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History

The Townshend Acts
By Ken Anderson
Apr 12, 2004 - 12:19:00 PM

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The Stamp Act of 1765 fanned the flame of revolt throughout the colonies. The tax act, which would have forced the colonists to purchase stamps for nearly every transaction, was largely ignored. In Boston and other parts of the American colonies, stamps were seized and burned.

Rather than pay the taxation imposed through the Stamp Act, colonists boycotted foreign, particularly British, goods. The use of homemade clothing and other goods became fashionable, a symbol of patriotism, while those who wore imported woolens and linens were ostracized.

The boycott hurt the British as well, and the Stamp Act was repealed after only four months. However, it was replaced with the Declaratory Act, which stated that England reserved the right to tax the colonies.

In February of 1767, Parliament imposed the Townshend Acts, named after "Champagne Charlie" Townshend, who put through a series of acts levying taxes on glass, lead, paper, paints, and tea, taking advantage of the distinction the colonists had drawn between internal and external taxes. To enforce the acts, the use of writs of assistance (general warrants) was authorized, admiralty courts were given jurisdiction, and a board of customs commissioners was established in America.

Even worse was Townshend's plan to use the legislation to take from the colonies their control over the economy. Funds raised by the acts were to be used to establish a civil system composed of royal governors, judges, and others dependent not upon the colonies but on the provincial assemblies for their salaries.

Again, the colonists reacted with a boycott of British goods, signing non-importation agreements. Merchants who stocked British goods were disgraced; their names were printed in the papers, and they lost their customers. Some were even tarred and feathered, a sign of disapproval that involved pouring hot tar on the individual, then covering him with feathers.

Because of the resolve of the American colonists, public opinion had the force of law.

Rioting broke out in Boston when John Hancock's sloop Liberty was seized by customs officials in June of 1768. Troops were sent to the city to restore order as well as to assert British control.

Merchants thought to be cooperating with the British were put out of business, their shops destroyed, their customers lost.

The presence of British troops in Boston had long been a sore point among the Boston colonists.

On February 22, 1770, a small guard of British soldiers, provoked by jeers, and by rocks and snowballs being thrown at them as they walked through the streets of Boston, fired upon a group of mostly children and young men, killing 12-year-old Christopher Snider. Tensions rose further.

In a similar situation occurred on March 5, 1770, when a patrol of British soldiers were set upon as they walked through the Boston streets. A young man in the crowd shouted an insult at a British officer. A soldier on sentry duty supposedly struck the boy with a rifle, and a crowd of about 400 men and boys gathered. They began pelting the soldiers with snowballs and chunks of ice. In the confusion, they fired upon the mob, killing three outright, and mortally wounding two other citizens. The dead included Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, Patrick Carr, and Crispus Attucks. This event became known as the Boston Massacre. Six others were wounded, but survived.

The soldiers, including Captain Preston, their commander, along with four men in the Customs House alleged to have fired shots from it, were arrested and indicted for murder. Strangely enough, John Adams defended the soldiers at their trials, which ran from October 24-30, and from November 27-December 5, 1770. Preston and the four men in the Customs House were acquitted, while two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter and released after being branded on the hand.

The Boston Massacre was the culmination of tensions between the British and the colonists that had been growing since the troops first appeared in Massachusetts in October of 1768. While the soldiers were there to keep order, the citizens saw them as oppressors, competitors for jobs, and as a threat to their way of life.

While the Stamp Act apparently had little effect on imports from England, perhaps because it was quickly repealed, the Townshend Act led to a considerable reduction, which did much financial harm to British merchants.

Samuel Adams
Shortly after the implementation of the Townshend Acts, Samuel Adams and James Otis, two members of the Massachusetts Assembly, drafted a resolution and a circular letter that were adopted by the Assembly and sent to each of the colonial assemblies. The resolution referred to the Townshend Acts as "obviously unconstitutional" because the colonies had no direct representation in Parliament. The letter encouraged the other twelve assemblies to join Massachusetts in petitioning the king to exert influence on the Parliament to repeal the acts.

Lord Hillsborough, who was stationed in Boston, ordered that the resolution and the circular letter be rescinded, calling upon the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, Francis Bernard, to dismiss the Assembly if they refused.
James Otis

The Assembly took up the issue, and it was during this debate, which lasted for hours, that James Otis made the now famous statement, "No taxation without representation." The final vote was 92 to 17 against rescinding the resolution and circular letter.

Because of their unpopularity, all but one of the Townshend Acts were repealed one by one, except for the import tax on tea. This was kept as a reminder to the colonists that Parliament still had the right to tax them.


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