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Charles Townshend spearheaded the laws, but died before their detrimental effects became apparent.

The Townshend Acts or Townshend Duties were a series of British acts of Parliament passed during 1767 and 1768 introducing a series of taxes and regulations to fund administration of the British colonies in America. They are named after the Chancellor of the Exchequer who proposed the programme. Historians vary slightly as to which acts they include under the heading "Townshend Acts", but five are often listed:

The purposes of the acts were to

  • raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so that they would remain loyal to Great Britain,
  • create more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations,
  • punish the Province of New York for failing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act, and
  • establish the precedent that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.

The Townshend Acts met resistance in the colonies. People debated them in the streets, and in the colonial newspapers. Opponents of the Acts gradually became violent, leading to the Boston Massacre of 1770. The Acts placed an indirect tax on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea, all of which had to be imported from Britain. This form of revenue generation was Townshend's response to the failure of the Stamp Act 1765, which had provided the first form of direct taxation placed upon the colonies.

However, the import duties proved to be similarly controversial. Colonial indignation over the acts was expressed in John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and in the Massachusetts Circular Letter. There was widespread protest, and American port cities refused to import British goods, so Parliament began to partially repeal the Townshend duties. In March 1770, most of the taxes from the Townshend Acts were repealed by Parliament under Frederick, Lord North. However, the import duty on tea was retained in order to demonstrate to the colonists that Parliament held the sovereign authority to tax its colonies, in accordance with the Declaratory Act 1766. The British government continued to tax the American colonies without providing representation in Parliament.

American resentment, corrupt British officials, and abusive enforcement spurred colonial attacks on British ships, including the burning of the Gaspee in 1772. The Townshend Acts' taxation of imported tea was enforced once again by the Tea Act 1773, and this led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 in which Bostonians destroyed a large shipment of taxed tea. Parliament responded with severe punishments in the Intolerable Acts 1774. The Thirteen Colonies drilled their militia units, and war finally erupted in Lexington and Concord in April 1775, launching the American Revolution.


Following the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the British government was deep in debt. To pay a small fraction of the costs of the newly expanded empire, the Parliament of Great Britain decided to levy new taxes on the colonies of British America. Previously, through the Trade and Navigation Acts, Parliament had used taxation to regulate the trade of the empire. But with the Sugar Act of 1764, Parliament sought, for the first time, to tax the colonies for the specific purpose of raising revenue. American colonists argued that there were constitutional issues involved.

The Americans claimed they were not represented in Parliament, but the British government retorted that they had "virtual representation", a concept the Americans rejected. This issue, only briefly debated following the Sugar Act, became a major point of contention after Parliament's passage of the Stamp Act 1765. The Stamp Act proved to be wildly unpopular in the colonies, contributing to its repeal the following year, along with the failure to raise substantial revenue.

Implicit in the Stamp Act dispute was an issue more fundamental than taxation and representation: the question of the extent of Parliament's authority in the colonies. Parliament provided its answer to this question when it repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 by simultaneously passing the Declaratory Act, which proclaimed that Parliament could legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever".

The Five Townshend Acts

The Revenue Act 1767

This act was the (joint) first act, passed on 29 June 1767, the same day as the Commissioners of Customs Act (see below).

It placed taxes on glass, lead, "painters' colors" (paint), paper, and tea. It also gave the supreme court of each colony the power to issue "writs of assistance", general warrants that could be issued to customs officers and used to search private property for smuggled goods.

There was an angry response from colonists, who deemed the taxes a threat to their rights as British subjects.

The Commissioners of Customs Act 1767

This act was passed on 29 June 1767. It created a new Customs Board for the North American colonies, to be headquartered in Boston with five customs commissioners. New offices were eventually opened in other ports as well. The board was created to enforce shipping regulations and increase tax revenue. Previously, customs enforcement was handled by the Customs Board back in England. Due to the distance, enforcement was poor, taxes were avoided and smuggling was rampant.

Once the new Customs Board was in operation, enforcement increased, leading to a confrontation with smuggling colonists. Incidents between customs officials, military personnel and colonists broke out across the colonies, eventually leading to the occupation of Boston by British troops. This led to the Boston Massacre.

The New York Restraining Act 1767

This was the (joint) third of the five acts, passed on 2 July 1767, the same day as the Indemnity Act.

It forbade the New York Assembly and the governor of New York from passing any new bills until they complied with the Quartering Act 1765. That act required New York to provide housing, food and supplies for the British troops stationed there to defend the colony. New York resisted the Quartering Act saying they were being taxed, yet had no direct representation in Parliament. Furthermore, New York didn't think British soldiers were needed any more, since the French and Indian War had come to an end.

Before the act was implemented, New York reluctantly agreed to provide some of the soldiers' needs, so it was never applied.

The Indemnity Act 1767

This Act was passed together with the New York Restraining Act, on 2 July 1767.

'Indemnity' means 'security or protection against a loss or other financial burden'. The Indemnity Act 1767 reduced taxes on the British East India Company when they imported tea into England. This allowed them to re-export the tea to the colonies more cheaply and resell it to the colonists. Until this time, all items had to be shipped to England first from wherever they were made and then re-exported to their destination, including to the colonies. This followed from the principle of mercantilism in England, which meant the colonies were forced to trade only with England.

The British East India Company was one of England's largest companies but was on the verge of collapse due to much cheaper smuggled Dutch tea. Part of the purpose of the entire series of Townshend Acts was to save the company from imploding. Since tea smuggling had become a common and successful practice, Parliament realized how difficult it was to enforce the taxing of tea. The Act stated that no more taxes would be placed on tea, and it made the cost of the East India Company's tea less than tea that was smuggled via Holland. It was an incentive for the colonists to purchase the East India Company tea.

The Vice Admiralty Court Act 1768

This was the last of the five acts passed. It was not passed until 8 March 1768, the year after the other four. Lord Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after whom the Townshend Acts were named, had died suddenly in September 1767, and so did not introduce this Act.

The Act was passed to aid the prosecution of smugglers. It gave admiralty courts, rather than colonial courts, jurisdiction over all matters concerning customs violations and smuggling. Before the Act, customs violators could be tried in an admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia, if royal prosecutors believed they would not get a favourable outcome using a local judge and jury.

The Vice-Admiralty Court Act added three new admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston to aid in more effective prosecutions. These courts were run by judges appointed by the Crown and whose salaries were paid, in the first instance, from fines levied. when they found someone guilty.

The decisions were made solely by the judge, without the option of trial by jury, which was considered to be a fundamental right of British subjects. In addition, the accused person had to travel to the court of jurisdiction at his own expense; if he did not appear, he was automatically considered guilty.

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