On This Day – April 12th

On this fateful day in 1770, the British government moves to mollify outraged colonists by repealing most of the clauses of the hated Townshend Act. Initially passed on June 29, 1767, the Townshend Act constituted an attempt by the British government to consolidate fiscal and political power over the American colonies by placing import taxes on many of the British products bought by Americans, including lead, paper, paint, glass and tea.

The measure bore the name of its sponsor, Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who was notoriously conservative in his understanding of colonial rights. Townshend’s annual Revenue Act levied a controversial package of taxes on the colonists, including duties on lead, painters’ colors, paper and tea. The chancellor also undermined the colonial judiciary by increasing the power of the British navy’s vice-admiralty courts over American colonists and initiating an American Board of Customs Commissioners charged with enforcing his new import taxes. These taxes were used at least in part to fund the salaries of colonial governors and judges to ensure their financial, and thus political, independence from the colonial assemblies. Townshend also moved British troops from the western frontier to the eastern seaboard, where they were both less expensive to supply and more troubling to colonists, who feared that they were being asked to cover the expenses of their own military oppression.

Riotous protest of the Townshend Acts in the colonies often invoked the phrase no taxation without representation. Colonists eventually decided not to import British goods until the act was repealed and to boycott any goods that were imported in violation of their non-importation agreement. Colonial anger culminated in the deadly Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770.

Also on March 5, Townshend’s successor (he had died soon after proposing the hated act), Lord Frederick North, asked Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts except for the duty on tea; he considered all the duties bad for trade and, thus, expensive for the British empire. However, he wished to avoid the appearance of weakness in the face of colonial protest and thus left the tea tax in place. This strategy successfully divided colonial merchants, eager, for their own enrichment, to resume trade in all British goods barring tea, from colonial craftsmen, who profited from non-importation agreements, and wished to leave them in place as long as the tax on tea remained in effect.