Thursday, October 30, 2014

Towards Revolution: Townshend Act

Charles Townshend
Previously, the two new tax schemes of England had brought opposition and arguments in the Thirteen Colonies in North America. The Sugar act led to widespread smuggling and arguments on the powers of the Parliament in London in enact laws in the colonies. Meanwhile, the Stamp Act brought wave of opposition on a higher scale. Numerous sectors, from intellectuals to religious groups, had voiced their anger over the new tax. The opposition was so strong that in 1766, the Stamp act was repealed. But England was not yet finish. In 1767, in order to increase their revenues, Charles Townshend, implemented a new wave of taxes that would once again engulf the Thirteen Colonies.

Great Britain was in a dire situation during the decade of 1760’s. The French and Indian War had brought huge debts to the Kingdom. Moreover, its massive empire in the Americas caused a lot to be maintained and kept. Prime Ministers of Great Britain attempted to alleviate debt by collecting new sources of revenue. And their sights was aimed towards the Thirteen Colonies, which virtually, paid no direct taxes to Britain.

The Sugar and Stamp Act were the early ill-attempts of Britain to tax the colonies. But when the two tax acts were implemented, furious and violent opposition in both the streets and the legislatures became intense. Protests groups formed and showed opposition to the taxes. Legislators from different colonies argued about the rights of the Parliament in London to tax colonies which were not actually and really represented in the body. Eventually, in March 1766, the Stamp Act was repealed and the Sugar Tax was reformed.

In 1766, a new government took power. Only months in power, Lord Rockingham, the Prime Minister responsible for the repeal of the Stamp Act, lose the faith of his majesty King George III. He was replaced by a veteran but aging statesman, William Pitt the Elder. Pitt’s involvement in governance became seldom due to his age. Much of the state of affairs fell to the shoulders of his Chancellor of Exchequer, Charles Townshend. In 1767, Townshend saw the need to impose new taxes to the colonies.

Townshend knew the issues of the taxing the colonies. He was aware that external taxes, which concerns trade with other countries, would receive opposition from the colonials. He then decided to impose internal taxes, which impose due to items imported from England itself. He then issued an act which placed taxes over luxury and necessity good that were imported by the colonies from England. Tariffs were imposed in glass, paint, paper, and lead products. He also imposed 3 penny taxes on tea.

Enforcement of the new taxes were more intense than before. Customs board, directly appointed by Townshend would enforce the law. They could issue general warrants or writ of assistance to inspect cargo ships. Due process of captured smugglers were once again placed under vice-admiralty courts, with the judges given the power to sentence, rather than regular courts, with juries giving the sentences. To answer the issues of distance and cost for having lawsuits filed from Nova Scotia from the past taxes, new vice-admiralty courts were established in major ports of Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia. In order to protect customs officials from any harassment by the colonials, the Parliament also passed the Quartering Act, which provided lodgings for red coats that would be deployed in the ports of the colonies.

In order to maintain efficiency of the customs officials, a scheme of commission was set. Custom board officials would get their salary from the fines of convicted smugglers. They would also receive one-third of the confiscated cargo.

When the news of the new taxes reached the Thirteen Colonies, the response was immediate and furious. In newspapers, numerous columnist voice opposition. Among them was Josiah Quincy. Quincy voiced his distaste of the Quartering Act, which provided that locals should provide the food and lodgings of British troops. He quoted: “Is not the bread taken out of children’s mouth and unto the dogs?” Others showed their furry into other forms. In December of 1767, John Dickinson wrote a pamphlet titles, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.  On his pamphlet he argued that any form of taxation by London was an act of enslavement. Protest movements that flared up during the Stamp returned. Boycott movements returned. Because the Townshend Act placed taxes on British goods imported to the colonies, vocal leaders, like Samuel Adams, urged for a boycott of these goods. Businessmen and artisans, who could profit from the import-substitution, ensuing from the boycott, welcomed the movement. The famous protest movement Sons of Liberty also resurfaced in 1768 to challenge the Townshend Act.  In addition, a new organization appeared against the Townshend Act and would serve as the female counterpart of the Sons of Liberty – the Daughters of Liberty.

