The Townshend Act was part of a broad legislative program introduced into Parliament by Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend during 1767. Contrary to American hopes, the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 had led few in Parliament to question either their power to tax the colonies or the necessity of future taxes. Only the instability of British politics prevented an earlier exertion of British power under the Declaratory Act, passed on the same day as the Stamp Act repeal. By early 1767, further acts of American resistance had combined with the rising cost of imperial administration to make parliamentary action seem necessary.
Townshend had long favored a more active colonial policy, though the instability of the Chatham administration produced inaction. With the earl of Chatham absent and the duke of Grafton and other leading ministers opposed to new taxes, Townshend found it difficult to organize cabinet consensus on American policy. By late April 1767, however, Townshend had secured agreement on the New York Restraining Act and the establishment of an American Board of Customs Commissioners at Boston. He had also achieved consensus upon the establishment of an independent civil list, transferring the salaries of governors and other key officials from the provincial assemblies to the crown. In May 1767 Townshend surmounted Grafton's opposition to new taxes by proposing his tax plan as a private member of the House of Commons rather than in his official position. The concept of taxation met the approbation of the Commons, and the next few weeks were spent in securing agreement over items to be taxed and tax rates. The final bill, passed without opposition on 16 June and approved by King George III on 29 June, included new taxes upon tea, glass, paper, lead, and painter's colors. Townshend estimated that these taxes would raise only forty thousand pounds annually, well below the revenue necessary to his purposes. Yet he made it clear that this was only a beginning and that other products would be taxed in the future.
Having expressly presented his taxes as "external" trade duties in response to American objections to the Stamp Act as an "internal" tax, Townshend expected only limited opposition from America. Initially, he was correct, as resistance was slow to develop. Though John Dickinson challenged the constitutionality of the taxes in his fourteen Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, published in late 1767 and early 1768, the colonial legislatures moved slowly. Even the Massachusetts assembly, which could usually be expected to proceed quickly to radical measures, hesitated before, on 11 February 1768, agreeing upon a circular letter to the other assemblies. In moderate tones, it questioned both the duties and the assumption of colonial salaries by the crown before concluding with an offer to consult upon a united plan of action.
This call met with mixed results and might have proved disappointing if not for the intervention of the newly appointed secretary of state for the colonies, Wills Hill, the earl of Hillsborough. On 22 April 1768, Hillsborough ordered Governor Francis Bernard to demand that the Massachusetts assembly rescind its letter, directing Bernard to dissolve the assembly if it refused. Hillsborough blundered further by ordering the other colonial governors to ignore the Massachusetts letter, again insisting upon dissolution or prorogation as the price of refusal.
Hillsborough's rash move caused the lukewarm opposition to the Townshend duties to become associated with the much more dynamic issue of assembly rights. As most of the assemblies were dissolved, aggrieved Americans stiffened in opposition to the new taxes and called extralegal popular meetings to protest British policy. These meetings adopted non-importation associations, agreements which all citizens were pressured to sign, promising a boycott of all nonessential British goods. Though enforcement varied in effectiveness, the associations marked a critical juncture in the Revolutionary movement, as authority was transferred from the legally authorized legislatures to extralegal popular bodies that were neither recognized by or accountable to British authorities.
See alsoStamp Act and Stamp Act Congress .
Brooke, John. The Chatham Administration, 1766–1768. London: Macmillan, 1956.