townshend acts, colonial america, american revolution
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A series of measures introduced into the English Parliament by Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend in 1767, the Townshend Acts imposed duties on glass, lead, paints, paper and tea imported into the colonies. Townshend hoped the acts would defray imperial expenses in the colonies, but many Americans viewed the taxation as an abuse of power, resulting in the passage of agreements to limit imports from Britain. In 1770, Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties except the tax on tea, leading to a temporary truce between the two sides in the years before the American Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin and other Americans in Britain had argued against Parliament’s power to impose the Stamp Act on the ground that it was a direct tax, British leaders convinced themselves that the colonists would accept so-called indirect taxes such as import duties, a wishful misunderstanding of colonial opinion.

Many influential Americans believed that Parliament had no right to impose any taxes on the colonists, viewing taxation as an abuse of Great Britain’s constitutional relationship with the colonies. As Samuel Adams, speaking for the Massachusetts legislature, put it: ‘In all free states, the constitution is fixed; it is from thence, that the legislature derives its authority; therefore it cannot change the constitution without destroying its own foundation.’ Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts dissolved the legislature when it issued a Circular Letter describing the measures it had taken against the Townshend Acts. The Circular Letter led to a series of Non-Importation Agreements, which reduced colonial imports from Britain in 1768-1769 by half.

In April 1770, Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties except the tax on tea, which it retained in order to assert its right to tax the colonies. This led to a sort of truce, which lasted until the burning of the British patrol boat Gaspee in 1772. In the years before the Revolution, resistance to the tea tax became a symbol of American patriotism.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.