The Daughters of Liberty was an organization that embodied the opposition of women to the Townshend Act. Composed of housewife from all walks of life, it supported the movement of boycott of British textiles and import substitution. The Daughters of Liberty urged women to make their own clothes from scratch, rather than import textile products from England. They had spinning bee events were women publicly spin thread and yarn together. In 1770, the Daughters of Liberty elevated their boycott by not just boycotting textile but also tea from Britain.

Besides protests, smuggling became widespread and became almost a heroic act for many colonials. The Sons of Liberty supported brave smugglers who defied the British customs officials. Among the most revered smugglers was the John Hancock, who later became part of the Continental Congress. Hancock rose in popularity by smuggling French and Spanish goods to Boston. It provided the goods that the city needed and it was cheaper because it paid less taxes to the authorities. However, the British authorities took notice of Hancock and decided to act. In June of 1768, the British ceased one of Hancock’s ship, the Liberty. Hudson was sued by the authorities for smuggling. But the action caused outrage from the public. But for unexplained reason, the charges were drop later on.

Other than the charges brought against Hancock, Boston was shook by political upheaval. On February of 1768, Samuel Adams filed a circular against the Townshend Act in the colony legislature. Governor Francis Bernard was able to persuade most of the legislators. However, after the elections, new anti-Townshend Act legislators were elected to the legislature. And under the new legislature, the circular was passed. But then Governor Bernard received support from the secretary of colonial affairs, lord Hillsborough to repeal the circular letter. The motion to repeal in the Massachusetts legislature failed overwhelmingly. 92 vote against the repeal and 7 for the repeal. As a result, Governor Bernard, with the support of Hillsborough dissolved the legislature. Knowing the possible public outcry and riot that would follow, 4,000 red coats were sent into Boston to secure peace and order.

Two years later, however, this presence of British troop became a focal point that would ignite anger throughout the Thirteen Colonies. At the night of March 5, 1770, a contingent of British troops under Captain Thomas Preston was in charge of guarding the Boston customs house. A mob, in discontent of the taxes and the presence of British troops threw snowballs against the British soldiers. It then led to taunting and with one unknown shot, a whole contingent of British troops opened fired against the mob. It led to the death of five and wounded eight other civilians. The so-called Boston Massacre was forever immortalized by the depiction of the famous journalist, Paul Revere. The news of the killings spread like wild fire throughout the Thirteen Colonies.

While the Boston Massacre occurred in Boston, across the Atlantic, Great Britain underwent political change once again. The leading figures that pushed for the Townshend Act were dead. Charles Townshend had died in 1767. A year later, William Pitt also passed away. In 1770, a new Prime Minister was in power, Frederick Lord North. When he came to office, Great Britain faced recession. The boycott on textile, a major export of Great Britain, harmed the economy. In order to prevent a total economic disaster, on March 5, a motion for repeal was filed by Prime Minister North. A month later, the repeal was passed. The Townshend Act along with the loathed Quartering Act were repealed. However, a part of the Townshend Act was maintained. Revenue on tea were huge - £20,000 annually. This part of the Townshend Act was maintained. Nevertheless, the colonials managed to score another victory against the British Parliament in London.

The Townshend Act was a disaster for the British. It further angered the colonies, which led to dissatisfaction towards the British authorities. The infamous legacy of the act, the Boston Massacre, caused outcry and opened the eyes of many colonials to the “brutality” of the British authorities. The Townshend Act only managed to further drive the Thirteen Colonies towards the direction of revolution for liberty and independence. 

See also:
Stamp Act
Sugar Act
Tea Act

Berkin, C. Making America: A History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Boyer, P. et. al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Boston: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2010.

Brooks, R. An American History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

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