Observations on Several Acts of Parliament

Cartoon in the General Magazine (London). Note Lord North at left holding a paper that reads, "An Act for Prohibiting all Trade." (Library of Congress)

The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 awoke Americans to the fact that import duties for the purpose of revenue were taxes just as much as the direct internal taxation of the Stamp Act. The rejection of the Townshend duties by the colonies is a well-known story; less well known is the connection between a boycott to protest those duties and a call for repeal of the Sugar Act.

In late 1769, Boston merchants prepared an essay asserting that “several acts of Parliament” imposed duties damaging to American trade, and that all such revenue acts should be repealed. The resulting pamphlet deserves more attention than it has received in the scholarly literature. “This pamphlet was the clearest and strongest statement ever formulated of the position of the American merchant class, particularly that of New England.”[1] The essay was one of a pair of documents intended by American merchants to make their case widely known; they soon enlisted the support of Benjamin Franklin in London to publicize the merchants’ position and influence members of Parliament.[2]

The Boycott

The most consequential American action to protest the Townshend duties was an organized boycott of imports from Great Britain. The boycott was established by associations of merchants committed to nonimportation until the Townshend Revenue Act was repealed. In an attempt to weaken the associations, Secretary of State Hillsborough promised in May 1769 that Great Britain would repeal all the duties save that on tea.[3]

The promised repeal of most of the duties did not satisfy the colonists. This August 3 letter from Samuel Cooper in Boston to Benjamin Franklin stated the American viewpoint.

The vague, indeterminate promise of a kind of repeal, which is generally regarded here as a design to divide us, and break this salutary measure [i.e., nonimportation], has . . . only serv’d to support and strengthen it.[4]

Repeal All Parliamentary Duties

On October 17, the association of Boston merchants revised their nonimportation agreement so as to demand repeal of allparliamentary duties—including those of the Sugar Act. On October 25, the merchants wrote their counterparts in Philadelphia advocating that nonimportation should continue until all the parliamentary duties were repealed.

On November 11, the Philadelphia merchants responded to the Boston letter, agreeing only to the concept, not the action.[5]

The acts of the 4th and 6th George 3rd, being expressly for the purpose of raising a revenue and containing many grievous and unreasonable burdens upon trade [should be repealed, along with the Townshend Revenue Act].

The purpose of nonimportation was broader than simply the repeal of the 1767 act.

The design of the Merchants through the continent was not only to procure a repeal of any Single Act but to give weight to the petitions [of their colonial legislatures] against the Parliament’s claim to tax the Colonies; and to prevent any future attempts of like Nature; that a precedent admitted will operate against us; and that an acquiescence under the acts of the 4th and 6th, even though that of the 7th of George 3d should be repealed, will be establishing a precedent.

Despite that forceful statement, the Philadelphia merchants held back, claiming that since they had not earlier demanded repeal of the Sugar Act, “Our Merchants are extremely averse to making it now an object of their non-importation agreement.”But if Parliament repealed only the Townshend duties, they would cooperate “in any measure that may be thought prudent and practicable for obtaining a full redress of all grievances.”[6]

On November 25, the merchants of Philadelphia took additional action: in order to make their views known in London, they defined their position in a letter to the London Committee of Merchants. This is the heart of the lengthy letter: “Nothing less than a repeal of all the revenue acts, and putting things on the same footing they were before the late innovations, can or will satisfy the minds of the people.”[7] On November 26, Philadelphia merchant (and patriot leader) Charles Thomson sent Benjamin Franklin a copy of that letter, along with his extensive commentary, expecting Franklin to publicize the merchants’ position.

[Since] the parliament will no doubt at their meeting take under Consideration the affairs of America, it is necessary you should be fully acquainted with the disposition and temper of the colonies. Though the merchants of this place and New York have agreed to confine their non-importation to the repeal of the act laying duties on Tea, Paper, Glass and Paints, yet this does not rise from any alteration of sentiment in the minds of the people in general, nor from a conviction that this is the only act that affects the Liberty of America.

Thomson emphasized that “a partial redress will little avail to allay the heats and quiet the minds of the people.” The letter went on at great length, virtually an essay itself.[8]

Given the refusal of the other merchants to take action, Boston merchants decided, for the sake of unanimity, not to insist upon the repeal of all duties. Although they agreed to resume importation when the Townshend duties were repealed, they still wanted to press for repeal of the Sugar Act. In this December 29 letter to Massachusetts agent Dennys De Berdt (a London merchant himself), they explained their plan.

