The Townshend Acts were four acts passed by the British Parliament in 1767 prior to the American Revolution. These laws angered many colonists, because they put a tax on non-British imported tea (leading to the Boston Tea Party), and other necessities. To counter smuggling, the Townshend Acts also said that smugglers would be tried in Royal Navy admiralty courts, under a British military judge. This law is the reason Americans have the right to a trial by jury.
The first act forced New York to house royal troops. The injustices involved led to the Third Amendment of the Bill of Rights in 1789.
The Revenue Act of June 29, 1767, levied import duties on paper, glass of all kinds, and three pence a pound on tea. All imports of these items had to come from Britain. This was only the second time in the history of the British Empire that taxes had been levied on the colonies. All other laws, except the Sugar Act of 1764, had been for the purpose of protecting some industry within the empire. For this reason British leaders including William Pitt and Edmund Burke attacked the law as bad for business. It discouraged English manufacture because the tax encouraged a competing industry in the colonies or discouraged the use of the articles singled out for taxation.
The revenue from these new taxes was designed to support an civil establishment in America independent of the colonial legislatures—that is, judges, governors, and other crown employees were paid from this fund instead of being dependent, as they always had been for their salaries, on annual appropriations of the local assemblies. This use of the money struck at the very foundation of American political liberty.
By the 1760s the thirteen colonies had achieved almost complete local self-government through financial control of the royal officers. To put judges and governors beyond colonial control and at the same time make them dependent upon London for their pay violated the rights of the coloniests and threatened despotic control by officials Americans could not influence. Coloniests called it "slavery".
Resistance to this slavery appeared immediately in the form form of agitation; nonimportation agreements; open evasion of the duties in some cases; promotion of American spinning, weaving, glass, and paper industries; and open hostility to the enforcing officers.
The new taxes were to be collected by a Board of Customs Commissioners, established by the third Townshend Act of June 29. Based in Boston, the new board took complete control over all customs in America. It was empowered to revise and reorganize the entire American customs; discontinue old or establish new ports of entry; appoint customs officers, searchers, spies; hire coast-guard vessels, provide them with search warrants, and in general do whatever seemed necessary to them to enforce the revenue laws.
Costs of this new and very costly establishment were to be paid out of the revenue and out of seizures. As the revenue law itself was unpopular and considered by the colonists unconstitutional, the enforcement officers met with resistance in some cases, as in the seizure of the ship "Liberty" and the burning of the ship "Gaspée".
American resistance led the customs commissioners to ask for British troops, and large forces were hurried to Boston in September 1768, where they were quartered in the city contrary to the Quartering Act. Boston was practically under military rule. There was friction between the people and the soldiers. The people of Massachusetts appealed to other colonies through protests and through republication in local newspapers of "The Journal of the Times", a day-to-day account of worsening conditions in Boston.
Most of the troops were withdrawn in 1769, but two regiments were left. One of these, the Twenty-ninth, was involved in the Boston Massacre, Mar. 5, 1770, in which soldiers shot down unarmed protesters. All troops were withdrawn. With the repeal of all duties, except that on tea, in 1770, the controversy gradually quieted down, until aroused anew by the tea controversy and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
The fourth act, passed on July 2, repealed the inland duties on tea in England and permitted it to be exported to the colonies free of all British taxes.
- Christie, Ian R. and Labaree, Benjamin W. Empire or Independence, 1760-1776: A British-American Dialogue on the Coming of the American Revolution. (1976). 332 pp.
- Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution (1943) online edition
- Thomas, Peter D. G. The Townshend Duties Crisis: The Second Phase of the American Revolution, 1767-1773. (1987). 282 pp.
- Tucker, Robert W. and Hendrickson, David C. The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence. (1982). 450 pp.