Born August 27, 1725
Died September 4, 1767
Member of Parliament
Charles Townshend was a brilliant and witty man, and a member of the British Parliament who strove to please those he thought could do him the most good. He is mostly remembered for the Townshend Acts of 1767, which taxed and angered the American colonies to revolt. The acts had a huge and fatal impact on relations between the colonies and Great Britain, and for this reason Townshend will always be remembered as the man who did so much to bring on the American Revolution.
Charles Townshend was born on August 27, 1725, to Charles Townshend and his wife, Audrey, daughter and heiress of Edward Harrison. Charles was their second son and one of five children. His siblings were George; Edward, who died in infancy; Roger, who was killed in a war in America in 1759; and Audrey.
Although the Townshends lived in England, the oldest son of the family held an Irish aristocratic title, Viscount (pronounced VY-count) Townshend. Charles's father was the third Viscount Townshend. Charles's older brother, George, inherited the title to become the fourth viscount.
The Townshends were related to several noble families and important men in British politics. Audrey Harrison Townshend's father was a director of the prosperous East India Company, whose tea would be dumped in protest into Boston, Massachusetts, Harbor in 1773 in a pre-Revolutionary War incident called the Boston Tea Party.
Despite his family's wealth and connections, Charles had an unhappy childhood, according to his biographers, Lewis Namier and John Brooke. His father, though intelligent, had a forceful and suspicious personality. His mother was intelligent but very free with her affections. The couple separated when Charles was fifteen; for the rest of his life Townshend senior remained bitter towards his wife. Charles went to live with his father, claiming an affection for him that he really did not feel. He also claimed to despise his mother and was not close to his siblings. His biographers described young Townshend as suffering from "poverty of heart."
Most of what is known about young Townshend's personal life comes from the letters he wrote to his father and the letters he received in return. Townshend was a sickly boy, and after reaching puberty he began to suffer from seizures that would plague him for the rest of his rather short life. Townshend may have had epilepsy, a disorder of the brain. The seizures left Townshend shaken and weak, but according to Namier and Brook, "with incredible … drive he struggled on, giving his life a brilliant and amusing appearance. The tragic side was usually overlooked."
Perhaps because of his ill health, Townshend did not attend the same elite school his brother went to. He was educated somehow, and then attended Cambridge University. The years there, before he graduated in 1745, were marked by frequent bouts of sickness and disagreements with his father over money.
The pattern of poor health and constant criticisms from his father continued through Townshend's study of law at Leyden University in Holland (1746–47). His father would write long letters offering advice and complaining about the young Townshend's spending habits and about his mother. The young man would respond with long letters describing his poor health, asking for money, and thanking his father in flowery phrases for his wise and excellent advice. Townshend's strained relationship with his father may have contributed to Townshend's poor attitude towards all authority figures. He gradually learned how to get the better of his father by sweetly threatening to reconcile with his mother. His later political career would be marked by a tendency to favor whatever side of an issue pleased those in power the most and promised him the most benefit.
Begins career in politics
In 1747 Townshend returned to England to complete his legal studies. The next year, he ran for and won a seat in the lower house of Parliament (Great Britain's lawmaking body). Both his legal studies and his run for Parliament cost money, which Townshend's father grudgingly paid. Townshend continued to suffer from bouts of ill health and soon gave up his law practice.
Townshend applied for various committee posts as part of his Parliamentary activities. In 1749, at his father's urging, he became a member of the Board of Trade. He held that position until 1754, when he became a member of the Board of Admiralty, the government department in charge of naval affairs (his own preference). In these positions he learned a great deal about trade issues between Great Britain and the American colonies.
Before Townshend's time, Great Britain had not inter-fered much in colonial affairs. Townshend believed that the British government should assert its powers to tax and control the colonies. He was now in a position to make recommendations about British policy toward the colonies. One of his first moves was to make the governor of New York financially independent of the New York Assembly (its lawmaking body). That is, the governor's salary—and his actions—would no longer depend on the will of the Assembly. Under Townshend's plan, the British-appointed royal governor would from then on take orders from England, not from a group of New Yorkers.
Gradually Townshend began to impress his peers in the government with his quick way of studying and understanding complicated issues. They applauded his long, witty speeches in Parliament. But Townshend made enemies too. Sometimes he would vigorously defend an issue he did not believe in, wait for others to join in the defense, then go over to the opposing side and laugh heartily at the defenders.
Marries; gains notice in political circles
In early 1753 Townshend sought permission from his father to marry. Because he was earning very little at the time, he asked that his father provide an annual sum to add to his own income. His father refused, writing: This "scheme and project … is your own and I will have nothing to do with it." Charles Townshend was so upset that he spoke out forcefully when the Clandestine Marriage Bill was introduced in Parliament. (Clandestine is another word for hidden or concealed.) The bill gave parents more power than before over the marriages of their children.
