A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Rowe's Revolution

"Merchants ... agreed to the Resolutions of the City of New York--not to write for any Goods after the First of June, nor Import any after the first Day of October, until the Act Imposing Duties on Glass, Paper, &c be repealed-- "

Diary of John Rowe,
2 May 1768

Read more of John Rowe's diary

The Townshend Acts

Introduction


Early in 1766, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia is one of many called to testify in London as the Members of Parliament struggle to understand why Americans had so forcibly resisted the Stamp Act. These British legislators hope to avoid a repeat of the furious reaction across the Atlantic as they ponder how to generate revenue from the colonies and remind those colonies of Parliament's right to tax—and control—them.

A year after the repeal of the Stamp Act and less than two months before Parliament passes the new Townshend Revenue Acts, a sense of what is to come is conveyed by Member of Parliament Thomas Whately as he hints to his correspondent (who will become a new customs commissioner) that "you will have much to do." This time the tax will come in the form of a duty on imports into the colonies, and the collection of those duties will be fully enforced.

On 29 June 1767 Parliament passes the Townshend Acts. They bear the name of Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is—as the chief treasurer of the British Empire—in charge of economic and financial matters. With the repeal of the Stamp Act, money is needed for "defraying the expenses" of administering the colonies in America. The Acts create a new Customs Commission and punish New York for refusing to abide by the Quartering Act of 1765.

Bostonians meet in Faneuil Hall the next October to consider a petition brought by fellow townsmen. It addresses a key issue raised by the Act—"the excessive use of foreign superfluities"—and the extent to which this has increased the colonists' reliance on and subjugation to Britain.

From Philadelphia come a series of twelve letters from "a Farmer in Pennsylvania." They are first printed in The Philadelphia Chronicle and circulated to nearly all the other colonial newspapers and appear in pamphlet form in both America and England. They are among the most widely read publications of the period. The "Farmer" is John Dickinson, a London-educated lawyer who has been a member of Pennsylvania's assembly. As New York is being punished by the Townshend Acts, Dickinson warns that "the cause of one is the cause of all." In a subsequent letter, he examines the constitutionality of the Townshend Acts and declares the new import duties "a dangerous innovation." The colonists are being taxed by Parliament without being represented in Parliament. And they are Englishmen and deserve the rights of Englishmen!

Resistance to the Townshend Acts takes many forms, and involves an expanding network of individuals, families, neighbors, communities, and colonies from New England to Georgia. "Ladies of the first quality" do their share and newspaper reports use their example to inform and inspire readers to take action. The Massachusetts House of Representatives (part of the General Court) addresses a circulatory (or circular) letter "to a sister colony" and sends it to all the other legislative assemblies "on this continent" in February 1768. British administrators order the Massachusetts House to stop the circulation of the letter and forbid the other colonies to support it, but the damage is done.

Of the 120 members of the Massachusetts House, 92 refuse to rescind this circular letter and their action inspires John Dickinson to once again take up his pen—this time to write a new song to the words of an old British military tune. The Liberty Song is printed on ballad sheets and sung throughout the colonies in a show of mutual support for resistance.

Massachusetts' royal governor Francis Bernard dissolves the colonial assembly of Massachusetts—the General Court. "Deprived of the Councils of a General Assembly," angry Bostonians call for a convention of Massachusetts towns in September 1768 to decide on next steps. And in far away Charlestown, South Carolina, support for this aggrieved sister colony to the north comes in a most dramatic fashion by means of "45 candles ... and 92 glasses."

And then on 1 October, British troops begin to arrive in Boston.