Townshend Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Just one year after the conclusion of the Stamp Act Crisis, British laws designed to tighten the empire’s economic and political controls on the colonies prompted further American resistance. The Townshend Crisis represented another step on the path to revolution.

Summary of Event

In 1766, after repealing the Stamp Act Stamp Act Crisis (1765-1766) and imposing new domestic taxes in England, the second Marquess of Rockingham and his ministry were recalled by King George III and replaced by a coalition of diverse politicians under the ailing William Pitt the Elder. Because of his poor health, Pitt often was absent from Parliament for long periods, which enabled his ministers to pursue their own individual agendas. Pitt’s most powerful minister was the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, who inherited Great Britain’s financial crisis. The problems became considerably worse after Parliament, in an attempt to appease its constituents, slashed the land tax. As a result, the British government was deprived of more than £400,000 in annual revenue. In searching for solutions to his dilemma, Townshend seized upon colonial American arguments made during the Stamp Act protest. Colonial leaders had claimed that they were opposed in principle only to internal taxes, not external taxes. Never a friend of the colonial protest, Townshend declared that if the colonists adhered to such a distinction, then they should be saddled with extensive external duties. [kw]Townshend Crisis (June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770) [kw]Crisis, Townshend (June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770) Townshend Crisis (1767-1770) Prerevolutionary America Townshend Crisis (1767-1770) [g]American colonies;June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770: Townshend Crisis[1840] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770: Townshend Crisis[1840] [c]Government and politics;June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770: Townshend Crisis[1840] [c]Colonization;June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770: Townshend Crisis[1840] [c]Trade and commerce;June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770: Townshend Crisis[1840] [c]Social issues and reform;June 29, 1767-Apr. 12, 1770: Townshend Crisis[1840] Townshend, Charles Dickinson, John Pitt, William, the Elder Gage, Thomas North, Lord

Despite warnings from several influential members of Parliament, Townshend steered three laws through the British government during June and July, 1767, with the first one passing on June 29. Collectively, the three acts became known as the Townshend Acts. Two of the three, the American Board of Customs (1767) American Board of Customs Act (1767) Customs Act and the New York Suspending Act (1767) New York Suspending Act, were designed to strengthen British authority within the colonies. Politics;colonial America The third, the Townshend Revenue Act Townshend Revenue Act (1767) of 1767, was intended to raise £40,000 by taxing glass, paint, lead, paper, and tea imported into the colonies. Because the act taxed only imported goods and therefore was an external tax, supporters of the legislation expected Americans to submit to it. Townshend planned to use the new revenues to pay for the administrative changes embodied by the first two pieces of legislation.

The colonists had grave reservations about each of the three acts. The danger in the Revenue Act of 1767 was not in the quantity of cash extracted from colonial pockets but in its potential to extend Parliament’s Parliament;British authority over colonial American affairs. Unlike legislation prior to the Stamp Act, the new act was created to collect money, or revenue, for the British treasury exclusively from colonial America. Since the mid-seventeenth century, British trade laws had been designed to regulate commerce throughout the empire. Colonial leaders contended that, constitutionally, before Parliament could create a tax solely on the colonies, Parliament would have to include colonial representation.

Colonists also feared that if they accepted the Revenue Act, a precedent would be established and additional revenue-raising acts directed only at the colonies would soon follow. Additionally, a portion of the act’s revenues was to be used to administer the colonies. This deeply troubled many Americans. During the eighteenth century, colonial legislatures had acquired significant powers to control the salaries and general remuneration of British administrators in America. By the 1760’s, these powers provided a way for colonists to keep the Crown’s appointed officials responsive to the will of the colonial population they served. The Revenue Act threatened to do away with those powers and, therefore, further threatened the constitutional rights of the colonists.

Adding to Parliament’s perceived assault upon American rights were the American Board of Customs Act and the New York Suspending Act. The Customs Act created an American Board of Customs, with headquarters in Boston, that reported directly to the British Treasury. The new agency, which included vice-admiralty courts in three colonial cities, had the power to administer virtually all American activities with little regard for colonial assemblies. The Board of Customs was expected to be zealous in the handling of its assignment, for a third of all fines received in the vice-admiralty courts went to the customs agents. Parliament also made British regulars stationed in the colonies available to the new Board of Customs, should the need arise.

The New York Suspending Act was an attempt to force New York to comply fully with the Quartering Act (1765) Quartering Act, passed in 1765, which required provincial assemblies, at their own expense, to lodge British regulars in taverns and other public houses when military barracks were not available. Firewood, candles, bedding, and other essential items also were to be provided by the province. New York, a colony frequently asked to provide such assistance, refused to comply with the law completely. In retaliation, Parliament, through the Suspending Act, sought to shut down the New York Assembly until the colony thoroughly obeyed the Quartering Act. From the colonial American perspective, this act was clearly punitive and, therefore, an abuse of constitutional authority. Colonists also considered the act an indirect tax, because it required assemblies to levy money for the upkeep of royal regiments.

The American reaction to the Townshend Acts came slowly, in part because Parliament was able to implement the acts before the colonists had time to plan their resistance. Likewise, Parliament took steps to nullify the strong-arm tactics that had been so effective during the Stamp Act protest. Nevertheless, by early 1768, colonial leaders had begun to rally their fellow Americans. Among the more influential critics was Pennsylvania lawyer John Dickinson, whose Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania became popular reading throughout America. What Dickinson lacked in originality he made up for by vigorously and clearly expressing the colonists’ constitutional opposition to all forms of taxation in which the colonies were not represented.

Other writers, including Massachusetts firebrands Otis, James James Otis and Adams, Samuel Samuel Adams, joined the battle, as did several colonial assemblies, with remonstrance and petitions against the unpopular actions. The Massachusetts legislature, through what it called a “circular letter,” led the way with a bitter denunciation of parliamentary taxation and the scheme to pay judges and royal governors from funds other than those appropriated by the colonial assemblies. In Boston, merchants again resorted to a nonimportation agreement, as they had during the Stamp Act protest.

Aided by the reappearance of various Sons of Liberty Sons of Liberty organizations, the Boston boycott slowly spread southward during 1768 and 1769. Eventually, the tactic cut British imports to the colonies by 40 percent. In 1770, after the sudden death of Charles Townshend and William Pitt’s retirement, Lord North came to power in Parliament. With the colonial boycott still in place and American resistance growing, North was able to persuade Parliament to repeal all the Townshend duties except the one on tea; the king gave his consent on April 12. The tea duty would remain as a symbol of Parliament’s authority to tax.

Significance

Lord North was a practical man whose way out of the crisis seemed to offer a return to more cooperative British-American relations. However, while the Townshend Acts prompted a less violent reaction in the colonies than had the Stamp Act, the new legislation represented an even greater threat to American rights. It was a threat that would not be forgotten, even after the laws were repealed. The point was made obvious when, in response to the customs collectors’ appeal for protection, the first earl of Hillsborough, Hillsborough, first earl of secretary of state for the colonies, attempted to dissolve the Massachusetts Assembly and ordered General Thomas Gage, British commander in chief in North America, to station British troops in Boston. Hillsborough’s moves confirmed to many colonists that a conspiracy against American rights existed in Parliament. When the crisis ended, the belief in such a conspiracy remained, and it went a long way toward preparing the colonists psychologically for revolution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Breen argues that colonists’ experience as consumers helped them develop new forms of social action, such as boycotts, that ultimately resulted in revolution. Includes information about the Townshend Acts and the colonists’ protests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooke, John. The Chatham Administration, 1766-1768. Vol. 1 in England in the Age of the Revolution, edited by Louis Namier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1956. Mirrors the approach and conclusions of the author’s mentor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butterfield, Herbert. George III and the Historians. New York: Macmillan, 1957. This historiographical monograph finds serious fault with some of the conclusions of Namier and Brooke concerning parties and principles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffith, Samuel B., II. The War for American Independence: From 1760 to the Surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. This history of the American Revolution, first published in 1776 under another name, describes the causes and conditions that led colonists to rebel against the British. Chapter 4 focuses on the Townshend Acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobson, David L. John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764-1774. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. A useful narrative of Dickinson’s political ideas and activities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knollenberg, Bernard. Growth of the American Revolution, 1765-1775. New York: Free Press, 1975. Places the British policy toward colonial America in context and describes the American reaction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Namier, Lewis B., and John Brooke. Charles Townshend. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964. Depicts the charming and eloquent Townshend as also erratic, amoral, and a determined imperialist in favor of strong royal authority in the colonies. Namier maintains that the “Townshend duties” of 1767 were pushed through Parliament despite opposition from Pitt and others—they were not in fact the result of Parliament’s need to prime the American pump.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pares, Richard. King George III and the Politicians. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1953. A brilliantly written account of the monarch’s place in the political and constitutional picture, reflecting Namier’s point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Peter D. G. The Townshend Duties Crisis: The Second Phase of the Revolution, 1767-1773. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. A thorough assessment of how the Townshend Acts affected both England and colonial America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ubbelohde, Carl. The Vice-Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960. This carefully researched work asserts that “the Vice-Admiralty Courts were a minor, but persistent, cause of the American Revolution.”

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