Townshend's eloquent speech was much admired. Horace Walpole (1717–1797; see entry), a well-known historian and letter writer of the era, described Townshend at that time as "a young man of unbounded ambition…. His figurewas tall…, his action [forceful], his voice loud, his laugh louder. He had art enough to disguise anything but his vanity." In their biography of Townshend, Namier and Brooke went on to describe Walpole's impression: "Walpole thought him marked by nature for leadership (wherein he was wrong); he had 'quickness of genius,' foresaw himself 'equal to anything,' had no passion but ambition."
On September 18, 1755, Townshend married Lady Caroline, a woman of considerable wealth who had a young son from a previous marriage. Her titles were Dowager Countess of Dalkeith, later Baroness Greenwich and the Duchess of Argyll. Lord Townshend once again complained bitterly about his son's request for money to marry. He was not invited to the wedding, and any pretense of friendly relations between father and son came to an end with the marriage. Horace Walpole commented in a letter to a friend that with his newfound wealth and independence, Townshend was now set free. "I propose [that we will enjoy] great entertainment from him," wrote Walpole.
According to Namier and Brooke, Townshend's marriage was more a matter of convenience than love. His wife, who was eight years older than Townshend, had extensive connections with powerful members of the nobility who could help Townshend in his career. The couple seemed contented enough. Lady Dalkeith bore Townshend three children: a daughter, Anne, and two sons who died young. After his marriage, Townshend became good friends with his mother, with whom he had much in common. As Namier and Brooke put it: "Both were intelligent, witty, and malicious; not burdened with a conscience or a faith; and both disliked Lord Townshend."
Involved in colonial affairs
Townshend continued to use his powerful connections to get important jobs. He seemed to feel no loyalty toward anyone. He gained a reputation for changing his allegiances from one powerful person to another to further his own desire for money and power. In 1761 and 1762 he served as secretary-atwar. From 1763 to 1765 he served as president of the Board of Trade. By then he was well-known as a financial genius.
In 1763 the French and Indian War in the American colonies ended with a British victory. That war had pitted Great Britain against its longtime enemy, France, and France's Indian allies in a struggle over who would control North America. The British believed they had done most of the work of that war. They had protected the American colonists against the French and Indians, and they believed they were now entitled to tax the colonies to help pay off huge war debts. Charles Townshend was in complete agreement with that reasoning.
The first major tax on the colonies was the Stamp Act of 1765. It required that certain documents and other items ranging from newspapers to dice had to have stamps attached to them. The stamps had to be bought from official stamp agents, who would be appointed by Parliament. Townshend gave a lively and eloquent speech before Parliament supporting the stamp tax. According to a letter quoted by Namier, Townshend's speech ended with these words: "And now will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence until they are grown to a degree of strength and [luxury], and protected by our [weapons], will they grudge to contribute their mite [little bit of money] to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?"
The Stamp Act was to go into effect in November 1765. Throughout the fall of 1765, talk of colonial riots and disturbances over the act was on every British politician's lips. In December 1765, government official George Grenville stood up in Parliament and began the debate on the question of whether or not to declare the colonies in a state of rebellion. To the surprise of many, Townshend spoke against Grenville's motion. He knew that Grenville had fallen out of favor with King George III see entry. Less than six months after the Stamp Act went into effect, it was repealed, and George Grenville was dismissed from his government office.
Shortly after appointing Townshend to this powerful position, Pitt became seriously ill. Townshend became his unofficial successor in one of the most important positions in the British government. He was now chief adviser to King George III, who grew increasingly determined to force the American colonists into tax-paying submission.
One day in May 1767, Townshend stood up in Parliament and gave a long, rambling speech. Horace Walpole was there and wrote a description of it. He said: "It lasted an hour, with torrents of wit, ridicule, vanity, lies, and beautiful language." Townshend insulted and ridiculed other members of Parliament and King George. Many people who were present believed he must have been drunk, and from this speech Townshend earned the nickname "Champagne Charlie."
Townshend Acts are passed
Still, King George found Townshend to be clever and witty, loud and amusing; he liked Townshend very much. Townshend informed King George that he had figured out a way to tax the colonies without their objecting. Not only would his proposals raise money, he said, they would also demonstrate Parliament's power over the colonies.
King George listened and gave Townshend his support. Parliament passed the Townshend Acts on June 29, 1767. They included a Quartering Act, which ordered the colonies to house British troops, and a Revenue Act, which called for taxes on lead, glass, paint, tea, and other necessary items. (A revenue is money collected to pay for the expenses of government.) The acts also took away certain elements of colonial self-government. The colonies had grown used to running their own affairs, but Townshend sought through his acts to assert royal authority.
By Townshend's prediction, the acts would probably not raise very much money in the colonies, but the colonies would certainly know who was in charge. He seemed to have no idea how the acts would be received in America. Other people knew how strongly Americans would object to the acts and predicted that they would lead to the British Empire's loss of the colonies.
Throughout the summer of 1767, Townshend suffered from a fever, which he neglected. It turned out to be typhus, an infectious disease caused by being bitten by lice or fleas. Within months after the acts that bore his name went into effect, Townshend died suddenly on September 4, 1767, at the young age of forty-two. He did not live to witness the American Revolution (1775–83) and American independence.