As the Acts of the 4th and 6th George the third Contain many grievous and unreasonable restrictions upon Trade and are by far the most exceptionable, the Merchants here have thought it necessary to make some observations upon these Acts as also upon the conduct of the Custom House officers here, that our friends in Parliament may be acquainted with the difficulties the Trade labors under by means of these acts.[9]

The merchants enclosed a copy of the “observations upon these Acts.”

The Pamphlet

The resulting essay was published in December 1769 as a twenty-four-page pamphlet: Observations on Several Acts of Parliament, Passed in the 4th, 6th and 7th Years of His Present Majesty’s Reign.[10]

The representative body of this people having very fully and repeatedly remonstrated against these acts as unconstitutional and as infringing the rights and privileges of the subject, it is unnecessary to add any thing upon that head; but we shall confine our Remarks to such parts of these acts as affect the trading interest.
By these acts certain rates and duties are imposed on molasses, sugars, wine, tea, glass, paper and many other articles commonly imported into the British colonies in America. [Such] embarrassments on the trade of the coloniesmust greatly diminish if not wholly destroy several branches of it.

The result would be to “lessen the demand for British manufactures.”

To collect this revenue, the government is at a very great expence, equal at least (and including the charge of men of war and cutters to guard the coast, vastly superior) to all the revenue that could be collected had our trade been as extensive as it was before those Acts were made, which is not the case now, and never will be, while they remain in force.
One principal branch of the trade of this province is the fishery [which] almost, if not wholly depends on our trade to the foreign islands in the West-Indies.

The essay discusses the fishery at length, concluding that it would be lost if trade to the West Indies was disrupted by the duty on molasses.[11]

Another considerable branch of our trade is that carried on to Africa, where we send large quantities of New-England rum, not only for our own trade, but to supply the traders in ships from Great-Britain, with whom we exchange this commodity for other European articles brought out by them suitable for that trade, by means of which they are enabled to carry on their trade to greater advantage than they would otherwise do without this necessary article.

Even at one penny (the lower rate established in 1766) the molasses duty was still a burden.

All these several branches of trade are greatly obstructed by the duties imposed, and the restrictions to which they are subjected by the aforementioned acts. The duty on molasses, tho’ reduced to one penny per gallon, which at first sight may appear but small, yet as it is one tenth part of the value (when brought to market) is really large, and will be a discouragement to a trade which has insinuated itself into, and is a great spring to every branch of business among us.

Reinforcing the importance of the molasses trade:

The fishery, the lumber trade and ship-building, are greatly promoted by the importation of molasses, and distilling it into rum, and the trade to Africa wholly depends on this article; so that any act which hath a tendency to obstruct the importation of molasses must be prejudicial to Great-Britain.

The revisions to the Sugar Act in 1766 changed the nature of the molasses duty.

The former acts imposing duties on molasses were intended only as a regulation of trade, and to encourage our own islands; and the duty was only on foreign molasses. But by [the act of 1766] it is imposed on all molasses, and expressly for the purpose of raising a revenue.

The high duty on foreign sugar (brown and white),

is a great burden on our trade to the foreign islands. If we confine ourselves to molasses, a sufficient return’d cargo cannot always be obtain’d; and the aforesaid duties upon sugars are so heavy as to render the import of them so unprofitable, that we cannot pursue a trade by which we disposed of the superfluous produce of our country.

Adding to the problems resulting from duties, unreasonable regulations placed additional burdens on American trade.

The reasons given for these regulations, as mentioned in the act of the 6th of George the Third, were “the more effectually to prevent enumerated goods being privately carried from the British colonies, into foreign parts of Europe, in vessels that clear’d out with non-enumerated goods; and also to prevent the clandestine importation of foreign European goods into said British colonies.”

The essay refuted the British rationale:

Upon the first of these reasons we would observe, that the great care and vigilance of the custom-house officers here might answer the purpose, and effectually prevent any such enumerated goods from being exported to foreign parts.

The refutation of British rationale and additional recitation of grievances continued at length, but eventually began to wind down and reach some fundamental issues.

The merchants do not desire liberty to import any kind of goods that are prejudicial to the manufactures of Great-Britain, nor have they ever yet complain’d of their trade being confin’d to Great-Britain for such goods as are manufactured there so long as they might be imported duty free.

At this point the merchants moved beyond the topic stated in the title: many acts, even the Molasses Act of 1733, trampled on their rights and should be repealed.

