The Townshend Acts of 1767

Learning Objectives

  • Explain why many colonists protested the 1767 Townshend Acts

Colonists’ joy over the repeal of the Stamp Act and what they saw as their defense of liberty did not last long. The Declaratory Act of 1766 had articulated Great Britain’s supreme authority over the colonies, and Parliament soon began exercising that authority. In 1767, with the passage of the Townshend Acts, a tax on consumer goods in British North America, colonists believed their liberty as loyal British subjects had come under assault for a second time.

The Townshend Acts

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. King 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, whose job was to manage the Empire’s finances, took on many of his duties. First among these was raising the needed revenue from the colonies to pay off Britain’s ballooning war debt and interest.

A painting of Charles Townshend.

Figure 1. Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer, shown here in a 1765 painting by Joshua Reynolds, instituted the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 in order to raise money to support the British military presence in the colonies.

Townshend’s first act was to deal with the unruly New York Assembly, which had voted not to comply with the Quartering Act. 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 did.

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 since 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.

As if to justify their alarm, the money raised from the Revenue Act was intended to support the British army in America, but in reality, it paid the salaries of some Crown-appointed judges, governors, and other officials whom the colonial assemblies had traditionally paid. Now, these officials no longer relied on colonial leadership for income, which allowed them to implement Parliamentary acts without fear of financial retaliation by colonial assemblies. The Revenue Act severed the relationship between colonial officials and assemblies, drawing those 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, essentially search warrants, to customs officials who even suspected the presence of contraband goods, which also opened the door to a new level of bribery in colonial harbors. 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 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 enforcement. Four years after the end of the French and Indian War, the Empire continued to search for solutions to its debt problem and the pressing need to bring the colonies to heel.

The Non-Importation Movement

Like the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts produced controversy and protest in the American colonies. For a second time, many colonists resented what they perceived as an effort to tax them without representation and thus to deprive them of their liberty. The fact that the revenue the Townshend Acts raised would pay royal governors only made the situation worse, because it took control away from colonial legislatures that otherwise had the power to set and withhold a royal governor’s salary. The Restraining Act, which had been intended to isolate New York without angering the other colonies, had the opposite effect, demonstrating to the rest of the colonies how far some members of Parliament were willing to go.

The Townshend Acts generated a number of protest writings, including Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer by John Dickinson. In this influential pamphlet, which circulated widely in the colonies, Dickinson conceded that the Empire could regulate trade but argued that Parliament could not impose either internal taxes, like stamps, or external taxes, like customs duties.

“Address to the Ladies” Verse from The Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser

This verse, which ran in a Boston newspaper in November 1767, highlights how women were encouraged to take political action by boycotting British goods. Notice that the writer especially encourages women to avoid British tea (Bohea and Green Hyson) and linen, and to manufacture their own homespun cloth. Building on the protest of the 1765 Stamp Act by the Daughters of Liberty, the non-importation movement of 1767–1768 mobilized women as political actors.

Young ladies in town, and those that live round,

Let a friend at this season advise you:

Since money’s so scarce, and times growing worse

Strange things may soon hap and surprize you:

First then, throw aside your high top knots of pride

Wear none but your own country linnen;

of economy boast, let your pride be the most

What, if homespun they say is not quite so gay

As brocades, yet be not in a passion,

For when once it is known this is much wore in town,

One and all will cry out, ’tis the fashion!

And as one, all agree that you’ll not married be

To such as will wear London Fact’ry:

But at first sight refuse, tell’em such you do chuse

As encourage our own Manufact’ry.

No more Ribbons wear, nor in rich dress appear,

Love your country much better than fine things,

Begin without passion, ’twill soon be the fashion

To grace your smooth locks with a twine string.

Throw aside your Bohea, and your Green Hyson Tea,

And all things with a new fashion duty;

Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,

For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye;

These do without fear and to all you’ll appear

Fair, charming, true, lovely, and cleaver;

Tho’ the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish.

And love you much stronger than ever. !O!

In Massachusetts in 1768, Samuel Adams wrote a letter that became known as the Massachusetts Circular. Sent by the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the other colonial legislatures, the letter laid out the unconstitutionality of taxation without representation and encouraged the other colonies to again protest the taxes by boycotting British goods. Adams wrote:

“It is, moreover, [the Massachusetts House of Representatives] humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, that the acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the Parliament, his Majesty’s Commons in Britain, by those acts, grant their property without their consent.”

Note that even in this letter of protest, the humble and submissive tone shows the Massachusetts Assembly’s continued deference to parliamentary authority. Even in the throes of political protest, it is a clear expression of allegiance and the hope for a restoration of “natural and constitutional rights.”

Great Britain’s response to this threat of disobedience served only to unite the colonies further. The colonies’ initial response to the Massachusetts Circular was lukewarm at best. However, back in Great Britain, the secretary of state for the colonies—Lord Hillsborough—demanded that Massachusetts retract the letter, promising that any colonial assemblies that endorsed it would be dissolved. This threat had the effect of pushing the other colonies to Massachusetts’s side. Even the city of Philadelphia, which had originally opposed the Circular, came around.

The Daughters of Liberty once again supported and promoted the boycott of British goods. Women resumed spinning bees and again found substitutes for British tea and other goods. Many colonial merchants signed non-importation agreements, and the Daughters of Liberty urged colonial women to shop only with those merchants. The Sons of Liberty used newspapers and circulars to call out by name those merchants who refused to sign the agreements and sometimes they were threatened with violence. For instance, a broadside from 1769–1770 reads:


North Side of the TOWN-HOUSE,
and Opposite the Town-Pump, [in]
Corn-hill, BOSTON
It is desired that the SONS
would not buy any one thing of
him, for in so doing they will bring
disgrace upon themselves, and their
Posterity, for ever and ever, AMEN.

The boycott in 1768–1769 turned the purchase of consumer goods into a political gesture. It mattered what you consumed. Indeed, the very clothes you wore indicated whether you were a defender of liberty in homespun or a protector of parliamentary rights in British attire.

Link to Learning

For examples of the types of luxury items that many American colonists favored, visit the National Humanities Center to see pictures and documents relating to home interiors of the wealthy.

For more information about the Townshend Acts, watch this History Channel synopsis.

Try It


broadside: a type of pamphlet printed by colonial protestors and dissenters; they were usually printed on cheap paper with cheap ink and meant to be distributed as quickly and widely as possible

Charles Townshend: the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Britain from 1766-1767 under Prime Minister William Pitt. Townshend took control from the elderly Pitt and influenced the passage of the Townshend Acts in colonial America, which were one of the key triggers of the American Revolution

Massachusetts Circular: a letter penned by Son of Liberty Samuel Adams that laid out the unconstitutionality of taxation without representation and encouraged the other colonies to boycott British goods

Revenue Act of 1767: one of the Townshend Acts which placed an import duty on glass, lead, painters’ colors, paper, and tea and authorized the use of writs of assistance for finding contraband goods

writ of assistance: a search and seizure warrant granted to customs officials under the Revenue Act, which gave them carte blanche to search any merchant vessel they suspected of transporting untaxed goods, without any probably cause