Biographers Namier and Brooke summed up Townshend as "a brilliant failure." Treated cruelly by a bully of a father, Townshend "grew up into a self-damaging type." He was, however, kind to his children.
For More Information
Namier, Louis, and John Brooke. Charles Townshend. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.
"To Tax or Not to Tax: The Rights and Justification of Parliament in Question: The Townshend Acts of 1767." [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug.nl~usa/E/tax/davis04.htm (accessed on September 29, 1999).
"Townshend, Charles, 1725-1767." [Online] Available http://www.clements.umich.edu/Webguides/T/TownsndC.html (accessed on September 29, 1999).
Excerpts From Townshend Letters
In late 1745 and early 1746, twenty-year-old Charles Townshend was in Holland studying law at Leyden University. Over the winter he exchanged several letters with his father, Lord Townshend, in which the young man was forced to beg for money and his father complained about it in return. Below are excerpts from their correspondence after Lord Townshend wrote on March 3, 1746, ordering his son to return to England. Charles Townshend had written back that he would miss out on some important lessons if he returned early. His father replied:
"You now know clearly what my orders are: that you should return to England in the first week of May next or towards the later end of May at furthest, but you must be here before May is over. These are my final orders and therefore I do expect they should be obeyed without further argument."
Charles replied on June 5:
"I have had five convulsive fits, severe and of a long continuance, and [I am in such a poor state of health], which, if neglected, may have bad consequences and for which, therefore, with your permission, I will go through one course of [treatment] before I begin my journey. This will delay me but one fortnight [fourteen days] at most, and I hope as it is so necessary to my health it will have your approbation."
In fact, Townshend was delayed for more than a month. He wrote his father on July 2:
"At the latter end of next week I hope to arrive [home], where I shall endeavour by the dutiful behaviour I shall observe and by my constant attention to your will, to remove what objections you have to my conduct and to deserve your affection and your esteem."
TOWNSHEND, CHARLES. (1725–1767). British politician. Second son of the third Viscount Townshend, he was educated at Clare College, Cambridge, Leiden University, and Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the bar in 1747. In the same year he was elected to Parliament for Great Yarmouth, and in 1748 he became a member of the Board of Trade. Here he impressed the president, Lord Halifax, whose intelligence and energy had considerable influence on colonial policy, and under him acquired considerable knowledge of imperial affairs. By 1753 he was thinking in terms of giving governors and other officials permanent financial independence of the colonial assemblies. At about this time he began to emerge as an impressive debater in the House of Commons, and in 1754 he moved to the Admiralty.
In 1755 he married the wealthy and influential widow of the earl of Dalkeith, so achieving considerable political independence. He now declared his opposition to the Duke of Newcastle's Europe-centered foreign policy and what he saw as neglect of American defense. He remained out of office from the formation of the first ministry of William Pitt, earl of Chatham, in 1756 until after George III's accession in 1760, partly because he was distrusted, partly because he was too clever for comfort. In March 1761 he became secretary at war but complained that he was not made leader of the House of Commons as well. Having now, like Pitt, reversed his earlier position, he urged the government to remain involved in the war in Germany: a commitment Lord Bute and George III were anxious to end. In December he resigned, apparently in protest over the terms of the Peace of Paris, which, to general confusion, he then defended in debate.
In March 1763, having at last obtained the presidency of the Board of Trade, he unsuccessfully proposed a measure that anticipated the Sugar Act of 1764. Although initially excluded from George Grenville's ministry, he supported the Stamp Act in February 1765 and was rewarded with the office of paymaster on 24 May. The following year he opposed the repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1766 he became Chatham's chancellor of the exchequer. Townshend then took advantage of Chatham's illness to prevent a government takeover of Bengal, while at the same time speculating with government money in East India stock.
He also carried the most moderate of the three suggested punishments for New York's defiance of the 1765 Mutiny Act: a temporary suspension of the colonial assembly's right to legislate. The cabinet, already committed to colonial taxation for military purposes, was now considering ways and means. Townshend persuaded ministers to widen the aim to giving colonial officials financial independence of the assemblies, the idea he had first proposed in 1753. By selecting customs duties he exploited the American distinction between internal and external taxes, not realizing that the real objection was any revenue-raising measure, as opposed to one designed to manage trade. A deficit arising from a ministerial defeat on the land tax was made up by thorough auditing and had nothing to do with the Townshend duties.
Townshend died suddenly on 4 September 1767. Although a brilliant speaker, he had never inspired confidence, and his frequent changes of allegiance deservedly earned him the nickname "the shuttlecock," or, as he expressed it in his "Champagne speech" on the East India Company measures, "the weathercock." He spent years in relatively minor offices and was chancellor only for a matter of months. Yet in that office he was assiduous and able, and his attitude toward American problems remained consistent and sincere from 1753 to his death.
Christie, I. R. Wars and Revolutions: Britain 1760–1815. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.
Namier, Lewis, and John Brooke. Charles Townshend. London: Macmillan, 1964.
revised by John Oliphant
J. A. Cannon
Townshend, Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount