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Townshend Acts - Definition, Facts and Purpose

Townshend Acts - Definition, Facts and Purpose

The Townshend Acts were a series of measures, passed by the British Parliament in 1767, that taxed goods imported to the American colonies. But American colonists, who had no representation in Parliament, saw the Acts as an abuse of power. The British sent troops to America to enforce the unpopular new laws, further heightening tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies in the run-up to the American Revolutionary War.

The British Crown emerged victorious from the French and Indian War in 1763, but defending the North American colonies from French expansion had proved tremendously costly to England.

Compared to Great Britain’s debts, the cost of the French and Indian War to the colonists had been slight. The colonists—who arguably enjoyed a higher standard of living at the time than their British counterparts—paid less than one-twentieth the taxes of British citizens living in England.

The British government thought the colonists should help pay the cost of their protection. The British Parliament enacted a series of taxes on the colonies for the purpose of raising revenue. Early attempts, such as the Stamp Act of 1765—which taxed colonists for every piece of paper they used—were met with widespread protests in America.

Townshend Duties

The Townshend Acts, named after Charles Townshend, British chancellor of the Exchequer, imposed duties on British china, glass, lead, paint, paper and tea imported to the colonies.

Benjamin Franklin had informed the British Parliament that the colonies intended to start manufacturing their own goods rather than paying duties on imports. These particular items were chosen for taxation because Townshend thought they would be difficult things for the colonists to produce on their own. He estimated the duties would raise approximately 40,000 pounds, with most of the revenue coming from tea.

While the original intent of the import duties had been to raise revenue, Charles Townshend saw the policies as a way to remodel colonial governments. The Townshend Acts would use the revenue raised by the duties to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges, ensuring the loyalty of America’s governmental officials to the British Crown. However, these policies prompted colonists to take action by boycotting British goods.

Charles Townshend didn’t live to see the measures enacted. He died suddenly in September 1767, before the detrimental effects of his signature rules could materialize.

Townshend Act Protests

The Townshend duties went into effect on November 20, 1767, close on the heels of the Declaratory Act of 1766, which stated that British Parliament had the same authority to tax the American colonies as they did in Great Britain. By December, two widely circulated documents had united colonists in favor of a boycott of British goods.

These influential pamphlets included “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” a series of essays written by Pennsylvania legislator John Dickinson and the “Massachusetts Circular Letter,” a statement written by Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr. and passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives to other colonial legislatures.

With the help of the Sons of Liberty—a secret society of American business leaders who coined the phrase “taxation without representation”—24 towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island agreed to boycott British goods in January 1768.

With the exception of necessities, such as fishing hooks and wire, New England merchants agreed not to import British goods for one year. New York followed suit in April, with an even more restrictive non-importation agreement.

In response to protests and boycotts, the British sent troops to occupy Boston and quell the unrest.

Repeal of the Townshend Acts

By 1769, more than 2,000 British troops had arrived in Boston to restore order—a large number considering only about 16,000 people lived in Boston at the time.

Skirmishes between patriot colonists and British soldiers—as well as colonists loyal to the British Crown—became increasingly common. To protest taxes, patriots often vandalized stores selling British goods and intimidated store merchants and their customers.

Tensions between the colonists and British troops finally boiled over on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers shot into an angry mob, killing five American colonists in an event known as the Boston Massacre.

Little did the colonists or British soldiers know that across the ocean on the same day as the Boston Massacre, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord North, had asked Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts.

All of the Townshend Acts—except for the tax on tea—were repealed in April 1770. The tax on tea would remain a flashpoint and a contributing factor to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which angry colonists destroyed an entire shipment of tea in Boston Harbor. To quell resistant and punish the colonists—particularly the demonstrators in Boston—Parliament passed The Coercive Acts of 1774, which colonists referred to as the Intolerable Acts. The four Intolerable Acts included the Massachusetts Government Act, instituting an appointed government over the previously-elected, local one; the Boston Port Bill closing Boston Harbor; the Administration of Justice Act, which dictated that British officials could be tried in another colony or in England if charged with capital offenses; and the Quartering Act, which said unoccupied buildings could be used to quarter British troops. The combined force of these acts culminated in the American Revolution, which was kicked off when the “shot heard round the world” was fired on April 19, 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.


Charles Townshend (1725-1767); The Colonia Williamsburg Foundation.
Townshend Acts; Boston Tea Party Museum.
What we get wrong about taxes and the American Revolution. PBS News Hour. 2016.

Townshend Acts

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Townshend Acts, (June 15–July 2, 1767), in colonial U.S. history, series of four acts passed by the British Parliament in an attempt to assert what it considered to be its historic right to exert authority over the colonies through suspension of a recalcitrant representative assembly and through strict provisions for the collection of revenue duties. The British American colonists named the acts after Charles Townshend, who sponsored them.

The Suspending Act prohibited the New York Assembly from conducting any further business until it complied with the financial requirements of the Quartering Act (1765) for the expenses of British troops stationed there. The second act, often called the Townshend duties or the Revenue Act, imposed direct revenue duties—that is, duties aimed not merely at regulating trade but at putting money into the British treasury. These were payable at colonial ports and fell on lead, glass, paper, paint, and tea. It was the second time in the history of the colonies that a tax had been levied solely for the purpose of raising revenue. The third act established strict and often arbitrary machinery of customs collection in the American colonies, including additional officers, searchers, spies, coast guard vessels, search warrants, writs of assistance, and a Board of Customs Commissioners at Boston, all to be financed out of customs revenues. The fourth Townshend Act, known as the Indemnity Act, was aimed at enabling the East India Company to compete with the tea that was smuggled by the Dutch. It lowered commercial duties on tea imported to England by the East India Company and gave the company a refund of the duty for tea that was then exported to the colonies. Compensating for the loss of revenue brought about by the Indemnity Act was another reason for the imposition of the Townshend duties.

The acts posed an immediate threat to established traditions of colonial self-government, especially the practice of taxation through representative provincial assemblies. They were resisted everywhere with verbal agitation and physical violence, deliberate evasion of duties, renewed nonimportation agreements among merchants, and overt acts of hostility toward British enforcement agents, especially in Boston. Such colonial tumult, coupled with the instability of frequently changing British ministries, resulted in repeal—on March 5, 1770, the same day as the Boston Massacre—of all revenue duties except that on tea, lifting of the Quartering Act requirements, and removal of troops from Boston, which thus temporarily averted hostilities.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.

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. 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.

Impact on the Colonies

The Sugar Act also imposed new taxes on other imported products, such as wine, coffee, and fabric, and strictly regulated the export of lumber and iron, then the most demanded commodities produced in the colonies. The tax on sugar and molasses, coupled with Britain’s drastic anti-smuggling enforcement methods, greatly harmed the emerging colonial rum industry by giving British West Indies sugarcane planters and rum distillers a virtual monopoly.

The combined effects of the Sugar Act also greatly reduced the colonies’ ability to trade with Portugal, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the French West Indies, their main customers of lumber, iron, flour, cheese, and farm produce. By reducing the markets to which the colonies could sell while restricting their access to money needed to buy goods manufactured in Britain, the Sugar Act, along with the other associated Revenue Acts, greatly limited the colonial economy.

Among all the regions of the colonies, the New England seaports were especially hurt by the Sugar Act. Smuggling became so dangerous that their dwindling profits from rum no longer covered the taxes on molasses. Forced to charge more for their rum, many colonial merchants were priced out of the market by the British West Indies, which now controlled the market. Profiting from reduced expenses thanks to their vast supplies of molasses, the islands of the British West Indies prospered at the expense of the New England seaports.

While American colonial leaders were all too aware that Britain’s imposition of the various Revenue Acts represented unfair taxation without representation, it was their economic impact, rather than their constitutional issues, that served as the main focus of the colonists’ protests.

What were the Townshend Duties?

