The Townshend Duties

The period of calm and compromise that settled on transatlantic relations after the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 did not last long. Just over a year later, in June 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the new Chatham administration, exploited the colonial distinction, drawn most notably by Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson, between external and internal taxes, with a new revenue act designed to free colonial governments from dependence on what he saw as mercurial assemblies. His plan ostensibly created acceptable (because external) import duties on British china, glass, paper, pasteboard, lead, paint, and tea. It also created a Board of Customs Commissioners, based in Boston, to enforce them.

Townshend's opponents correctly pointed out that the money raised by the plan would have been quite small, estimated at no more than £40,000, and, moreover, not all of the American governments depended on the whims of colonial legislators (Virginia's government, for example, was directly financed by a provincial tax). Townshend intended his proposal as a beginning, however, to be built upon once the broader principle of colonial taxation had been established. With Chatham almost entirely absent from Cabinet meetings and Parliament because of ill health, Townshend swept the measure through both Commons and Lords without opposition.

British American protests to the Townshend duties came first in pamphlets and petitions to the King and Parliament from colonial assemblies, and then in the form of associations to forego the importation of British goods. In the meantime, Townshend died and the Chatham ministry fell, giving way to one led by Frederick, Lord North. On March 5, 1770, Lord North moved in the House of Commons to repeal all the Townshend duties except that on tea. George Grenville argued for the repeal of that, too, pointing out that the duties were "repugnant to commercial principles" in the first place, "bringing in no money to the state and throwing America into a tenfold flame." Grenville's amendment failed (by 62 votes) but the broader repeal passed on April 12, 1770. Colonial resistance, such as the associations, collapsed soon afterwards.

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