As a statesman, Charles Townshend displayed only average political aptitude, but his wit, charm and skills as an orator carried him to positions of power in 18th-century England. Townshend's "Champagne Speech," which he made before the House of Commons in May of 1767, became notorious for its eloquence, humor and complete failure to address the matter at hand. However, several days later and much more intent on resolving England's financial difficulties, Townshend introduced to Parliament several measures that ignited sparks of revolution in the American Colonies.
While the Earl's Away
In 1766, Townshend was appointed England's chancellor of the exchequer through his friendship with the Duke of Grafton, the newly appointed, inexperienced Lord of the Treasury. In the role of chancellor of the exchequer, Townshend served as Parliament's finance minister and was responsible for raising revenue. Both Townshend and Grafton were answerable to the prime minister, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. However, Chatham was often absent from Parliament due to illness. Because Grafton's position was in the House of Lords, he could not oversee Townshend's activities in the House of Commons. This situation left the assertive and imposing Townshend to take liberties with his authority.
Save Money, Save Face
Townshend inherited the problem of reducing England's debt, which had ballooned following England's protracted war with France. In his first proposed budget, he announced the delay of a pending measure to reduce land taxes. However, Townshend's rivals in the House of Commons overruled him and voted to reduce the tax. This left Townshend in an embarrassing position and faced with an even greater budget deficit. Rather than step down from his position, as was the tradition when a finance minister was defeated on a money bill, Townshend doubled his efforts to solve England's financial crisis -- and preserve his political image.
Charles the Charmer
Townshend assured the House of Commons that he could tap Colonial coffers for revenue. Townshend had no authority to make this promise or pass legislation involving the Colonies. However, in May of 1767, Townshend seized an opportunity to charm the House members before announcing his plans for the Colonies. Appearing before the House on the evening of May 8 for what was supposed to be a discussion of the East India Company, Townshend instead launched into a speech described by political critic Horace Walpole as filled with "wit, humor and knowledge." It was rumored Townshend had been drinking beforehand and his oration became known as the "Champagne Speech." Townshend was successful in leaving members of Parliament duly impressed with his abilities. (See References 1, 2 and 5)
Townshend Misses the Party
Five days after his "Champagne Speech," Townshend outlined his plans to raise revenue from the Colonies. He persuaded Parliament the colonists would accept an indirect, or import, tax. However, the Townshend Acts also called for suspension of the New York legislature and the establishment of customs commissioners to enforce the new taxes. Most importantly, the Townshend Acts ended the Colonial legislatures' control of governors' salaries, which would be paid out of the new tax revenues. The Townshend Acts proved disastrous to relations between England and the Colonies. The import tax on tea ultimately instigated the Boston Tea Party. Townshend, however, died four months after drawing up the acts named for him and did not witness their failure. (See Reference 7)
- The Living Age: Volume VIII: The Reign of George the Third; E. Littell
- A Web of English History: Charles Townshend (1725 - 1767)
- Gov.UK: Ministerial Role: Chancellor of the Exchequer
- Three to Ride: A Ride That Defied an Empire and Spawned a New Nation; John C. Redmond
- History of the English Parliament: Together With an Account of the Parliaments of Ireland and Scotland; George Barnett Smith
- USHistory.org: The Townshend Acts
- The American Revolution and The Politics of Liberty; Robert H. Webking
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images