What the Colonists have a right to expect and hope for, is a repeal of all the acts imposing duties on any kind of goods imported into the British colonies for the purpose of raising a revenue in America, as being inconsistent with their rights as free subjects—the removal of every unnecessary burden upon trade, and that it be restor’d to the same footing it was upon before the act of the 6th of George the 2d, commonly call’d the sugar-act [i.e., the 1733 Molasses Act]—particularly,
That molasses, so necessary to promote every branch of trade, and likewise sugars, be admitted free of duty.[12]

After more of the same—wine, oil, fruit—here is the core of the essay: restore trade to its status before 1733.

The taking off the duties on paper, glass and colours, will [not] relieve the trade of the burdens it labours under—But should all the revenue acts be repealed . . . .

That premise was followed by this conclusion,

it would have a happy tendency to unite Great-Britain and her colonies on a lasting foundation—all clandestine trade would then cease—the great expence of men of war, cutters of the commissioners and other custom-house officers lately appointed, to secure her revenue might be saved. The trade, navigation and fishery would not only be revived, but greatly extended; and in that case the growth of these colonies would be very rapid, and consequently the demand for British manufactures proportionally increased.

And the benefit to Great Britain.

Upon the whole, the trade of America is really the trade of Great-Britain herself: the profits thereof center there. It is one grand source from whence money so plentifully flows into the hands of the several manufacturers, and from thence into the coffers of landholders throughout the whole kingdom. It is in short the strongest chain of connection between Britain and the Colonies, and the principal means whereby those sources of wealth and power have been and are so useful and advantageous to her.

Balanced by a mild threat.

The embarrassments, difficulties and insupportable burdens under which this trade has laboured, have already made us prudent, frugal and industrious, and such a spirit in the Colonists must soon, very soon, enable them to subsist without the manufactures of Great-Britain, the trade of which, as well as its naval power, has been greatly promoted and strengthened by the luxury of the colonies; consequently any measures that have a tendency to injure, obstruct and diminish the American trade and navigation, must have the same effect upon that of Great-Britain, and in all probability PROVE HER RUIN.[13]

On December 29, the Boston merchants sent the Observations pamphlet to Benjamin Franklin, expressing the same purpose as in their letter to De Berdt.

As the Acts of the 4th and 6th George the third Contain many grievous and unreasonable restrictions upon Trade and are by far the most exceptionable, the Merchants here have tho’t it necessary to make some Observations upon these Acts as also upon the Conduct of the Custom House Officers here that our Friends in Parliament may be acquainted with the Difficulties the Trade labors under by means of these Acts.[14]

Action in London

Both De Berdt and Franklin were skilled lobbyists. De Berdt’s focus was on the merchants, who submitted to the House of Commons a “Petition of the Merchants and Traders of the City of London trading to North America.” The petition called for repeal of all the Townshend duties. (The merchants, despite De Berdt’s urging, would not advocate repeal of the Sugar Act.[15])

Franklin dealt with publicity and with members of the House of Commons. When he responded to Thomson on March 18, 1770, he described his recent activity. “Your very judicious Letter of Novemr. 26th. being communicated by me to some Member of Parliament, was handed about among them, so that it was sometime before I got it again into my Hands. It had due Weight with several, and was of considerable Use. You will see that I printed it at length in the London Chronicle with the [Philadelphia] Merchants’ Letter.”[16] (The letters were published on March 1-3.)

The Observations essay became well known in London. The pamphlet was reprinted by John Almon, and “may have appeared while Parliament was considering repeal in March.” The essay was certainly a topic of conversation by April, being noted in Gentleman’s Magazine.[17] Extracts from the essay were printed in The Critical Review with this added comment.

These are very just and proper deductions, and we cannot make the least doubt that the government of Great Britain has too great a regard for its own interest to take the least step to injure the merchants of Boston; but at the same time, those merchants ought to remember that England is not only their mother but their sovereign.[18]

The essay later appeared in The Monthly Review.[19] And it received considerable attention in The Political Register. The editors commented that “the design of this judicious little tract is to shew the detriment these revenue acts have done to the commercial interest of Great Britain.” Substantial annotated extracts from the essay followed, with the final paragraph being prefaced with the comment that “the conclusion is well worthy the immediate attention of government.”[20]

Parliament was not moved by the lobbying effort. On March 5, 1770, the House of Commons took up the petition of the London merchants, but decided against repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act, voting after spirited debate to retain the tea duty, and repeal only duties on paper, glass, and paint.

