The Townshend Revenue Act

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

The Townshend Revenue Act

Issued by British Parliament

Passed on June 29, 1767; excerpted from
Documents of American History, 1958

"There shall be raised, levied, collected, and paid, unto his Majesty, his heirs, and successors, for upon and the respective Goods herein after mentioned, which shall be imported from Great Britain into any colony or plantation in America…. "

From the Townshend Revenue Act

The Stamp Act of 1765 was passed by Parliament to help pay for British soldiers on duty in America. It raised money by taxing printed matter such as newspapers, legal documents, and even the sale of dice and playing cards. After the colonies expressed their outrage, Parliament repealed the tax. But England still needed money from the colonies to help pay for the soldiers. Charles Townshend (1725–1767), an adviser for King George III (1738–1820), informed the king and Parliament that he had figured out a way to tax the colonies without their objecting. Not only would his proposals raise money, Townshend said, they would also demonstrate Parliament's power over the colonies. Parliament passed the Townshend Acts on June 29,1767. They included the Townshend Revenue Act, which is excerpted later; an act setting up a new board of customs commissioners (customs are taxes on imported and exported goods); and an act suspending New York's lawmaking body, the New York Assembly.

A revenue is money collected to pay for the expenses of government. The first Townshend Act, the Townshend Revenue Act called for taxes on lead, glass, paint, tea, and other items. The second Townshend Act created a board of customs commissioners to enforce the Townshend Revenue Act as well as other British trade laws that had been loosely enforced up until then. The third Townshend Act, called the Restraining Act, suspended the New York Assembly. It was passed at the request of Thomas Gage (1721–1787), commander in chief of British soldiers in America from 1763 to 1775.

British soldiers were in America for two reasons: to protect colonial settlers on the western frontier (western New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland) from hostile Indians, and to make sure France did not try to reclaim the land it had recently lost to Great Britain (see Stamp Act entry on p. 7). General Gage was headquartered in New York City, and most of his soldiers were spread throughout New York state. The colonists were supposed to provide housing and food for the soldiers, in their own homes if no other quarters could be found. General Gage had problems getting the colonists to cooperate, so at his request, Parliament passed the Quartering Act in 1765. The Act ordered colonial officials to provide living quarters for Gage's soldiers for a period of two years. New York officials complained because the financial burden fell most heavily on New York state. When the New York Assembly refused to comply with the Quartering Act, Gage asked Parliament to suspend the assembly (prevent it from passing any laws), and Parliament did so by way of a Townshend Act.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from the Townshend Revenue Act:

  • The colonists had objected to the Stamp Act partly because its purpose was to forcibly collect money in the colonies to pay for British government expenses—the expenses of keeping British soldiers in America. The colonists called the Stamp Act an "internal tax," the kind of tax they said could only be imposed by colonial assemblies, made up of representatives chosen by American colonists. If England needed money to pay for English government expenses, the colonists believed that England had to collect tax money from Englishmen in England.
  • The Townshend Revenue Act proposed that Britain would collect small taxes on certain products that were shipped to colonial ports. Parliament thought the colonies could have no objection; this was a tax on trade items, an "external tax," the kind of tax the colonies had always paid. When he testified before Parliament about repealing the Stamp Act, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) told Parliament that the colonists would have no objection to paying taxes on imports and exports. But Parliament underestimated the growing anti-tax mood in the colonies. After their experience with the Stamp Act, the colonies were prepared to resent any kind of tax imposed by Parliament.
  • The Townshend Revenue Act also expanded the powers of the hated admiralty courts. Anyone who tried to avoid paying the new taxes—smugglers, for instance—would be tried in admiralty courts. Under the terms of the Town-shend Revenue Act, admiralty court judges, as well as governors and other royal officials, would now be paid out of the tax money collected. This meant they would depend on England for their salaries, not on the colonial assemblies, as before. Townshend meant to ensure that angry colonists could not stop British officials from performing their jobs by withholding their paychecks. In the long run, Townshend meant to tighten British control over the economy and the governing of the colonies.
  • In a further crackdown on smugglers, the concept of writs of assistance was revived under the Townshend Revenue Act. Writs of assistance were documents that allowed British customs officials to enter and search any warehouse or private home at any time to look for smuggled goods. The customs officials could order colonial officials to assist them in the searches. Such writs had been legal since 1755 but were seldom used. The Townshend Revenue Act promised to make the unpopular searches common, in violation of the deeply held belief that a man's home was his castle.

