The increasingly turbulent years preceding the American Revolution were fueled by an exchange of laws promulgated by Great Britain to maintain political and economic control over its American Colonies and the reactions of her unruly colonies to those laws. One of the events in the lead-up to the Revolution was the issuance by Great Britain of the Townshend Duties. These were actually four separate regulations, issued between June 5 and June 29, 1767, designed to succeed where previous efforts had failed to bring the recalcitrant colonies to heel.
The architect of these duties was Charles Townshend who, though possessed of a flawed and quirky personality, may also have been one of the brightest lights ever to arise in British politics. Yet as brilliant as he may have been, he was blind to potential that his Duties would be a major death knell for relations between the colonies and the mother country. It is worth examining in some detail the life of this man who streaked, meteor-like, ever so briefly across the British political scene and just as quickly disappeared.
Born on August 27, 1725 to Charles Townshend, the third Viscount Townshend, and his wife Audrey, son Charles experienced, nearly from the start, an unhappy childhood. His mother was famed, as would be Charles, for her wit and intellectual abilities; she was also known for her promiscuity, which led to continuing problems in the marriage. His parents separated when young Charles was just fifteen. He went to live with his father, claiming a greater affection for him, though some suspected that this was more feigned than sincere and that he was not really that fond of either his father or his mother.
Not helping his situation was Charles’ health, which also abandoned him at this early age. A disease, likely epilepsy, struck him soon after puberty, and its unpredictable comings and goings would leave him disabled for weeks at a time for the rest of his life. According to his biographers, Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, “one is struck, following month by month and year by year, by the frequency and diversity of the ills from which he suffered.” Yet, despite the struggle, he “gave his life a brilliant and amusing appearance. The tragic side was usually overlooked.”
The continuing maladies severely impacted his schooling, and he would not follow his brother to Eton. Townshend matriculated to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1742 seeking to embark on a career in law, and his education continued at the University of Leyden in 1746-1747. At this time, Townshend’s relationship with his father was on the surface friendly, though a prevailing undercurrent might be best described as strained. His father wrote long letters offering advice and complaining about the young Townshend’s spending habits and about his mother. The young man responded with long letters describing his poor health, asking for money, and thanking his father in flowery phrases for his wise and excellent advice. As with many young men with separated parents, he also mastered the fine art of playing one parent off the other, threatening to reconcile with his mother when he was unhappy with his father.
His long correspondence with his father may have formed some of the habits Townshend was to carry throughout his political career. According to his biographers, Sir Lewis and John Brooke, the letters back and forth make for “painful reading . . . a constant struggle is waged: Charles and his father dissect under a microscope what has been said, manoeuvre for position, and find fault by putting false constructions on what the other has said (a technique Charles was to use all his life).” His manipulation of his mother and his father may also have been a learned behavior that translated to his political career when he wanted to get the best deal he could.
Townshend returned to England to complete his legal studies and soon thereafter was elected to the House of Commons from the borough of Great Yarmouth. This was one place where the money he extracted from his grudging father helped him get started, though he soon abandoned his legal career and assumed a full-time role in government.
On September 18, 1755, Townshend married Lady Caroline Dalkeith, a woman of considerable wealth with a young son from a previous marriage. Townshend’s father once again complained bitterly about his son’s request for money to marry. To add insult to injury, he was not invited to the wedding, and any pretense of friendly relations between father and son came to an end with the marriage. Townshend’s marriage was apparently more one of convenience than love. His wife, who was eight years older than he, had connections with powerful members of the nobility who could help Townshend in his political career and role in government. Her wealth also afforded him the financial freedom to take a few more chances in his political career, a fact he was not embarrassed to flaunt. He would later fight to get her a peerage, at which he eventually succeeded, with her becoming Baroness Greenwich.
From these beginnings Townshend wended his way through a number of governmental positions under the ever-changing administrations of George II, and later George III. After moving to the Board of Trade as a Junior Minister in 1744-1747 under the administration of Henry Pelham, he became Lord of the Admiralty in 1754 (under the Duke of Newcastle), Treasurer of the Chamber in 1757 (under William Pitt), and Secretary of War in 1757-1761 (under Pitt—Newcastle). His advances in government continued under George III, where he served as President of the Board of Trade and then Paymaster General in 1763-1765 (under George Grenville), Paymaster General in 1765-1766 (under the Marquess of Rockingham), and Chancellor of the Exchequer (under Pitt) in 1767.
These constant moves reflect not only Townshend’s mercurial nature but the ever-changing political landscape in England at that time. “At no time in his life did Charles have any close or lasting loyalty to a political leader,” observe Namier and Brooke, though “professions of political devotion were frequent on his part.”
One action stands as a harbinger of his future, from early in his tenure as a junior minister in the Board of Trade, in a set of instructions to the governor of New York, Sir Danvers Osborn. Townshend issued a directive taking the New York Assembly to task for assuming for themselves the disposal of public money and directed it to make permanent provisions for the salary of the governor, judges, and other officials to be paid by the Crown. These anticipated by twelve years his later directive in the Townshend Duties that these offices across the colonies should be under the pay of the British, demonstrating that this was a concept Townshend had been considering for some time. Townshend “understood earlier than most of his contemporaries that sovereignty went hand in hand with the power of the purse.” Governor Osborn, in an unrelated incident but one that in a strange way presaged the colonial reaction to the Townshend Duties, committed suicide shortly thereafter.
In 1765, shortly before his rise to power, it was Townshend who initiated one of the more famous exchanges in Parliament of the period, in favor of George Grenville’s newly proposed Stamp Act: “And now will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence until they are grown to a degree of strength and [luxury], and protected by our [weapons], will they grudge to contribute their mite [little bit of money] to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?”
Townshend’s words elicited, in the words of one observer, “a pretty heavy thump from [Isaac] Barre,” another MP who made his famous and oft-quoted response, “Planted by your care? No! Your oppressions planted them in America . . . They nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of them.” In the midst of the long oration that continued, Barre coined the term “Sons of Liberty,” a mantle which American rebels would proudly assume and use throughout the rest of their resistance. Barre’s protestations aside, Townshend was on the winning side of this debate. The Stamp Act went through, with calamitous consequences for the relationship between the American colonies and the mother country.
Townshend’s rise to power in 1767, which provided him the opportunity to clean up the mess the Stamp Act had created, was accomplished through some fortuitous circumstances; specifically a new ministry formed under Sir William Pitt, “The Great Commoner.” Shortly thereafter, when Pitt took his peerage to become Earl of Chatham, he was a commoner no more. Pitt’s decision to take a peerage baffled his contemporaries, for he thereby forfeited both popularity and his power base in the House of Commons. He “withdrew from a strong position whence he could dominate the political battlefield to one where his peculiar gifts and weapons were of little use.” It had been Chatham’s plan to form an administration which should transcend and obliterate party divisions, and direct it by remote control from the House of Lords. This opened the door partway for Townshend through Commons, and it was opened the rest of the way by Chatham’s dreadful health situation. “Bouts of gout, headaches, and maladies we could associate with depression and anxiety, perhaps even bipolar disorder, had troubled Chatham during the [Seven Years’] war,” and continued until Chatham was, essentially, completely disabled. Thus appeared a power vacuum of a ministry lacking guidance from its head and afraid of acting without knowing his (Chatham’s) opinion. The initiative was seized by Townshend, the most junior member of the cabinet, who only late in 1766 had established his right as Chancellor of the Exchequer to attend cabinet meetings. Charles Townshend’s hour had come.
This rearrangement of the British government came after the hard-nosed policies of George Grenville toward the America colonies and the more accommodating approach of the Marquess of Rockingham. Chatham had come into office with a strong majority voting for the repeal of the Stamp Act with the position that Parliament did not have the right to impose taxes on the colonies, though it did have the right to pass legislation impacting them. Thus in 1766, while repealing the Stamp Act, Rockingham’s authority was weakened when Parliament simultaneously passed the Declaratory Act a reaffirmation of Parliament’s legal authority to pass laws upon the American colonies in all matters, but which failed to specify Parliament’s power to impose taxes on the colonies in general. The Declaratory Act itself passed no specific laws or taxes.
The repeal of the Stamp Act left open the question of how to derive revenue from North America. The feeling remained that the colonies should pay something toward their own defense. Furthermore, the Declaratory Act, which asserted Parliament’s right to tax the colonies, was not meant to be a statement of theory—it had to be backed up by some sort of tax. The more the question of what tax remained unanswered, the more the Declaratory Act would look like an empty threat. It was into this void that Charles Townshend stepped, although his first step was a misstep.
The start of the development of the Townshend Duties can be dated to January 26, 1767. On that date, Grenville proposed in Parliament that the expense of the troops stationed in America (put at £405,607 annually) should be met by the colonies themselves. This proposal was soundly defeated by a vote of 106 to 33. Townshend, though having voted against Grenville (knowing of his fall from favor with the King), accepted the more hawkish Grenville principle and pledged himself that “something should be done this session towards creating a revenue [from America].” Townshend boasted in Parliament that he knew “the mode by which revenue might be drawn from America without offense.” But what Townshend had in mind was a scheme that would instead pay for the cost of civil government in the colonies. Such a plan would yield much less in revenue but would presumably be more acceptable to the colonists.
To ascertain American views on taxation, Townshend went to Benjamin Franklin, who was in the country as a representative of several of the colonies. Particularly, Townshend wanted to understand the distinction that the Americans were making between “internal” taxes and “external” taxes, a distinction which helped stop the Stamp Act. Townshend himself did not buy the distinction, considering it utter nonsense, but he wanted his plan to take advantage of the fact that it seemed to make such a difference to the Americans. By “internal,” Franklin meant the taxes on those goods produced and consumed in the American colonies. In Franklin’s view, any taxes on those goods should be levied by the duly elected assemblies in the colonies. The colonists consented to those representatives and thus the assemblies had the right to tax them. Franklin went on to explain that colonists would not quibble with taxation of those goods that were produced in Britain or the broader empire, or the “external,” in other words. External duties were paid at ports by merchants. Also, these duties, Townshend said, were for the regulation of trade; they were not taxes. Though personally Townshend regarded the distinction between external and internal taxation as “an ecstasy of madness,” he even engaged to find the money from external taxation to which Chatham and the Americans could offer no logical objection. Townshend had the opening he needed.
Townshend was not one to take shortcuts, so it was not a simple step between Franklin’s concurrence on the internal versus external question and the development of the duties. He convened a working group, led by an American named John Huske, to research the proposed duties. He scoured the colonial newspapers for details concerning the American response to the Stamp Act and the Mutiny Act. He studied how salaries were paid for colonial governors and judges. He looked at things such as military and naval costs for the Americans and carefully examined the excises paid on a wide range of goods. He even employed Adam Smith (yes, that Adam Smith) to help him devise strategy. Once Townshend was named Chancellor of the Exchequer, Smith became a frequent visitor to 10 Downing Street.
When all was said and done, Townshend had designed a set of duties to be assessed on goods produced in England and to be collected upon their shipment to the colonies. Included in these duties was one on tea, but that at a reduced rate designed to discourage smuggling that had been so prevalent. The rest of the duties were on a potpourri of other products, including most prominently glass, red and white lead, painters’ colors, and paper. Overall, the Act which included the Townshend Duties actually included three other components. Besides the duties themselves (The Revenue Act), there was also The Indemnity Act, The Commissioners of Customs Act, and the Suspending Act. The Indemnity Act previously mentioned was designed to reduce the cost of tea. The other two Acts bear more examination.
The Commissioners of Customs Act passed on June 29, 1767 established an American Customs Board. Headquartered in Boston, the five British-appointed commissioners of the Customs Board enforced a strict and often arbitrarily applied set of shipping and trade regulations, all intended to increase taxes paid to Britain. In addition to setting up new courts which would be outside the direct control of the colonial legislatures, they removed the right of a jury trial for suspected smugglers and gave British officials the right to search colonists’ homes and businesses with little probable cause. This became a prickly point with the colonists.
The Suspending Act (New York Restraining Act), passed the earliest of the four, was specifically targeted at New York, punishing them for failure to comply with the Quartering Act of 1765. It banned the New York Colony Assembly from conducting business until it agreed to pay for the housing, meals, and other expenses of British troops stationed there under that Act. This law ended up achieving its desired goal. New York complied and got its right to self-rule back, but not without the inevitably worsening feelings against the Crown, given New York still believed the soldiers were not necessary. In time, these increased bad feelings spread to other colonies.
The revenue under the Revenue Act was specifically targeted to pay the governors and customs judges in the colonies. It was designed to raise only about £40,000, only about a tenth of the estimated cost of maintaining a fighting force in the colonies. Aside from being an external tax, the relatively trivial amount was probably another reason why Townshend contended the Act would be acceptable to the colonists.
