America: 1763-1776

History
Summary

Reaction to the Townshend Duties

Summary Reaction to the Townshend Duties

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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