A Period of Calm . . . And then Repeal

Surprising American popular leaders, merchants in the colonies ultimately were satisfied with the limited repeal action; the nonimportation movement soon collapsed.[21] A long period followed in which Americans were mostly quiet about the laws of trade. The calm was interrupted by the Tea Act in 1773, followed by the Boston Tea Party and the consequent bitter controversy. In 1774, in the First Continental Congress, the colonies finally reached agreement in a demand for repeal of the acts of the 4th, 6th, and 7th as being “subversive of American rights.”[22]


[1]Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1766 (New York: Columbia University, 1917), 133. Schlesinger provides a useful paraphrase of the essay, but none of the actual text. John Phillip Reid quotes a short extract and asserts that the essay “summed up the whig constitutional position.” John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority to Legislate (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 3: 219.

[2]Franklin at that time was the agent for Pennsylvania, and soon-to-be-appointed agent for Massachusetts.

[3]The 1767 act placed duties on paper, glass, paint and tea.

[4]William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 16:182. The Reverend Dr. Samuel Cooper was a friend of many patriot leaders.

[5]In the following text, the phrase acts of the 4th and the 6th George 3rd refers to the Sugar Act of 1764 and its revision in 1766. And the phrase 7th of George 3d denotes the Townshend Revenue Act.

[6]Schlesinger, Colonial Merchants, 132-33. New York merchants declined a similar request to modify their nonimportation agreement. Lieutenant Governor Colden reported this refusal (“not one person spoke in favor of it”) to Secretary of State Hillsborough on December 4, 1769. The Colden Letter Books Vol. 2. 1766–1775 (New York: Published by the New-York Historical Society, 1877), 10: 193.

[7]Schlesinger, Colonial Merchants, 133n.

[8]Willcox, ed., Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 16: 237.

[9]Alfred Langdon Elwyn, Papers Relating to Public Events in Massachusetts Preceding the American Revolution (Philadelphia, PA: Printed for the Seventy-Six Society, 1856), 128-29.

[10]The text of the pamphlet is available online at: name.umdl.umich.edu/N08928.0001.001.

[11]The economics of the fishery depended upon trade with foreign sugar plantations, essentially exchanging fish for molasses. Molasses was vital to the economy of the northern colonies for its distillation into rum, an essential export product.

[12]It may be this assertion of right that caused Schlesinger to believe that the merchants were being aggressive about the unconstitutional nature of the duties, and were adopting “the new American notion of the unconstitutional character of revenue tariffs.” As a consequence, states Schlesinger, Boston merchants “decided to take an advanced stand in conformity with the recent developments in colonial theory.” Schlesinger, Colonial Merchants, 131.

[13]Observations on several acts of Parliament, passed in the 4th, 6th and 7th years of His present Majesty’s reign: and also, on the conduct of the officers of the customs, since those acts were passed, and the Board of Commissioners appointed to reside in America. Published by the merchants of Boston. (Boston, MA: Printed by Edes & Gill, 1769).

[14]Willcox, ed., Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 16: 272-73.

[15]In a letter of February 2, 1770, De Berdt explained his advocacy of a more forceful petition. Albert Matthews, ed.,Letters of Dennys de Berdt 1757-1770. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (Cambridge: J. Wilson and Son, 1911), 13: 396-97.

[16]William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), 17: 110.

[17]Willcox, ed., Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 16: 273n. The quote is commentary by the editors of the Franklin papers.

[18]Tobias Smollett, ed., The Critical Review: or, Annals of Literature (London: A. Hamilton, 1770), 29: 142-43.

[19]Ralph Griffiths and George Edward Griffiths, eds., The Monthly Review, Volume 42: January-June 1770 (London: Printed for R. Griffiths, 1770), 155-56.

[20]The Political Register and Impartial Review, Volume the Sixth (London: Printed for Henry Beevor, 1770), 179-80.

[21]The changed position of the merchants on the partial repeal (the “design to divide us”), and shifting power among which group of merchants was to influence decisions about nonimportation, is a separate story, a long and complex story. See, for example, Peter D. G. Thomas, The Townshend Duties Crisis: The Second Phase of the American Revolution, 1767-1773 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987), 196-213.

[22]Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 1: 71-72.

Written By
More from Ken Shumate

The Sugar Act: A Brief History

The Sugar Act of 1764 levied taxes on imports to British colonies...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *