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Mike Duncan (00:01):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 19 – The Townshend Acts So we ended last time with the demise of the Stamp Act, which had done so little to raise revenue, and so much to infuriate the colonies. But the British government’s pullback from the Stamp Act had been a retreat, not a surrender. And this week we will walk through their second attempt to raise money from the colonies.
Before we get going though, I should also probably point out that my dream of succinctly moving through the pre-revolutionary period in two episodes was of course pure folly, and I’ve expanded it out to three. So last time was the Stamp Act. This week will be the Townshend Acts. Next week will be the Tea Act, which works better from a narrative perspective anyway.
Okay, so by the spring of 1766, the Stamp Act has been repealed and the Declaratory Act passed. This formula for ending the crisis worked well for the moment, but Lord Rockingham did not long survive the solution, and in July he was dismissed as Prime Minister. In his place, George III turned to the man who had successfully steered Britain to victory during the Seven Years’ War, William Pitt the Elder. This was good news for the colonies, as Pitt had just come out as a full-throated supporter of American interests, but while it looked good on paper, the reality left much to be desired. In accepting the Prime Ministership, Pitt was also created First Earl of Chatham, taking him out of the House of Commons and plopping him into the House of Lords, where his ability to manage daily administration was much reduced. Not that it mattered anyway, Pitt was in poor health and frequently absent from London altogether.
Without a strong guiding hand, the individual ministers were left to their own devices. Even those devices ran contrary to Pitt’s wishes, as was the case with the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townsend. The 41-year-old Townshend was famously as sharp of tongue as he was of mind, and he had a reputation for political unpredictability. But he does seem to have consistently believed that there was money to be had in the colonies, and Parliament had every right to get at it. So he started drawing up a colonial revenue scheme that would cleverly skirt the American objection to so-called direct taxes.
This put him on the wrong side of Pitt, who attempted to oust Townshend from the ministry, but before he could finish the job, Pitt suffered a physical collapse that knocked him out of commission. This left Townshend the dominant personality in an otherwise weak ministry, and he energetically pushed his plans through Parliament. The result was the passage in June 1767 of the so-called Townshend Acts.
The Townshend Acts actually refer to five interrelated bills, including one designed to help shore up the floundering East India Company, and one specifically targeting the New York Assembly for their failure to comply with the Quartering Act of 1765. But when most people talk about the Townshend Acts, they are generally referring to is the most explosive component, the Revenue Act, which levied import duties on lead, glass, paper, printer ink, and tea. Exactly the kind of trade-based taxes the colonists themselves had just said Parliament was allowed to levy.
To ensure compliance with the new duties, the Townshend Acts also created a Board of Customs, which meant that even more salaried agents would soon be digging around in colonial business. But on top of these two innovations, which were sure all on their own to rile up the colonists, Townshend inserted another innovation into this program. Revenue from the duties would be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors.
Up until this point, governors had been paid by grants from the colonial assemblies. This power of the purse had done much to ensure that the governors never drifted too far out of line. Removing this all-important check sent the colonial warning bells back to clanging as it appeared to be striking right at the heart of self-government. In response to the Townshend Acts, one of the most influential series of articles of the whole Revolutionary Era started circulating the colonies in the summer of 1767. The Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, written by John Dickinson, who was no farmer, but rather a successful Philadelphia lawyer.
The letters eloquently furthered the argument that Parliament did not have the right to tax the colonies for revenue under any circumstances, and that whatever pretenses to the contrary, the Townshend Duties were clearly designed to generate revenue, not regulate trade.
The letters were important because initially reaction to the Townshend Acts was muted. In many cases, the colonists were exhausted from the recent battle over the Stamp Act, and they weren’t super stoked about having to immediately remobilize for war. But when Dickinson’s letters started showing up throughout the colonies, they persuasively confirmed the necessity of further resistance. But Dickinson himself was no radical, and he advocated frugality, home manufacturing, and petitioning as the surest means to avoid falling for Parliament’s unconstitutional taxes. It was left to more radical leaders to push the envelope in the great defense of American liberty. Charles Townshend himself, though, would not live to see that great defense, as he died suddenly in September 1767. His death and the continued incapacitation of Pitt the Elder left the ministry basically rudderless, and it fell to the 33-year-old Duke of Grafton, First Lord of the Treasury, to try to lead the way, though he would not be recognized as Prime Minister until Pitt finally resigned in October 1768. But don’t worry, the Duke of Grafton is not on the test.
When the new customs officials started arriving in the colonies in November, the radical leaders in Boston tried to get the rest of Massachusetts to stop buying British goods, but they got nowhere, because for the moment, everyone just wanted things to go back to normal. But by February 1768, Samuel Adams had called in every favor he could in the Massachusetts Assembly to get them to produce another, circular letter, like the one that had gone out over the Stamp Act.
Though this letter was milder, and merely called for the other colonies to harmonize a response to the Townshend Acts, it did contain the more extreme assertion that the colonists weren’t simply unrepresented in Parliament, they could never be represented in Parliament because they were quote, separated by an ocean of a thousand leagues. So in other words, don’t expect to ever buy us off with like 13 seats in Parliament. The new circular letter was of course authored personally by Samuel Adams, who I briefly introduced last time, but since he is so central to the revolutionary movement, we do need to flesh him out of it.
Born in Boston in 1722 to a prosperous merchant, young Sam entered Harvard in 1736 and was headed for a career in the church, but then politics caught his eye and he never looked back. Among all the Founding Fathers, there was probably no one so singularly focused on politics at the expense of every other aspect of his life as Samuel Adams. It was his consuming passion.
He went into business after graduation, but had neither the head nor the heart for it, and he lost all the money his father loaned him to get started. His love of politics, though, led him to various public offices in Boston, where he soon emerged as one of the leaders of the popular faction, that is the group opposed to the men who circled around the royal governor. After the French and Indian War, Adams became a leader in the fight against British taxation, fiercely denouncing in turn the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, though exactly how involved he was in the Stamp Act riots is still an open question. Not that he didn’t approve of them, just that he probably wasn’t the arch puppet master his enemies often made him out to be.
So when the Townshend Acts came around, Adams was obviously fired up. But as I’ve mentioned, public opinion was running conservative these days. But then Adams and his friends got a timely assist from the new customs commissioners, who were even more committed to their jobs than the inspectors who had been sent over to enforce the Sugar Act. These new customs agents saw it as their job not to simply collect taxes, but also to reinforce political obedience, which, predictably, provoked political disobedience. One of the first things they decided to do was to make an example of leading Boston merchant and occasional Boston smuggler John Hancock, who we also now have to stop and take a look at. 15 years younger than his political mentor Samuel Adams, John Hancock was born in Braintree in 1737, making him just 31 years old at the time of the Townshend Act crisis.
After graduating from Harvard in 1754, he went to work in his uncle’s import-export house, where he made a good living on government contracts during the French and Indian War, and he started to appreciate the finer things in life.
After a short stint living in London to work the other side of the business, Hancock returned to Boston and inherited everything when his uncle died in 1764. But as successful as he was business-wise, Hancock was mostly obsessed with politics, and he soon fell under the sway of Adams, who guided the young man’s ambitions or, if you prefer the arch puppet master version of history, the Machiavellian Adams manipulated the rich and gullible Hancock into doing his bidding.
Hancock’s wealth and radical politics made him an obvious target for the new Board of Customs, who knew that like most Boston merchants, Hancock had learned the fine art of mixing declared cargo with undeclared cargo with misdeclared cargo, so it shouldn’t be too hard to catch him in the act of something. The customs officials made two moves against Hancock in the spring and summer of 1768, the first of which backfired, the second of which backfired spectacularly.
In March, an agent boarded one of Hancock’s ships, but finding nothing illegal, he headed down below decks where his authority did not extend. This affront was all the more galling because he didn’t even have a writ of assistance — essentially a blanket search warrant, a tool that was so despised it would soon be prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. The agent was forcibly thrown off the ship for trespassing, and the local court upheld Hancock’s right not to be searched illegally. This was the move that backfired.
The move that backfired spectacularly came in May, when the Board of Customs seized one of Hancock’s ships, aptly named the Liberty, and held it on a legal technicality. This was too much for the rejuvenated Boston radicals. When the Navy attempted to move the ship in June, a mob convened on the dock and successfully prevented the ship from being taken away. When the customs agents filed their reports back home, they described the mob as a bunch of out-of-control barbarians and begged the ministry to send troops to help restore order. But it was clear from other eyewitnesses that like the Stamp Act Riots of 1765, the mob was disciplined and under control — which, to a guy like, say, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, was actually scarier because it meant that this was not about random passion, but highly organized resistance.
By this point, the long-distance Cross Atlantic Communications had finally gotten around to providing the governor of Massachusetts, Francis Bernard, for the record, with an answer for what to do about the circular letter that had been passed way back in February. Bernard was ordered to demand the assembly rescind the letter or be dissolved. This of course is one of the major problems with trying to run a territory when you are separated by an ocean of a thousand leagues. When the ministry issued this order, they had no idea that invents in Boston had already progressed to organize mob violence.
But Governor Bernard did as he was told — the assembly must rescind the letter or face disillusion. In the famous vote that followed at the end of June, the assembly voted not to rescind by an overwhelming 92-17, with those 92 soon being hailed in the streets and in the press and in the taverns as the glorious 92. The Massachusetts assembly was immediately dissolved. Meanwhile, the merchants of the various other colonial ports were starting to have their reluctance to gear up for war, overwhelmed by their annoyance with the new taxes and the new customs officials, and so they started discussing a new non-importation pact.
But every city was worried that if they made the first move, that all their business would simply move down to the next port. So non-importation could only work if everyone signed on the dotted line. When the merchants of New York drew up a pact in April, it was contingent on Pennsylvania signing a similar pact. The now hugely influential John Dickinson threw all his political and rhetorical weight behind non-importation, but in the end the more conservative Pennsylvania merchants refused to budge, and they rejected the pact, which meant that New York rejected the pact, and then it was back to square one.
On August the 1st, 1768, however, the merchants of Boston elected to go ahead with unilateral non-importation to commence January the 1st. Events since the last meeting in April convinced New York to soon follow suit. Pennsylvania continued to drag their feet, but in the end the main threat of non-importation was not the conservatives in Philadelphia, who did get on board in March 1769, but the loose cannons over in Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island merchants took a look around at the closed for business signs going up, and said, well boys, if we stay open, we are going to make a killing. As well they did, until Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania shut up their docks not just to imports from Britain, but also anything coming out of Rhode Island. Ever the pragmatists, the Rhode Islanders drafted a non-importation pact of their own, which was just tight enough to satisfy their neighbors, but not so tight that they didn’t continue to bring in a few odds and ends spurned by the other colonies.
But by then, of course, things had gone from bad to worse up in Boston. Finally reacting to the Liberty Incident, the ministry ordered 4,000 troops down from Halifax in September to help bring the rabble to heel.
Reckoning that probably the worst thing that could happen would be for these troops to show up unannounced, Governor Bernard leaked word of their pending arrival. The leaders of Massachusetts then demanded that their assembly be allowed to reconvene so they could discuss a response, but Bernard refused. So on September the 22nd, an unofficial convention of towns met in Boston to urge the governor to reconsider. The meeting wasn’t technically illegal, but it was yet another sign that the colonists were all too willing to defy their supposed masters and take matters into their own hands.
About a week later, the ships carrying the troops arrived in Boston, and on October the 1st, 1768, soldiers began to disembark. From the hysterical letters coming from the customs agents, these soldiers probably expected to walk into something out of Lord of the Flies, but instead they found a peaceful city going about its business. The radical leaders recognizing that 4,000 armed regulars is not something you actively resist.
But the decision not to engage in any overt resistance did not mean that there would be no resistance at all, as the troops discovered when they found no available lodgings. They were forced to set up a tent camp on the commons. It would take weeks of threats, wrangling, and confrontations before the troops were able to move into passable winter quarters in leased warehouses. So the city may have been peaceful, but it was not subdued. The whole of 1769 was defined by rising tensions in occupied Boston.
Soldiers and civilians were constantly at odds and constantly in each other’s faces. Boston was a big city for colonial North America, but it wasn’t a big city, and the two sides fell into what Robert Middlecoff describes as familiar mutual contempt. The soldiers had a tendency, as all soldiers do, to get drunk, break the Sabbath, and how shall I put this, seduce away the virtue of the local maidens. On top of that, off-duty enlisted men were only too happy to do manual labor to supplement their meager pay, taking jobs away from the unskilled workers who formed the rank and file of the Boston mobs.
All through 1769, these two sides butted heads, insulted each other, and a few fistfights broke out. Any one of these incidents threatened to blow the lid off the pressure cooker. By August, Governor Bernard had had enough, and after nine years as governor decided that however this was going to be resolved, he was washing his hands of it. He sailed back to England, and the old scourge of the populace, Thomas Hutchinson, became acting governor. Meanwhile, in the rest of the colonies, 1769 saw the continued expansion of the non-importation movement. The southern colonies first came on board when the Virginia House of Burgesses met in May, and members began denouncing parliamentary taxation. They were immediately dissolved by the governor, but undeterred the Burgesses reconvened unofficially at the Raleigh Tavern. There they debated and then adopted the Virginia Association, a non-importation agreement that was not quite as strict as those being passed up in the North, but one that would do the job. The Virginia Association also marked the first foray into radical politics for the wealthy Virginia planter George Washington, who, along with his friend and neighbor George Mason, helped convince their fellow Burgesses to join the association. I’ll have more to say about both of these guys down the road, especially, obviously, George Washington, but I think I’ll wait to take stock of the indispensable man of the revolution when he comes striding into the Second Continental Congress wearing a full dress uniform. It’s more dramatic that way.
After Virginia non-importation passed, the rest of the South followed at a rate of about a colony a month. Which isn’t to say that they needed Virginia to lead the way, just that that’s the way it happened to go. By the end of the year, the American colonies formed a solid wall. Orders to British merchant houses dried up. Ships carrying targeted goods were turned away. It had taken a little while longer, but the Townshend Acts, like the Stamp Act, was officially becoming more trouble than it was worth. Unfortunately, things would get worse before they would get better. Though, as we will see next week, things will get better. At least for a little while.
Back in Britain, King George finally relieved the young Duke of Grafton of the burden he had proved himself incapable of bearing, and he reformed the ministry yet again, this time turning to Lord North in January 1770. North had been serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer since Townsend’s death, and he was able to step seamlessly into his new role. Luckily for all of you out there, Lord North is going to stick around for a while. All the way through the Revolutionary War, in fact, so we can finally dispense with this revolving door of British Prime Ministers that defined the 1760s.
As Lord North took office, Massachusetts was rapidly heading towards one of the most famous set pieces of the Revolution, the Boston Massacre. The groundwork was laid in February by an ugly incident involving a merchant accused of breaking the non-importation agreement that ended with an 11-year-old kid getting shot and killed. Things turned out for a funeral procession that was as much a show of political force as memorial to the boy. This was followed by a few weeks of escalating anger and recurrent fights between soldiers and civilians who were utterly sick of the sight of the other.
Finally, on March 5, 1770, it all came to a head. Outside the Customs House on King Street, Private Hugh White was chatting with some off-duty comrades when a passing Bostonian made a crack about their commanding officer. Private White proceeded to clock the dude upside the head. The off-duty soldiers made themselves scarce, leaving Private White to deal with the ring of ticked-off Bostonians who soon surrounded him. White backed up against the Customs House door, gun drawn. The growing crowd heckled him and dared him to shoot.
Up the street, Captain Preston, commander of the Customs House Garrison, watched this all unfold. He was probably hoping it would just resolve itself naturally, but then the church bells started going off and more men — these armed with clubs, etc. — started showing up and Captain Preston decided it was high time to go get his man. He led a corporal and six privates through the crowd, now numbering some three or four hundred. But rather than just pulling Private White out of there, Preston had his men form a semicircle facing the crowd — guns, unfortunately, loaded.
A tense 15-minute standoff ensued, with the civilians insulting the soldiers and pelting them with snowballs and chunks of ice. One of those snowballs finally hit a private at the end of the line. He fell down, probably after slipping on the ice, and when he popped back up, he fired his gun. Reports conflict about how long of a pause followed the first shot, but however long it was, the jumpy soldiers were soon firing into the crowd. Eleven men were hit. Five ultimately died. Six more were just wounded.
