American Revolution: The Townshend Acts

Colored reproduction of 1768 engraving of the Town of Boston and British ships of war landing their troops, by Paul Revere
A view of the Town of Boston and British ships of war landing their troops, 1768. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Townshend Acts were four laws passed by the British Parliament in 1767 imposing and enforcing the collection of taxes on the American colonies. Having no representation in Parliament, the American colonists saw the acts as an abuse of power. When the colonists resisted, Britain sent troops to collect the taxes, further heightening the tensions that led to the American Revolutionary War.

Key Takeaways: the Townshend Acts

  • The Townshend Acts were four laws enacted by the British Parliament in 1767 that imposed and enforced the collection of taxes on the American colonies.
  • The Townshend Acts consisted of the Suspending Act, the Revenue Act, the Indemnity Act, and the Commissioners of Customs Act.
  • Britain enacted the Townshend Acts to help pay its debts from the Seven Years War and prop up the failing British East India Company.
  • American opposition to the Townshend Acts would lead to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

The Townshend Acts

To help pay its massive debts from the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the British Parliament—at the advice of Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the British Exchequer—voted to levy new taxes on the American colonies. Known as the French and Indian War in the United States, the Seven Years’ War had involved virtually every great power of Europe and spanned the entire globe. While it ended French influence in North America east of the Mississippi River, the war also left the British monarchy facing massive debt. Since parts of the war had been fought in North America and British forces had protected the American Colonies from attack, the British Crown expected the colonists to pay a share of the debt. Britain also needed additional revenue to fund the administration of its growing efforts toward global imperialism. Before the French and Indian War, the British government had been hesitant to tax its American Colonies.

Taxing the Colonies

The first direct British tax on the American Colonies for the sole purpose of raising revenue was the Sugar Act of 1764. It was also the first time that American colonists had spoken out against the issue of taxation without representation. Just a year later, the issue would become a major point of contention with the passage of the widely unpopular Stamp Act of 1765. While the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, it was replaced by the Declaratory Act which proclaimed that Parliament’s power over the Colonies was absolute. Early American patriots like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry spoke out against the act believing that it violated the principles of the Magna Carta. Hoping to avoid revolution, American political leaders never asked for the repeal of the Declaratory Act.

Under the power of the Declaratory Act, the British government passed a series of policies in 1767 designed to raise revenue and enforce the Crown’s authority over the American Colonies. This series of legislative acts became known as the Townshend Acts.

The four Townshend Acts of 1767 were intended to replace taxes lost due to the repeal of the highly unpopular Stamp Act of 1765.

  • The Suspending Act (New York Restraining Act), passed on June 5, 1767, 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 the Quartering Act of 1765.
  • The Revenue Act passed on June 26, 1767, required the payment of duties to the British government at colonial ports on tea, wine, lead, glass, paper, and paint imported into the colonies. Since Britain held a monopoly on these products, the colonies could not legally buy them from any other country.
  • The Indemnity Act passed on June 29, 1767, reduced duties on tea imported into England by the failing British East India Company, one of England’s largest companies, and paid the company a refund on the duties on tea that was then exported from England to the colonies. The act was intended to save the British East India Company by helping it compete with tea smuggled into the colonies by Holland.
  • 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. When the often heavy-handed tactics of the Customs Board spurred incidents between tax collectors and colonists, British troops were sent to occupy Boston, eventually leading to the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770.

Clearly, the purpose of the Townshend Acts was to increase Britain’s tax revenue and save the British East India Company, its most valuable economic asset. To that end, the acts had their greatest impact in 1768, when combined taxes collected from the colonies totaled £13,202 (British pounds)—the inflation-adjusted equivalent of about £2,177,200, or about $2,649,980 (U.S. dollars) in 2019.

Colonial Response

While the American colonists objected to the Townshend Acts taxes because they had not been represented in Parliament, the British government replied that they had “virtual representation,” a claim which further outraged the colonists. The issue of “taxation without representation” had contributed to the repeal of the unpopular and unsuccessful Stamp Act in 1766. Repealing the Stamp Act spurred passage of the Declaratory Act, which proclaimed that the British Parliament could impose new laws on the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania
Title page from John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.  Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The most influential colonial objection to the Townshend Acts came in twelve essays by John Dickinson entitled “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” Published starting in December 1767, Dickinson’s essays urged colonists to resist paying the British taxes. Moved by the essays, James Otis of Massachusetts rallied the Massachusetts House of Representatives, along with other colonial assemblies, to send petitions to King George III demanding repeal of the Revenue Act. In Britain, Colonial Secretary Lord Hillsborough threatened to dissolve the colonial assemblies if they supported the Massachusetts petition. When the Massachusetts House voted 92 to 17 not to rescind its petition, Massachusetts’ British-appointed governor immediately disbanded the legislature. Parliament ignored the petitions.

Historical Significance

On March 5, 1770—ironically the same day as the Boston Massacre, though Britain would not learn of the incident for weeks—new British Prime Minister Lord North asked the House of Commons to repeal most of Townshend Revenue Act while retaining the lucrative tax on imported tea. Though controversial, the partial repeal of the Revenue Act was approved by King George on April 12, 1770.

Historian Robert Chaffin argues that partial repeal of the Revenue Act had little effect on the colonists’ desire for independence. “The revenue-producing tea levy, the American Board of Customs and, most important, the principle of making governors and magistrates independent all remained. In fact, the modification of the Townshend Duties Act was scarcely any change at all,” he wrote.

The Townshend Acts’ despised tax on tea was retained in 1773 with Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act. The act made the British East India Company the only source of tea in colonial America. 

On December 16, 1773, the colonists’ outrage over the Tax Act boiled over when members of the Sons of Liberty undertook the Boston Tea Party, setting the stage for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

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Longley, Robert. "American Revolution: The Townshend Acts." ThoughtCo, Feb. 2, 2022, thoughtco.com/townshend-acts-4766592. Longley, Robert. (2022, February 2). American Revolution: The Townshend Acts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/townshend-acts-4766592 Longley, Robert. "American Revolution: The Townshend Acts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/townshend-acts-4766592 (accessed June 27, 2022).