Grenville, Townshend’s erstwhile opponent in Parliament, dismissed as trifles these long-awaited taxes, a meager £40,000. To counter this obvious criticism Townshend said his duties were only a beginning, to be built upon once the point of taxation had been achieved and (presumably) accepted by the Americans. “Grenville misunderstood Townshend’s purpose which was not simply or merely to obtain as large a revenue as possible from America. His aims were political rather than financial; the re-establishment of the practice of colonial taxation and the making of a parliamentary provision for cost of civil government and the administration of justice in the colonies: the latter was clearly stated in the ensuing legislation.” In short, “Townshend’s real end was to make royal officials independent of the colonial assemblies, to which the raising revenue was merely a means.” It is hard to see how Townshend expected this point would slip through unnoticed, notwithstanding the reduction in revenue collected or the fact that these were external taxes. On April 11, Benjamin Franklin had reported to Pennsylvania that “a project is on foot to render all the governors and magistrates in America dependent in the annual support they receive of their several assemblies,” so the direction should have been clearly understood in America before the Duties were actually issued
Although it seemed as though Townshend had out-maneuvered Grenville on this new approach to taxation, there was something amiss from the standpoint of British politics. The “friends of America,” led by Chatham, had passed a tax on the colonies. “The key posts in Chatham’s cabinet were held by men who professed friendship for America and who were opposed to the taxation of the colonies by the British parliament. Townshend’s plan to raise a revenue in America was countenanced and abetted by men who were publicly pledged to oppose that policy.” Was Chatham, in his disabled condition, even aware of this situation, given his record of opposing Parliament’s right to impose a tax on the colonies? Had he broken down on his support for America and was only too happy to let Townshend take the heat for the change in policy? We will never know. But the House, delighted to vent its rage on insolent provincials, and lulled to security by the blessed word “external,” voted Townshend’s proposals with enthusiasm.
There were storm clouds on the horizon. As Lord Shelburne, another member of the administration, wrote to Pitt “I believe your lordship will think the speech I’ve just mentioned to you is not the way to make anything go down well in North America.” Namier and Brooke put it a little more bluntly: “if ever there was a case of men making history by chance, without being aware of the implications of their policy, it was the enactment of the Townshend duties.”
Indeed, this was the case. Though very early on the protests were calm—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia petitioned the king (to no avail) to express their concern—they intensified quickly. The Duties led to John Dickinson’s “Letter’s from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.” Dickinson argued that taxes imposed on the colonies by Parliament, regardless of whether defined as internal or external, for the purpose of raising revenue were unconstitutional and an affront to all English people. He warned them not to be deceived by the relatively low amounts, arguing that the precedent set was much more problematic. At one point, he argued that “Here then, my dear countrymen, rouse yourselves, and behold the ruin hanging over your heads. If you ONCE admit, that Great Britain may lay duties upon her exportations to us, for the purpose of levying money on us only, she then will have nothing to do, but to lay those duties on the articles which she prohibits us to manufacture—and the tragedy of American liberty is finished.”This further hardened sides as battle lines began to be drawn. The duties being confined to certain goods, they naturally leant themselves to a boycott, and through The Massachusetts Circular Letter the colonies took this step. The boycott lasted from 1768 to 1770, and although it did not have a crippling impact it did provide an early demonstration of the colonists’ ability to act in concert to resist the Crown. The duty on tea, which remained after the rest of the duties were revoked by the next administration, led to the Boston Tea Party. “The passage of the duties reignited the sorts of protests that had inflamed American towns and cities in 1765. Only this time the protests had an avowedly more political edge. In this instance, they moved beyond mobbing to more concerted and efficacious resistance.”
And what did Townshend, the brilliant architect of the 1767 Acts, with his assertion that these Acts were only the beginning and would be accepted by the Americans without offense, have to say?
Nothing. Townshend was dead. He died suddenly from “a putrid fever” (probably typhus) on September 6, 1767 at the age of only forty-two, a scant two months after the passage of his signature legislation and probably before any reaction was known. In England, Walpole said “Our comet Charles Townshend is dead.” As he put it, “that eccentric genius, whom no subsystem could contain, is whirled out of existence.” Oddly enough, when Americans learned of his death, they reported it without editorial or snide comment. “It is as if Americans separated the man from the act, reflecting the fact that from the beginning, despite the riots and the tumult, many did not know quite what to make of the duties.” He did not live to experience the vehement American reaction to his duties. On March 5, 1770, new Prime Minister Lord North presented a motion to repeal the Townshend Duties—all but the tax on tea (and we know what happened with that).
The debate over the Townshend Duties continued until, as their predecessor The Stamp Act, all were repealed. All except the Tea Tax. History will never know what might have become the scope of subsequent duties promised by Townshend, though we can be fairly certain those would have met the same fate. The Townshend era of North American colonial relations, if it was even long enough to be called an “era,” was over. The march toward independence and war continued inexorably on.
A fictional work published in 1777 called “Dialogues in the Shades,” which depicts an imaginary dialogue between many of the key figures of the era including Townshend, Grenville, and others, may provide the best postscript, capturing Townshend’s regret and his blindness in the same statement. In it, a fictional Townshend states: “It is true, the most laudable sentiment may be carried too far, and this was my case when I proposed the renewal of the fatal taxes. I am not without excuse on this point; for I made so many amendments in the Bill, all favourable to the Americans, that I could not foresee they would be exasperated by it.”