A regiment’s worth of British regulars were soon on hand to secure the peace, but though the crowd fell back, it continued to grow and was only dispersed when acting Governor Hutchinson promised a full inquiry. The next morning, Captain Preston and his men were arrested by the local authorities. In the months that followed, a ruckus war in the press erupted as radicals and conservatives tried to control the story. Are we talking about innocent boys gunned down by the cruel lobsterbacks? Or brave soldiers defending themselves against violent hooligans?
It was in these months that silversmith Paul Revere produced his famous plate depicting Preston ordering a line of disciplined troops to fire on an unarmed crowd. I threw a good shot of it up at RevolutionsPodcast.com if you want to check it out. But as the two sides fought over the meaning of the incident, the radical leadership took pains to ensure that the soldiers received a fair trial, as moderates might be alienated by summary mob justice. Which brings us to the man they turned to to defend the soldiers and make sure that they were zealously and honestly defended, 35-year-old attorney John Adams.
John Adams was born in Braintree in 1735. His father was a farmer and a church deacon, and his mother came from the influential Boylston family. At the age of 16, he went off to Harvard, and after graduation, he spent a few years teaching in Worcester. Dashing his father’s hopes that he would become a minister, Adams became enchanted with the law, apprenticing in a Worcester law office, and then earning a master’s degree at Harvard in 1758. After a few years of bachelor lawyering, Adams married Abigail Smith in 1764, creating one of the all-time great husband and wife teams in American history.
Adams made his first entry into public life the next year as a staunch opponent of the Stamp Act. And though he was an early and committed advocate of American rights, he was constitutionally allergic to the kind of radical populism spoused by his second cousin, Samuel. The short and paunchy Adams was famously argumentative, irascible, and vain, but he was also brilliant and passionate and irresistible, at once awe-inspiring and the subject of endless ridicule. And he will soon become known as both the Colossus of Independence and his Rotundity.
Adams took on the Boston Massacre case with some hesitation. He was, after all, an ambitious man with patriot leanings. But in the end, he believed that the men deserved their day in court and that facts, not emotion, deserved to carry the day. After Captain Preston was tried and acquitted separately in October, it was proven beyond any doubt that he never ordered his men to fire. The rest of the soldiers were brought up for murder in November. Adams, of course, did more than put on a good show. He slaughtered the prosecution. He argued that if the soldiers were endangered by the mob, then they had every right to fire. And if they weren’t technically endangered but had been provoked by the mob, then the most they could be convicted of was manslaughter, not murder.
As all the evidence suggested that the mob was not a bunch of innocent bystanders, the jury agreed with Adams after just a few hours to liberation. Six of the soldiers were acquitted outright, while the other two were convicted of manslaughter. These two, however, were soon released with a reduced sentence of public branding. Now, surprisingly, the acquittals did not, like, ignite a riot. Though the Boston Massacre continued to be played up and commemorated annually, by now some of the spark had gone out of the radical cause.
Mostly, this was because soon after the incident itself, Parliament once again caved to the wall of colonial opposition, and repealed the Townshend Duties in April 1770. Well, not all the Townshend Duties. As with the Stamp Act repeal, Parliament couldn’t walk away without leaving its foot in the door, and the duty on tea was kept in place. Too insignificant to provoke mass resistance, but more than enough to keep the precedent going that Parliament had the right to impose whatever taxes it wished, whenever it wished. Next week, we’ll begin with two years of relative calm, which everyone hoped meant that the crisis was now over.
But in 1773, Parliament will reignite the Patriot Flame when they attempt to bail out the totally mismanaged East India Company by allowing them to import tea directly into the colonies, bypassing the colonial merchants who made their living as middlemen. As you can imagine, the merchants were not too happy about this, and they were led down the path to the next great set piece of the revolution, the Boston Tea Party.
- William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham
- George Washington
- George III
- Charles Townshend
- Sir Francis Bernard, 1st Baronet
- John Dickinson
- Samuel Adams
- John Hancock
- Thomas Hutchinson (governor)
- George Mason
- Paul Revere
- Abigail Smith
- John Adams
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding: https://amzn.to/3Pqfiwc
After the failure of the Stamp Act, Parliament passed a new series of taxes known as the Townshend Acts. The colonists were not amused.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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