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America: 1763-1776

Reaction to the Townshend Duties

Further Impositions: The Quartering Act and the Townshend Duties

Customs Racketeering and the Repeal of the Townshend Duties


At first, colonists were uncertain as to what the appropriate response to the Townshend duties would be. They could not use the same strong-arm tactics they had used against the stamp distributors against the British naval officers who collected the duties offshore. So resistance remained weak and unarticulated until December 1767, when John Dickinson published Letters From a Pennsylvania Farmer. Dickinson was actually a wealthy lawyer, but the title was used to appeal to the majority of colonists, who lived in rural areas. The 12 letters making up the work were published in nearly every colonial newspaper. Dickinson set forth the argument that although the Parliament could pass regulatory economic measures that provided incidental revenue, it had no right to tax the colonists specifically for the purpose of revenue.

Dickinson's writings were widely read and admired in the colonies, and political resistance to the Townshend duties sprung forth. In early 1768, the Massachusetts colonial assembly asked Samuel Adams to draft a circular letter to be sent to all other colonial legislatures regarding the Revenue Act. The circular letter, adopted by the Massachusetts colonial assembly on February 11, 1768, condemned taxation without representation and decried British efforts to make royal governors financially independent of the elected legislatures as a further deprivation of representative government. However, the letter did not challenge Parliament's position as the highest authority or advocate rebellion in any sense. Virginia's assembly approved the Massachusetts circular letter, and sent out its own statement on the subject, urging all colonies to actively oppose British policies that would "have an immediate tendency to enslave them."

Parliament saw in the circular letters the seeds of rebellion and reacted strongly. Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies, ordered the Massachusetts assembly to recall its letter and forbade all overseas assemblies to endorse it. He commanded the royal governors to dissolve all colonial legislatures that violated these orders. The Massachusetts legislature voted 92 - 17 in defiance of Hillsborough's order, choosing not to recall Adams' letter. Other assemblies followed suit, endorsing the letter despite Hillsborough's threats. These assemblies were promptly dismissed by their respective royal governors, and the colonies reacted with anger.

In August 1768, Boston's merchants adopted an informal non-importation agreement, under which they refused to purchase British goods. Many other cities soon followed. However, some communities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, refused to cease importation of British goods, and the non- importation initiative probably kept no more than 40 percent of British imports out of the colonies.

The non-importation policies had a great effect on many British merchants and artisans, who clamored for a change in policy. Their desires were embodied by the political dissident John Wilkes, who had been forced to flee to Paris years earlier. Wilkes returned to London in 1768 despite a warrant for his arrest and ran for Parliament. He was elected, and promptly arrested and jailed. The next day, some 30,000 of his followers, known as Wilkesites, gathered on St. George's Fields, outside the prison, to protest his arrest. When the protestors began throwing objects, soldiers fired into the crowd, killing eleven. After the so-called Massacre of St. George's Fields a movement rapidly grew up around Wilkes' cause. He was elected to Parliament twice more and denied his seat. While in prison, he was in constant communication with many colonial political leaders, who considered him a hero. Upon his release from prison in April 1770 a Boston celebration hailed him as "the illustrious martyr of liberty."


The publication of John Dickinson's Letters From a Pennsylvania Farmer was certainly the first step in rousing opposition to the Townshend duties, but not because they proposed any new angle of criticism of parliamentary actions. All of Dickinson's arguments had been developed and employed earlier, during the Stamp Act crisis. His contribution to resistance lay in the fact that he convinced many Americans who were hesitant to object to the duties that many of the complaints that had informed opposition to the Stamp Act were equally applicable to the Townshend duties. In doing so, he recalled the fury of the Stamp Act crisis, and incited the colonists to oppose the Revenue Act.

The request that Samuel Adams draft a circular letter, which actually originated at a Boston town meeting chaired by James Otis, showed that the colonies' past run-ins with Parliament had shown them that it was best to present a united front consisting of all of the colonies. Massachusetts did not wish to sail into a struggle with Parliament alone. Instead, the colony sent out its circular letter to the other legislatures to explain its position, try to gain allies, and gauge the spirit of opposition throughout the colonies as a whole. As it turned out, the spirit of the other colonies varied considerably, from exuberant cooperation from Virginia to relative apathy from many other colonies. In fact, evidence suggests that resistance to the Townshend duties may well have faded away if Britain had not responded so quickly and strongly to the circular letters.

King George III later commented that he had "never met a man of less judgment than Lord Hillsborough." Hillsborough was in a delicate position in regard to the Townshend duties opposition. Had he read the situation better he might have acted more appropriately. He could have chosen a course that would have divided the colonists by appealing to a sense of loyalty to the crown, which many colonists continued to feel very strongly. Instead, he overreacted, and threatened to dismantle the symbol of self-government in the colonies, the assemblies. This move played right into the hands of political leaders Samuel Adams, James Otis, and John Dickinson, who were able to begin organizing mass political opposition to the British. Thanks to the earlier efforts of the Sons of Liberty and other leaders during the Stamp Act crisis, the American colonists were well versed in the art of political resistance and knew well the principles of their complaints. The patterns of oppositional action were easily duplicated in the form of mass demonstrations and an alliance by economic elites to prevent importation of British goods.

The events surrounding John Wilkes in London only magnified the drawing of political lines both in the colonies and in Britain. The outpouring of support for Wilkes demonstrated the displeasure many British citizens felt toward recent colonial policy, and lent further criticism to the theory of virtual representation, which was increasingly considered a sham within Britain itself.

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