In 1767, the king of England, George III, found himself with a situation on his hands.
His colonies in North America — all thirteen of them — were terribly inefficient at lining his pockets. Trade had been severely deregulated for many years, taxes were not collected with consistency, and local colonial governments had been left largely alone to tend to the affairs of individual settlements.
All of this meant too much money, and power, was staying in the colonies, instead of making its way back where it “belonged,” across the pond in the Crown’s coffers.
Unhappy with this situation, King George III did as all good British kings do: he ordered Parliament to fix it.
This decision led to a series of new laws, known collectively as the Townshend Acts, designed to improve the administration of the colonies and improve their ability to generate revenue for the Crown.
However, what began as a tactical move to control his colonies quickly turned into a catalyst for protest and change, setting in motion a chain of events that ended in the American Revolution and the independence of the United States of America.
What Were the Townshend Acts?
The Townshend Acts were a series of laws passed in 1767 by British Parliament that restructured the administration of the American colonies and placed duties on certain goods being imported into them.
In total, there were five separate laws that made up the Townshend Acts:
The New York Restraining Act of 1767
The New York Restraining Act of 1767 prevented New York’s colonial government from passing new laws until it complied with the Quartering Act of 1765, which said that colonists had to provide and pay for the lodging of British soldiers stationed in the colonies.
This law was meant to be a punishment for New York’s insolence, and it worked. The colony chose to comply and got its right to self-rule back, but it also stirred up people’s anger towards the Crown more than ever.
The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767
The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 placed import duties on items such as glass, lead, paint, and paper. It also gave local officials more power to deal with smugglers and those attempting to evade paying royal taxes — all designed to help improve the profitability of the colonies to the Crown, and also more firmly establish the rule of (British) law in America.
The Indemnity Act of 1767
The Indemnity Act of 1767 lowered the taxes that the British East India Company had to pay to import tea to England. This allowed it to be sold in the colonies for cheaper, making it more competitive against smuggled Dutch tea that was much less expensive and quite detrimental to English trade.
The intent was similar to the Indemnity Act, but it was also meant to help the failing British East India Company — a powerful corporation that had the backing of the king, Parliament, and, most importantly, the British Army — stay afloat so as to continue playing an important role in British imperialism.
The Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767
The Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767 created a new customs board in Boston that was meant to improve the collection of taxes and import duties, and reduce smuggling and corruption. This was a direct attempt to rein in the often unruly colonial government and place it back into the service of the British.
The Vice-Admiralty Court Act of 1768
The Vice-Admiralty Court Act of 1768 changed the rules so that smugglers caught would be tried in royal naval courts, not colonial ones, and by judges who stood to collect five percent of whatever fine they imposed — all without a jury.
It was passed explicitly to assert authority in the colonies. But, as expected, it did not sit well with the freedom-loving colonists of 1768.
Why Did Parliament Pass the Townshend Acts?
From the perspective of the British government, these laws perfectly addressed the issue of colonial inefficiency, both in terms of government and revenue generation. Or, at the very least, these laws got things moving in the right direction.
The intention was to squash the growing spirit of rebellion under the king’s boot — the colonies weren’t contributing as much as they should have been, and a lot of that inefficiency was due to their unwillingness to submit.
But, as the king and Parliament would soon learn, the Townshend Acts probably did more harm than good in the colonies — most Americans despised their existence and used them to support claims that the British government was only looking to limit their individual freedoms, preventing the success of colonial enterprise.
Response to the Townshend Acts
Knowing this perspective, it should not come as a surprise that the colonists responded harshly to the Townshend Acts.
The first round of protests were calm — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia petitioned the king to express their concern.
This was ignored.
As a result, those with dissent as their goal began to more aggressively distribute their perspective, hoping to recruit more sympathy for the movement.
Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania
The king and Parliament ignoring the petition only sparked more animosity, but for action to be effective, those most interested in defying British law (the wealthy political elites) needed to find a way to make these issues relevant to the common man.
To do this, Patriots took to the press, writing about the issues of the day in newspapers and other publications. The most famous and influential of these were the “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” which were published in a series from December 1767 through January 1768.
These essays, written by John Dickinson — a lawyer and politician from Pennsylvania — under the pen name “A Farmer” were meant to explain why it was so important for the colonies as a whole to resist the Townshend Acts; explaining why Parliament’s actions were wrong and illegal, he argued that concededing even the smallest amount of freedom meant Parliament would never stop taking more.