Excerpt from the Townshend Revenue Act

An act for granting certain duties in the British colonies and plantations in America; for allowing a drawback of the duties of customs upon the exportation from this kingdom, of coffee and cocoa nuts of the produce of the said colonies or plantations; for discontinuing the drawbacks payable on china earthen ware exported to America; and for more effectually preventing the clandestine running of goods in the said colonies and plantations.

WHEREAS, it is expedient that a revenue should be raised, in your Majesty's dominions in America, for making a more certain and adequate provision for defraying the charge of the administration of justice, and the support of civil government, in such provinces as it shall be found necessary; and towards further defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing the said dominions; … be it enacted … That … there shall be raised, levied, collected, and paid, unto his Majesty, his heirs, and successors, for upon and the respective Goods herein after mentioned, which shall be imported from Great Britain into any colony or plantation in America which now is or hereafter may be, under the dominion of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, the several Rates and Duties following; that is to say,

For every hundredweight avoirdupois of crown, plate, flint, and white glass, four shillings and eight pence.

For every hundred weight avoirdupois of green glass, one shilling and two pence.

[The Act continues with a list of other taxed items. It then declares that the monies raised will be used to pay for "defending, protecting, and securing, the British colonies and plantations in America" and can also be used for other expenses. The Act describes steps that would insure that the new taxes could be collected.]

It is lawful for any officer of his Majesty's customs, authorized by writ of assistance under the seal of his Majesty's court of exchequer, to take a constable, headborough, or other public officer inhabiting near unto the place, and in the daytime to enter and go into any house, shop, cellar, warehouse, or room or other place and, in case of resistance, to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other package there, to seize, and from thence to bring, any kind of goods or merchandise whatsoever prohibited or unaccustomed, and to put and secure the same in his Majesty's storehouse next to the place where such seizure shall be made….

[It is also made legal] that the officers for collecting and managing his Majesty's revenue, and inspecting the plantation trade, in America, shall have the same powers and authorities to enter houses or warehouses, to search or seize goods prohibited to be imported or exported into or out of any of the said plantations, or for which any duties are payable, or ought to have been paid….(Commager, pp.63–64)

What happened next …

At first, most of the colonists reacted cautiously to the Townshend Acts. But Samuel Adams (1722–1803), a member of the Sons of Liberty, a Massachusetts assemblyman, and a man with a longstanding bitterness against Great Britain, took action. Shortly after the new customs officers arrived in Boston in November 1767 and prepared to open for business, Adams wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter (so called because it was addressed to a large number of people). The letter pointed out that Parliament's attempt to raise a revenue was contrary to the colonists' rights, because they were not represented in Parliament. (Remember that Parliament believed it had the right to make laws binding on the colonies "in all cases whatsoever," according to the Declaratory Act.) The Circular Letter

was adopted by the Massachusetts Assembly in February 1768, and copies were sent to all the colonies.

While the other colonies discussed the Circular Letter and pondered what to do, King George created a new American Department and named Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough, head of it. Hill believed he should show the colonies who was boss. One of his first moves in his new job was to compose his own circular letter and send it to all colonial governors (who were appointed by Great Britain). In his circular letter, Hill advised the governors to treat the Massachusetts Circular Letter "with the contempt it deserves." He informed the governors that any assembly that approved the Circular Letter was to be dissolved. Hills did not intend it, but his action had the effect of uniting the colonies in sympathy for Massachusetts.

Massachusetts proceeded to become the center of colonial defiance. The Sons of Liberty staged a wave of sometimes-violent protests in Boston. Customs officials who tried to carry out their jobs were tarred and feathered (a painful procedure in which a person is covered with hot tar and coated with feathers). Finally, they asked Governor Francis Bernard (1712–1779) for protection. He proved unwilling to act—he said that Boston's citizens would never stand for him calling in British soldiers to patrol the streets; in fact, he feared for his life if he did it. So the commissioners called upon the British Royal Navy in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada), and a British warship sailed into Boston.

Made bold by the presence of the British Navy, customs commissioners singled out John Hancock (1737–1793), one of Boston's wealthiest and most popular citizens, to teach Boston a lesson. In June 1768, Hancock's boat Liberty was seized by customs officers for an alleged violation of the Town-shend

Acts. In turn, the customs officers found their own boat set on fire. As tempers flared, Governor Bernard suspended the Massachusetts Assembly in June 1768. From London came orders to British general Gage to move some of his soldiers from New York to Boston. On October 1, the British Army took control of Boston Common.

