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With the failure of the British Stamp Act of 1765, the British government was strapped for cash. There was a growing consensus in the British Parliament that the colonies should pay the costs of quartering the thousands of British troops stationed in the colonies. Also, there was a growing concern that colonial legislators were getting far too independent, even to the point of withholding salaries of royal governors. Last, lackadaisical enforcement of British navigation and customs laws at American ports were losing much-needed revenue.
Against this backdrop, along with growing unrest in Great Britain over taxation, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Townshend, urged the Parliament to pass a new series of taxes and regulations to crack down on the colonies. The Parliament agreed, and the so-called Townshend Acts caused a new wave of colonial resentment and resistance in the colonies, bringing them ever closer to open rebellion.
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The Townshend Acts did the following:
♦ Imposed new taxes on imported glass, lead, paper, paint and tea. None of these items were produced in quantity in the colonies. (Revenues were to be used to pay salaries of Royal Governors in order to make them independent of colonial legislatures.)
♦ Created the American Board of Customs Commissioners to strictly enforce British Navigation Acts and tighten up customs enforcement. The Board was headquartered in Boston, which already was and would become an even greater hotbed of resistance to British taxation and regulation.
♦ Disbanded the New York Assembly until the Assembly agreed to comply with the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonial assemblies to finance the basic needs of the British soldiers stationed in the colonies. New York had refused to pay the full assessment, objecting that British General Gage had his headquarters and the majority of his army within New York.
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As in the case the Stamp Act two years earlier, colonists protested and resisted:
♦ John Dickinson, a Philadelphia lawyer, published his “Letters From a Farmer," a popular series of 12 essays that denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies and purported that such taxation amounted to slavery.
♦ The Sons of LIberty picketed and protested British customs officials.
♦ American merchants agreed to boycott British goods.
♦ The Massachusetts legislature circulated a letter to the rest of the colonial legislatures urging united resistance. When British officials dissolved the Massachusetts legislature for refusing to withdraw the circular letter, the other colonial assemblies defiantly signed the letter.
♦ June 21, 1768: British customs officials seized John Hancock’s merchant sloop “Liberty" for alleged violations of British revenue laws. Thousands of Boston citizens rioted, and British customs officials fled the city in fear for their lives. (British customs officials had a reputation for corruption and extortion of money from American merchants, and would seize American vessels without warrant and for any reason.)
♦ When news of the “Liberty" riot reached London,Britain moved 4,000 troops to Boston to protect the commissioners. The increased presence of British soldiers in the streets of Boston was a continuing source of irritation and friction. British soldiers were contemptuous of the rustic colonials, who, in turn, resented the competition for work as British soldiers moonlighted during their off-duty hours. All this set the scene for the "Boston Massacre" of 1770.
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Classroom Activities/Suggested Discussion Areas
Discuss the following in class or as an essay assignment:
♦ What were the reasons behind the Townshend Acts? Do you believe the acts were justified or excessive?
♦ Why did the British government want to have the money raised by the taxes go toward Royal governors’ salaries? Why would this irritate the colonial legislatures?
♦ Describe the actions British officials took against the New York and Massachusetts assemblies. Focus on the following:
◊ Was New York justified in resisting paying a higher share for quartering British soldiers?
◊ Was Massachusetts correct in circulating a letter of protest among the other colonies?
♦ What problems might arise with 4,000 British soldiers being stationed in Boston? Would the British troops be friendly or contemptuous to the colonists and vice versa?
♦ The Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770 after British merchants began to feel the pinch of American boycotts. One exception was the tax on tea that was kept in place. Why did the British keep this tax in effect?
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Resources and Further Reading
High School History Lesson Plan: The Townshend Acts of 1767
The American Revolutionary War began with shots fired at Lexington and Corcord. The war was caused by a series of events that began after the French and Indian Wars. This series traces the beginnings of the rift between Great Britain and its American colonists that resulted in armed rebellion.