Many of our school history books would lead readers to believe that the American Revolution started when the Minutemen fired at the British Army. These were the “shots heard around the world.”
The seeds to the rebellion were planted much earlier. Drift back in history and in 1763, England won the Seven Years War. The role of men from Thirteen Colonies was over when the French surrendered Montreal in 1760.
The war left the British treasury empty. As it had done in the past, Parliament increased taxes on its citizens residing in England, but it was not nearly enough. The British Parliament passed five pieces of legislation known Townshend Acts which targeted citizens in the Thirteen Colonies who were reluctant to abide by England’s restrictive trade practices and tax laws for which they had no say in their creation.
These five laws were named after Charles Townshend, the Crown’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. In U.S. terms, he was both the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
The intent of the legislation was to fund the administration and protection of the British Colonies in North America. The British Parliament had a specific target for each piece of legislation.
Passed on June 5th, 1767, The New York Restraining Act of 1767 made it illegal for the New York Assembly to pass any law until the colony complied with the Quartering Act. It resulted from the British Army’s belief that the colony should pay the housing and food costs for British troops stationed in New York and the other colonies.
The New Yorkers contended that the Seven Years War was over and there was no need for British troops to be garrisoned in New York. Ultimately, the British agreed not to enforce the law and the New York Assembly agreed not to abide by it.
To help pay for the war, The Revenue Act of 1767 passed on June 26th, 1767 added additional taxes on many items including glass, lead, and notably, tea. It also gave customs officials the authority to issue “writs of assistance,” which gave them the power to search a Colonist’s property without a warrant and seize what the official considered contraband!
The Indemnity Act of 1767 passed on June 29th, lowered the taxes on tea and other goods brought to England by the British East India Company. This lowered the price of the tea which would then be exported and sold in the Thirteen Colonies at a greater profit. The tab for the reduced taxes would be picked up by the purchasers in the Colonies.
To help enforce The Indemnity Act of 1767, the British Parliament passed the Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767 also passed June 29th, 1767 created a customs board for the Thirteen Colonies and gave them the power to create local offices in the colonies . These officials could use the powers of the Revenue Act to enforce British customs laws, assess duties and seize property.
The last piece of legislation was the Vice Admiralty Court Act of 1768, passed on July 6th, 1768, almost a year later. Through it, it gave Vice Admiralty courts in Halifax, New York, and three new courts in Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia, jurisdiction over smuggling and customs violations. The law allowed the judges who were appointed by the King or the Royal Governors to decide guilt or innocence and award sentences.
These laws were met with the colonists refusing to pay the taxes, increased smuggling, and often outright defiance. Charles Townshend passed away in September 1767 and never lived to see the seeds he planted with the legislation he pushed through the Parliament.
1765 Joshua Reynolds portrait of the Right Honourable Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer.