What were the Townshend Duties?

In July 1766, the government of Lord Rockingham failed and William Pitt became Prime Minister. Pitt brought Charles Townshend into the government as the head of the Treasury. Pitt, a vocal critic of Grenville’s policies towards the American colonies, became ill shortly after his return to power. During Pitt’s illness, Townshend assumed the duties of pushing the government’s economic measures through Parliament. Townshend did not share Pitt’s concerns over colonial taxation and pushed through a number of measures in 1767 related to the American colonies. Townshend proposed three measures that became known as the Townshend Acts consisting of the Revenue Act of 1767, the Suspension of the New York Assembly Act, and the Board of Customs Act. The Revenue Act raised revenue from the colonies by putting new import duties on lead, glass, paints, and tea. The New York Assembly Act suspended the New York Assembly until it agreed to obey the Quartering Act. The American Board of Customs Act established a Board of Customs Commission in Boston to enforce the duties imposed by the Revenue Act and created new Vice Admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Townshend did not believe the colonists would reject the import duties as they had rejected the Stamp Act since the new duties were considered external taxes. However, the colonies immediately protested the Townshend duties. Better organized after the Stamp Act crisis, the colonies quickly moved to again use non-importation of British goods as an effective tool of protest. Though the dissent against the Townshend duties was not as violent as the mob protests over the Stamp Act, the colonists again succeeded in their petitions. In l770, the Parliament rescinded all of the Townshend duties except the tea tax which was maintained to demonstrate Parliament’s supremacy over the colonies.

Paul Revere Lithograph, "The Bloody Massacre", Wikimedia Commons

Paul Revere Lithograph, “The Bloody Massacre”, Wikimedia Commons

Though Parliament rescinded most of the Townshend duties and the American merchants began trading again with British merchants, there continued to be confrontations between British soldiers and colonists. Continued enforcement of British trade laws and the presence of British soldiers in several major port cities caused many of these conflicts. On March 5, 1770, one such incident occurred when British soldiers in Boston fired into a mob, killing five people. The incident became known as the Boston Massacre and received widespread publicity throughout the colonies. Though there was a general outcry throughout the colonies to the Boston Massacre, the British government allowed the soldiers to be tried in Massachusetts. The British soldiers were represented by John Adams, second cousin of the outspoken Samuel Adams. John Adams, a well-respected attorney, was considered more moderate in his political views than Samuel Adams. John Adams argued that the British soldiers were not guilty of a criminal offense as they were only protecting themselves from an angry mob. Six of the eight British soldiers on trial were acquitted while the remaining two were convicted of manslaughter. Many on both sides of the Atlantic felt the soldiers received a fair trial. Another conflict between the Royal Navy and the colonists rekindled the activities of the Committees of Correspondence. On June 9, 1772, the HMS Gaspee, a British warship tasked with intercepting smugglers, ran aground off the coast of Rhode Island. After it ran aground, patriots from Providence rowed out to the ship and confronted her crew. The colonists removed the ship’s crew and burned the vessel to the waterline. The British government launched a formal inquiry to find the guilty parties. Many colonists feared that suspects would be sent to Great Britain for trial. Virginia’s leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, urged the colonies to reactivate the Committees of Correspondence to communicate about the crisis. Though no one was held guilty for the burning of the HMS Gaspee, the rekindling of communications between the colonies prepared the colonists for the next step on the road to revolution.