In Letter II, Dickinson wrote:
Here then, let my countrymen rouse themselves, and behold the ruin hanging over their heads! If they ONCE [sic] admit, that Great-Britain may lay duties upon her exportations to us, for the purpose of levying money on us only, she then will have nothing to do, but to lay those duties on the articles which she prohibits us to manufacture — and the tragedy of American liberty is finished…If Great Britain can order us to come to her for necesaries we want, and can order us to pay what taxes she pleases before we take them away, or when we have them here, we are as abject slaves…Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs
Later on in the letters, Dickinson introduces the idea that force may be needed to respond to such injustices properly and stop the British government from gaining too much authority, demonstrating the state of the revolutionary spirit a full ten years before fighting began.
Building off these ideas, the Massachusetts legislature, under the direction of revolutionary leaders Sam Adams and James Otis Jr., wrote the “Massachusetts Circular,” which was circulated (duh) to the other colonial legislatures and urged the colonies to resist the Townshend Acts in the name of their natural rights as British citizens.
Seeing as two of the five laws passed as part of the Townshend Acts dealt with taxes and duties on goods colonists commonly used, a natural protest was to boycott these goods.
It began in early 1768 and lasted until 1770, and although it didn’t have the intended effect of crippling British trade and forcing the laws to be repealed, it did show the colonists’ ability to work together to resist the Crown.
It also displayed how discontent and dissent were growing rapidly in the colonies — sentiments that would continue to fester until shots were finally fired in 1776, starting the American Revolution and a new era in American history.
The Occupation of Boston
In 1768, after such outspoken protest against the Townshend Acts, Parliament was a tad concerned about the colony of Massachusetts — specifically the city of Boston — and its loyalty to the Crown. To keep these agitators in line, it was decided that a large force of British soldiers would be sent to occupy the city and “keep the peace.”
In response, locals in Boston developed and frequently enjoyed the sport of taunting the Redcoats, hoping to show them the colonial displeasure at their presence.
This led to some heated confrontations between the two sides, which turned fatal in 1770 — British troops fired upon American colonists, killing several and irreparably changing the tone in Boston forever in an event that later became known as the Boston Massacre.
Repealing the Townshend Acts
Coincidentally, on the same day as that conflict — March 5, 1770 — Parliament voted to repeal all of the Townshend Acts except the tax on tea. It’s easy to assume it was the violence that motivated this, but instant messaging didn’t exist back in the 18th century and that meant it was impossible for the news to reach England that quickly.
So, no cause and effect here — just pure coincidence.
Parliament decided to keep the tax on tea partially to continue its protection of the East India Company, but also to maintain the precedent that Parliament did, in fact, actually have the right to tax the colonists… you know, if it wanted. Repealing these acts was just them deciding to be nice.
But even with this repeal, the damage was done, the fire already set, to the relationship between England and its colonies. Throughout the early 1770s, colonists would continue to protest laws passed by Parliament in increasingly dramatic ways until they couldn’t take it anymore and declared independence, bringing about a revolution that would open a new era in world history.
Why Were They Called the Townshend Acts?
Quite simply, they were called the Townshend Acts because Charles Townshend, the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer (a fancy word for treasury), was the architect behind this series of laws passed in 1767 and 1768.
Townshend had been in and out of British politics since the early 1750s, and in 1766, he was appointed this prestigious position, where he could fill out his life’s dream of maximizing the amount of revenue generated through taxes to the British government. Sounds sweet, right?
Townshend believed himself a genius because he really thought the laws he proposed would not be met with the same resistance in the colonies that the Stamp Act was. His logic was that these were “indirect,” not direct, taxes. They were imposed for importing goods, which was not a direct tax on the consumption of those goods in the colonies. Clever.
Not so clever to the colonists.
Charles Townshend seriously fell victim to wishful thinking with this one. It turns out the colonies rejected all taxes — direct, indirect, internal, external, sales, income, any and all — that were levied without proper representation in Parliament.
Townshend was super wrong to think his laws would not suffer the same fate as the Stamp Act, which was protested so strongly it was eventually repealed by Parliament.
But Charles Townshend would not live to see the full extent of his signature program. He died suddenly in September 1767, just months after the first four laws were enacted and several before the last one was.
Yet, despite his passing, the laws still managed to have a profound impact on colonial relations and played an important role in motivating the events that led to the American Revolution.
The passage of the Townshend Acts and the colonial response to them demonstrated the depth of difference that existed between the Crown, Parliament, and their colonial subjects.
And furthermore, it showed that the issue wasn’t just about the taxes. It was about the status of the colonists in the eyes of the British, which saw them more as disposable hands working for a corporation rather than citizens of their empire.
This difference in opinion pulled the two sides apart, first in the form of protests that damaged private property (like during the Boston Tea Party, for example, where rebellious colonists threw a literal fortune’s worth of tea into the ocean) then through provoked violence, and later as an all-out war.
After the Townshend Acts, the Crown and Parliament would continue to attempt to exert more control over the colonies, but this just led to more and more rebellion, creating the conditions needed for the colonists to declare independence and initiate the American Revolution.