to raise approximately £40,000 per year, to be retained in the colonies to fund both the military and royal officials there. Instead, the new duties generated yet more opposition, criticism and non-compliance, and became almost unenforceable.

Charles Townshend

The architect of this new revenue legislation was Charles Townshend. The son of a minor aristocrat, Townshend had been elected to the House of Commons almost immediately after his graduation from Cambridge, aged 22.

Despite his inexperience, Townshend gained attention for his intelligence and erudite public speaking. He was well informed, hard-working and ambitious, but also strong-minded and unafraid to criticise others. As a consequence, Townshend became rather a divisive political figure.

In 1748, Townshend gained membership of the Board of Trade, the parliamentary committee responsible for overseeing all aspects of foreign commerce and trade, including colonial matters. This drew Townshend’s attention to the American colonies, which became a focal point of his career.

Townshend the hardliner

Where colonial America was concerned, Charles Townshend was a known hardliner. From the early 1750s, he had been supported paying colonial governors and judges directly from Britain, thus freeing them from the shackles of colonial assemblies.

Townshend considered garrisoning troops in America to be essential and believed Americans themselves should contribute to the expenses. While on the Board of Trade, Townshend had supported the Sugar Act and Stamp Act, later opposing the repeal of the latter.

In August 1766, newly appointed prime minister William Pitt made Townshend his Chancellor of the Exchequer. While Pitt was a supporter of colonial rights, he was plagued by poor health, giving Townshend something of a free hand to reshape colonial policy. Now in charge of the treasury, one of Townshend’s promises was to extract more revenue from America.

Developing a strategy

On rising to the cabinet, Townshend began considering the best method to both govern and fund British America. He did so through meticulous research and interviews, studying the costs of ongoing British military deployment, how the colonial economy operated, how royal officials and customs agents were paid, and colonial responses to the Sugar and Stamp Act.

Townshend’s aim was to devise a strategy that would milk revenue from the colonies without causing disruption or widespread opposition. While undertaking this, he was supported by the noted Scottish economist, Adam Smith. Townshend also had a prolonged discussion with Benjamin Franklin, who suggested that while Americans opposed external taxes, most would not object to British trade duties. This is recounted by historian John Philip Reid:

“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.”

After months of deliberation, Townshend came up with a solution for the American issue that involved extracting revenue through a series of import duties rather than direct taxing the colonies.

The Revenue Act

The legislation drafted by Townshend would implement taxation by stealth by levying customs duties on a variety of important but commonplace items, like paper, paint, oil, glass, tea and lead. The bill contained an extensive and quite specific list of dutiable items and the amounts to be paid on them.

These duties, by Townshend’s estimation, would raise £40,000 per annum. All income collected under the act would be deemed “sterling money of Great Britain”. It would be used for funding “the administration of justice and the support of civil government in the said colonies” and “defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing” the colonies.

Townshend’s legislation also established stronger measures for collection. It established three new Vice-Admiralty Courts in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. The act also authorised writs of assistance, giving customs officials the legal authority to search and seize from private ships or buildings.

Colonial objections

Townshend’s view was that the Revenue Act would prompt grumbling from merchants and traders who were directly impacted by it but otherwise be generally accepted. This was either hopeful idealism or an alarming miscalculation.

In the colonies, the most concerning element was not the new duties but how where they would go. Using the revenue to fund royal officials would dramatically alter the balance of power in America. With colonial assemblies stripped of control of their salaries, royal governors and loyalist judges would be free to impose British policies without limit or restraint.

The legislation also required the Townshend duties to be paid using specie or hard money. There was already a pressing shortage of this in the colonies, compounded by Parliament’s Currency Act the previous year. The Townshend acts extended the problem of gold and silver coin being moved out of colonial hands and to Britain or its agents.

There was also strong opposition to the expansion of the Vice-Admiralty Courts and writs of assistance. Both were widely despised in the colonies, where they were seen as devices of British arbitrary power. In both cases, this power was often placed in the hands of inferior, corrupt or brutal men.

Letters from a Farmer

Colonial reactions more vehement and widespread than Townshend or his allies had expected. Opposition was strong among the mercantile classes but they were also joined by others who recognised the dangers this legislation posed to colonial autonomy.

Published at the end of 1767, John Dickinson‘s famous essays Letters from a Farmer in Philadelphia were a strident attack on the Townshend duties and British attempts to extract revenue from her American colonies. Dickinson did not dispute Britain’s authority to regulate trade but its misuse of that power to raise revenue was, he argued, unconstitutional:

“The Parliament unquestionably possesses a legal authority to regulate the trade of Great Britain and all her colonies. Such an authority is essential to the relation between a mother country and her colonies, and necessary for the common good of all… Never did the British Parliament, till the period above mentioned, think of imposing duties in America for the purpose of raising a revenue… This I call an innovation, and a most dangerous innovation.”

Dickinson’s essays contributed to the creation of another revolutionary document of great significance. In February 1768, the Massachusetts assembly issued a statement on the Townshend acts drafted by Samuel Adams and James Otis. In this document, they also denied the constitutionality of the duties, claiming the colonies could not be taxed by a body “separated [from them] by an ocean of a thousand leagues”.

Boycotts and non-importation

The most significant organised response to the Townshend duties were boycotts and non-compliance. The best way to protest against the duties, colonial opponents argued, was to halt or greatly reduce the importation of British goods. Alternatives would be sought instead; where they could not be found, Americans would simply go without.

Sons of Liberty chapters and local community groups rushed to sign agreements pledging that all signatories would refuse to buy non-essential British goods or deal with traders who sold them. One of the first and most famous was Boston’s non-importation agreement, organised largely by Samuel Adams and signed in August 1768.

This form of protest extended to gatherings of women, a group which, to this point, had been largely excluded from colonial political activities. Women were seen as pivotal to the non-importation movement because they were consumes of British luxury goods like clothing or tea. Many colonial rallied to sign non-importation agreements and in doing so, earned the epithet ‘Daughters of Liberty’.

Politicians in the colonial assemblies also backed the non-importation pacts, supporting their actions while petitioning Parliament to repeal the Townshend acts. On the streets, intimidation of customs officials also increased, leading to heightened tensions and occasional violence. The 1768 incident involving John Hancock‘s sloop Liberty was caused, in part, by widespread anger about the Townshend duties.

townshend duties

1. The Townshend duties were introduced in the Revenue Act, British legislation that sought to extract £40,000 per year from the American colonies through customs duties.

2. The duties were devised by Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, who had long held hardline views about the colonies and how they should be governed and funded.

3. Townshend’s plan was to use this new income to pay royal governors, judges and officials, thus liberating them from the control of colonial assemblies.

4. Collection of the new duties would be supported by three new Vice-Admiralty courts in colonial port cities, along with the authorisation of writs of assistance.

5. The colonial response to the Townshend duties was extensive, marked chiefly by written criticism and formal agreements to boycott the import of British goods carrying the duties.

Citation information
Title: ‘The Townshend duties’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 15, 2019
Date updated: November 21, 2023
Date accessed: June 23, 2024
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