With British soldiers camped on Boston's doorstep, the spirit of defiance spread. One by one, nearly every assembly expressed its approval of the Massachusetts Circular Letter and was suspended. The assemblies met in secret, and by the end of 1768, most had adopted agreements not to import British goods until the Townshend Acts were repealed. Over the next few months, British imports to America fell by nearly half.

Parliament had expected the Townshend Revenue Act to bring in about 9 percent of the total yearly cost of paying for soldiers to protect the colonies. With customs officials unwilling to carry out their duties for fear of mob action, in 1768, the actual amount collected was about 4 percent of the total cost, and in the next two years, the Townshend Revenue Act brought in even less than that—not a lot of money for all the trouble it was causing.

British merchants complained loudly about the finan cial losses they were enduring because Americans were not buy ing their goods. In England, people were being thrown out of work because there was no market for the goods they produced. British merchants told Parliament it was foolish to risk profits from trade in a quarrel over a small amount of tax money.

In Boston, tension was thick. Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty complained loudly and often about the presence of British soldiers. Everything finally came to a head with the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, when five people were killed in a clash between British soldiers and townspeople. Parliament and colonists alike were shocked by the violence in Boston. Parliament once again backed down, and on April 12, 1770, the Townshend Acts were repealed. Only the tax on tea was kept. In the end, what was good for British merchants won out over Parliament's desire to show the colonies who was boss.

After the shock of the Boston Massacre, a period of calm fell over the colonies and England. The New York Gazette offered this opinion: "It's high time a stop was put to mobbing…. God knows where it will end." With British merchantshappily trading once again, and distracted by problems with Spain, Parliament was almost silent on the question of the American colonies for the next three years—until the Tea Act was passed in 1773.

Did you know …

  • Charles Townshend was clever and witty, loud and amusing, and his nickname was "Champagne Charlie" (pronounced sham-PAIN; a sparkling wine). His personality traits were apparently good enough qualifications for King George, who listened to Townshend's advice and supported the Townshend Acts. Within months after the Acts went into effect, Townshend died at the young age of forty-two. There are different stories of how Townshend got his nickname. According to one version, he gave an important speech while apparently drunk. According to another version, some of his speeches had the effect of making his listeners feel as lightheaded as if they had been drinking champagne.
  • Samuel Adams's dislike for the British dated back to at least 1741. Adams was eighteen and attending what is now Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher (1682–1787), declared illegal The Land Bank founded by Adams's father. The Adams family lost all its money, and Samuel had to take a job as a waiter to pay his way through college. He thought it wrong for the governor to have so much power over the colonists.
  • Benjamin Franklin had a close friend, William Strahan, who was a member of Parliament. In November 1769, as the time drew near when Parliament would be discussing colonial outrage over the Townshend Acts, Strahan wrote a letter to his friend. He asked Franklin to give his views on the situation so Parliament might better understand what was going on. Franklin told Strahan that a partial repeal (keeping a tax on tea, for example) would not satisfy the colonists. Franklin said it was not the tax they objected to but its purpose—"the better support of [British] government…. This the colonists think unnecessary, unjust, and dangerous to their most important rights." Franklin warned Strahan that if Parliament did not modify its hard line against the colonies, there was likely to be more violence and loss of affection for England.
  • Parliament was not inclined to listen to Franklin's warnings. Members were getting firsthand information from Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British troops in America from 1763 to 1775. Gage witnessed the turmoil that began with the Stamp Act in 1763 and escalated with the Townshend Acts. He reported his concerns in letters to Parliament. In March 1768, he warned that Americans were moving toward "a struggle for independency." Gage could see that his soldiers were unpopular with Bostonians. He warned Parliament in a letter written before the Boston Massacre in 1770 that his soldiers were suffering "assaults upon their persons till their lives were in danger," and it was only a matter of time before they resisted and defended themselves. His reports hardened the hearts of King George and his advisers against any sort of compromise with the colonists.
  • It was probably Samuel Adams who gave the name "massacre" to the March 5, 1770, incident in which five citizens were killed by British soldiers. British Captain Thomas Preston and eight of his men were arrested and charged with manslaughter (taking the life of another without the intention of doing injury). A trial was held, but little evidence was produced that Preston ordered his men to fire, nor was it known who actually fired. Preston said that in all the confusion, it was impossible to know "who said fire, or don't fire, or stop your firing." Preston and six others were finally let go; two others were found guilty, were branded (burned with a hot iron) on the hand, and released. Founding Father and Boston lawyer John Adams (1735–1826) defended the soldiers in court. He said it was only right that the men receive a fair trial.