In July 1766, the government of Lord Rockingham failed and William Pitt became Prime Minister. Pitt brought Charles Townshend into the government as the head of the Treasury. Pitt, a vocal critic of Grenville’s policies towards the American colonies, became ill shortly after his return to power. During Pitt’s illness, Townshend assumed the duties of pushing the government’s economic measures through Parliament. Townshend did not share Pitt’s concerns over colonial taxation and pushed through a number of measures in 1767 related to the American colonies. Townshend proposed three measures that became known as the Townshend Acts consisting of the Revenue Act of 1767, the Suspension of the New York Assembly Act, and the Board of Customs Act. The Revenue Act raised revenue from the colonies by putting new import duties on lead, glass, paints, and tea. The New York Assembly Act suspended the New York Assembly until it agreed to obey the Quartering Act. The American Board of Customs Act established a Board of Customs Commission in Boston to enforce the duties imposed by the Revenue Act and created new Vice Admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Townshend did not believe the colonists would reject the import duties as they had rejected the Stamp Act since the new duties were considered external taxes. However, the colonies immediately protested the Townshend duties. Better organized after the Stamp Act crisis, the colonies quickly moved to again use non-importation of British goods as an effective tool of protest. Though the dissent against the Townshend duties was not as violent as the mob protests over the Stamp Act, the colonists again succeeded in their petitions. In l770, the Parliament rescinded all of the Townshend duties except the tea tax which was maintained to demonstrate Parliament’s supremacy over the colonies.

Paul Revere Lithograph, “The Bloody Massacre”, Wikimedia Commons

Though Parliament rescinded most of the Townshend duties and the American merchants began trading again with British merchants, there continued to be confrontations between British soldiers and colonists. Continued enforcement of British trade laws and the presence of British soldiers in several major port cities caused many of these conflicts. On March 5, 1770, one such incident occurred when British soldiers in Boston fired into a mob, killing five people. The incident became known as the Boston Massacre and received widespread publicity throughout the colonies. Though there was a general outcry throughout the colonies to the Boston Massacre, the British government allowed the soldiers to be tried in Massachusetts. The British soldiers were represented by John Adams, second cousin of the outspoken Samuel Adams. John Adams, a well-respected attorney, was considered more moderate in his political views than Samuel Adams. John Adams argued that the British soldiers were not guilty of a criminal offense as they were only protecting themselves from an angry mob. Six of the eight British soldiers on trial were acquitted while the remaining two were convicted of manslaughter. Many on both sides of the Atlantic felt the soldiers received a fair trial. Another conflict between the Royal Navy and the colonists rekindled the activities of the Committees of Correspondence. On June 9, 1772, the HMS Gaspee, a British warship tasked with intercepting smugglers, ran aground off the coast of Rhode Island. After it ran aground, patriots from Providence rowed out to the ship and confronted her crew. The colonists removed the ship’s crew and burned the vessel to the waterline. The British government launched a formal inquiry to find the guilty parties. Many colonists feared that suspects would be sent to Great Britain for trial. Virginia’s leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, urged the colonies to reactivate the Committees of Correspondence to communicate about the crisis. Though no one was held guilty for the burning of the HMS Gaspee, the rekindling of communications between the colonies prepared the colonists for the next step on the road to revolution.

Townshend Acts

The Townshend Acts were four laws, passed by the British Parliament in 1767, that angered colonists in North America. Because the colonists were not represented in Parliament, they thought the passage of the acts was unfair. Like the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts, the Townshend Acts helped lead to the American Revolution.


In 1765 the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required the American colonies to pay new taxes. The colonists protested until Britain canceled the Stamp Act in 1766. Nevertheless, Parliament insisted that it still held the power to tax the colonists. When it ended the Stamp Act, it passed the Declaratory Act. That law said that Parliament could tax the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

The Acts and Their Effects

The Townshend Acts were named after Charles Townshend, chancellor of the Exchequer (head of Britain’s treasury). Townshend introduced the four acts, and Parliament passed them in June and July 1767.

The first act was aimed at the New York Assembly. The assembly had refused to pay for the food, drink, housing, and transportation of British soldiers in New York. Parliament therefore ordered the assembly to be suspended until it would agree to pay for the British soldiers. The second act placed taxes on tea, lead, paint, paper, and glass purchased by the colonies. The third act set up ways to collect the taxes. The fourth act helped tea sellers in England by removing the fees for shipping their tea to the colonies.

