For the first 150 years of their existence, the British colonies in America had it relatively easy when it came to taxation by the mother country. When they were taxed -- as with the Molasses Act of 1733 for instance -- officials were notably lacking in their enforcement. The British statesman Edmund Burke would call this hands-off policy "salutary neglect," and it worked well, encouraging a thriving mercantile trade between the Colonies and England.
Paying The Bills
All this changed after the Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in North America), which ended in 1763. Britain won the war, but at enormous financial cost. The crown saw no reason why the Colonies should not pay down some of this cost, since much of it had been incurred in defending them against the French. The British Parliament imposed a series of taxes on goods imported into the Colonies, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764 and followed by the Stamp Act the next year. The latter was particularly onerous from the colonists' point of view, since it was a direct consumer tax on all paper documents, from legal contracts to newspapers to playing cards. As a result of the Stamp Act, violent protests arose in Boston.
A New Tax
Alarmed, the British government repealed the Stamp Act, but in 1767 instituted a series of acts known collectively as the Townshend Revenue Acts, because they were introduced by Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer. There were several points to the Townshend Acts. One was to collect taxes without using the direct consumer tax that so angered the American colonists. Therefore the Townshend Acts constituted an indirect or external tax, a series of duties on ordinary household items like glass, paint, oil, lead, paper and tea, collected at the point of import.
Another point of the Townshend Acts was the specific language that the duties collected would be used for "defraying the charge of the administration of justice, and the support of civil government" in the Colonies. The British hoped this would allay some of the colonists' misgivings about their money going directly to Britain. A further point of the Townshend Acts was to attempt to firmly establish the principal that the British had an absolute right to tax the colonists, just as they did any British citizen. Finally, the acts established a Board of Customs Commissioners to enforce customs duties, one that could impose penalties without benefit of trial or appeal.
From a British point of view, the Townshend Acts were a failure. In response, the colonists organized a highly effective boycott against British goods, cutting imports from England in half. In 1770, Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts except, significantly, for the tax on tea. While only threepence per pound, it was seen by both colonists and the mother country as test of the right and ability of Parliament to tax the colonists, and would lead to the Boston Tea Party protest of 1773.
- Massachusetts Historical Society: The Coming of the American Revolution: The Stamp Act
- U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian: Parliamentary Taxation of Colonies.
- Yale Law School: The Avalon Project: Great Britain: Parliament: The Townshend Act
- American History From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond: The Townshend Acts of 1767
- History.com: Townshend Acts
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