Where to Learn More

Clark, Dora Mae. British Opinion and the American Revolution. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966.

Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958.

Draper, Theodore. A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York, Random House, 1996.

Farley, Karin Clafford. Samuel Adams: Grandfather of His Country. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1994.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.

Rinaldi, Ann. The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Charles Townshend

Charles Townshend was the second son of the third Viscount Townshend. A viscount (pronounced VIE-count) is a member of British royalty who ranks below an earl and above a baron. This is a fairly high rank, but as a second son, Charles would not inherit the title. His mother was an heiress who is said to have been brilliant, witty, and direct. Townshend inherited those positive qualities. On the negative side, he has been described as a man without principles. British author Tobias Smollett (1721–1771) said that Townshend would have been "a really great man if he had had any consistency or stability of character."

Townshend was educated in Holland and England and was elected to Parliament in 1747, where he served until 1761. In 1766, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man in charge of collecting the money needed to run the British government. Almost immediately, he proposed the acts that are associated with his name. The very next year, he died of "an incurable putrid fever," most likely typhus, which is often spread by fleas.

Samuel Adams, Committee-Man and Son of Liberty

Samuel Adams was born on September 27, 1722, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Fifield Adams and Samuel Adams. The elder Adams made his living as a beer brewer but also acted as a church assistant, tax assessor, and town official. The young Samuel was educated at the Boston Latin School, the first public school in the American colonies. In 1736, he went away to Harvard College (later Harvard University) with the intention of becoming a minister. But when the younger Adams was eighteen, a bank founded by his father was declared illegal and the elder Adams lost all his money, a situation young Samuel blamed on the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780). The loss of the family fortune forced the younger Adams to take a job as a waiter to pay his way through college. He became bitter towards the British over this issue.

Adams gave up the idea of being a minister, and when he graduated from Harvard College in 1743, he engaged in a variety of business ventures. But his heart was not in any of them, and they all proved unsuccessful. The young man preferred to spend his time in political discussions. Over time, he hardened in his opinion that America should become free of Britain and what he considered its corrupt ways.

By 1764, it might have seemed to observers that the forty-two-year-old Adams was something of a failure. He was poor and had lost several businesses and most of the money he inherited from his father. He was just beginning to show his political skills, however, and his real successes still lay ahead.

Adams was becoming known as an agitator who stirred up political resistance to Britain. More and more of his time was spent talking with anyone who would listen about the rights and liberties of the American colonists. Adams first spoke out in taverns and at informal meetings around Boston. In 1772, at Adams's request, the town of Boston appointed a Committee of Correspondence. Its twenty-one members met to state the rights of the colonists and work to have them widely publicized throughout the colonies. In a short time, many such letter-writing networks were set up, and the move toward colonial unity advanced.

Adams also headed a secret organization in Boston, the Sons of Liberty. This group took its name from a speech given in Parliament by a man who opposed the Stamp Act of 1765. He had called the colonists "these sons of liberty." Adams's Sons of Liberty sometimes called themselves Committees of Correspondence to cover up their secret activities. It was they who were responsible for many of the acts of mob violence against people who remained loyal to Great Britain. The Sons burned homes and tarred and feathered stamp agents, forcing all such agents to resign even before the Stamp Act was supposed to go into effect.

Perhaps Adams's greatest triumph was the Boston Tea Party (1773). British government in Massachusetts collapsed afterward, and the Committees of Correspondence served for a time as the colonial government. Some people say Adams provoked the incidents at Lexington and Concord in 1775 that resulted in the first shots of the war being fired. Throughout the war, Adams kept constantly busy, keeping patriots inflamed, counseling colonial leaders, and writing countless newspaper articles. By the war's end in 1783, he had burned himself out. He seemed unable to do anything constructive; his talent had been in destruction of British rule. He died in Boston on October 2, 1803. This Founding Father, whom many historians say was largely responsible for American independence, was called by President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) "the Man of the Revolution."