The Townshend Acts outraged many colonists. Many of them refused to follow the new laws. Some reacted with violence. Parliament repealed most of the Townshend Acts on March 5, 1770—the same day as the Boston Massacre. However, it kept the tax on tea, which continued to anger colonists.

Townshend Acts

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Townshend Acts - Definition, Facts and Purpose - HISTORY

The Townshend Acts were a string of laws that passed at the onset of 1767 by the Parliament of Great Britain that relates to the British colonies of North America. The act was named after the Chancellor of Exchequer Charles Townshend who drafted the proposal. The Townshend Acts involved five laws namely the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the New York Restraining Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, and the Vice Admiralty Court Act.

Fund Raising

The purpose of the Townshend Acts was to raise revenues among the colonies and use them to pay the salaries of judges and governors to enable them to have colonial rule independence. It was also to promote compliance of the 1765 Quartering Act and establish the right of the British Parliament to tax colonies. Resistance met the Townshend Act which led British troops to reside in Boston in 1768. This ended with the Boston Massacre in 1770.

The consequence of the Boston Massacre pushed the British Parliament to think about repealing the Townshend Act. Many of the taxes were indeed repealed save for the tax on tea. The British government continued on its unsavory act of taxing the colonists without their consent. This consequently led to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. .

The Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763 had the British Empire plunged into debt. To help augment the costs of the constantly expanding empire, the British Parliament to impose taxes on the new colonies of British America through the Trade and Navigation Acts. With the Sugar Act of 1764 the British Parliament was outright in their purpose for raising revenues. There were primary objections of the Act because of economic reasons but they soon realized the constitutional ramifications as well.

No Representation

As stated in the British constituted that British subjects could not be taxed without the consent of the Parliament’s representatives. With no elected members to the British Parliament, many colonists were threatened of this new development and deemed as not only a violation of their rights but it also crosses the line of the constitutional doctrine of taxation. British politicians countered with the theory of virtual representation which stated that colonists were in fact represented in the Parliament by virtue of their paid taxes. The debate on this issue was only brief with the passing of the 1765 Stamp Act which was not so popular in the colonies.

The Townshend Act had a few influential colonial responses, which includes a string of 12 essays written by John Dickinson. The essays were entitled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvannia was first read in December 1767. They were eloquent in expressing the ideas in the hearts and minds of the colonies. He said in his essays the difference between internal and external taxes was none. He also delved on the unconstitutional raising of revenues. He further said that the act is setting a dangerous precedent.

James Otis of Massachusetts was one of the recipients of the letters. Dickinson informed Otis that he looked in the direction of Massachusetts Bay whenever the Cause of American Freedom was fought. This motivated the Massachusetts House of Representatives to campaign against the Townshend Acts by sending King George a petition for its repeal. The House also asked other colonies to join the appeal to the kings. Virginia and Pennsylvania joined in the fight and sent letters to the British Parliament. The others declined. In the end petitions of Virginia and Pennsylvania were declined.


Lord Rockingham’s tenure as prime minister was not long (1765–1766). Rich landowners feared that if he were not taxing the colonies, Parliament would raise their taxes instead, sacrificing them to the interests of merchants and colonists. George III duly dismissed Rockingham. William Pitt, also sympathetic to the colonists, succeeded him. However, Pitt was old and ill with gout. His chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend ([link]), whose job was to manage the Empire’s finances, took on many of his duties. Primary among these was raising the needed revenue from the colonies.

Townshend’s first act was to deal with the unruly New York Assembly, which had voted not to pay for supplies for the garrison of British soldiers that the Quartering Act required. In response, Townshend proposed the Restraining Act of 1767, which disbanded the New York Assembly until it agreed to pay for the garrison’s supplies, which it eventually agreed to do.

The Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 placed duties on various consumer items like paper, paint, lead, tea, and glass. These British goods had to be imported, since the colonies did not have the manufacturing base to produce them. Townshend hoped the new duties would not anger the colonists because they were external taxes, not internal ones like the Stamp Act. In 1766, in arguing before Parliament for the repeal of the Stamp Act, Benjamin Franklin had stated, “I never heard any objection to the right of laying duties to regulate commerce but a right to lay internal taxes was never supposed to be in parliament, as we are not represented there.”

The Indemnity Act of 1767 exempted tea produced by the British East India Company from taxation when it was imported into Great Britain. When the tea was re-exported to the colonies, however, the colonists had to pay taxes on it because of the Revenue Act. Some critics of Parliament on both sides of the Atlantic saw this tax policy as an example of corrupt politicians giving preferable treatment to specific corporate interests, creating a monopoly. The sense that corruption had become entrenched in Parliament only increased colonists’ alarm.

In fact, the revenue collected from these duties was only nominally intended to support the British army in America. It actually paid the salaries of some royally appointed judges, governors, and other officials whom the colonial assemblies had traditionally paid. Thanks to the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, however, these officials no longer relied on colonial leadership for payment. This change gave them a measure of independence from the assemblies, so they could implement parliamentary acts without fear that their pay would be withheld in retaliation. The Revenue Act thus appeared to sever the relationship between governors and assemblies, drawing royal officials closer to the British government and further away from the colonial legislatures.

The Revenue Act also gave the customs board greater powers to counteract smuggling. It granted “writs of assistance”—basically, search warrants—to customs commissioners who suspected the presence of contraband goods, which also opened the door to a new level of bribery and trickery on the waterfronts of colonial America. Furthermore, to ensure compliance, Townshend introduced the Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767, which created an American Board of Customs to enforce trade laws. Customs enforcement had been based in Great Britain, but rules were difficult to implement at such a distance, and smuggling was rampant. The new customs board was based in Boston and would severely curtail smuggling in this large colonial seaport.

Townshend also orchestrated the Vice-Admiralty Court Act, which established three more vice-admiralty courts, in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, to try violators of customs regulations without a jury. Before this, the only colonial vice-admiralty court had been in far-off Halifax, Nova Scotia, but with three local courts, smugglers could be tried more efficiently. Since the judges of these courts were paid a percentage of the worth of the goods they recovered, leniency was rare. All told, the Townshend Acts resulted in higher taxes and stronger British power to enforce them. Four years after the end of the French and Indian War, the Empire continued to search for solutions to its debt problem and the growing sense that the colonies needed to be brought under control.

Townshend Acts - Definition, Facts and Purpose - HISTORY

What were the Townshend Acts?

  • New taxes on imports of paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea.
  • Established an American Customs Board in Boston to collect taxes.
  • Set up new courts in America to prosecute smugglers (without using a local jury).
  • Gave British officials the right to search colonists' houses and businesses.

The acts were introduced to the British Parliament by Charles Townshend.

Why did the British make these laws?

The British wanted to get the colonies to pay for themselves. The Townshend Acts were specifically to pay for the salaries of officials such as governors and judges.

The British thought that the colonists would be okay with taxes on imports. They had repealed an earlier tax called the Stamp Act because of colonial protests, but thought that taxes on imports would be okay. They were wrong, however, as the colonists once again protested these taxes.

Why were they important?

The Townshend Acts continued to push the American colonists towards revolution. They showed that the British didn't understand that "taxation without representation" was a really big deal to many of the colonists.

Why were the American colonists so upset?

The American colonies were not allowed any representatives in the British Parliament. They felt that it was unconstitutional for the Parliament to place taxes and laws on them without representation. It was not about the cost of the taxes, but more about the principle.

The acts caused continued unrest in the colonies. John Dickinson, who would later write the Articles of the Confederation, wrote a series of essays against the acts called Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. He stated that the taxes set a dangerous precedent and, if the colonists paid them, more taxes would be coming soon. Many of the merchants in the colonies organized boycotts against British goods. They also began to smuggle in goods to avoid the taxes. Finally, protests in Boston turned violent when British soldiers panicked and killed several people in what would become known as the Boston Massacre.

Watch the video: Tyranny Unmasked: The Townshend Acts (December 2021).