The Townshend Acts
The Stamp Act Congress provided the most cogent rationale for American refusal to comply with Grenville's legislation, but it was not the only expression of colonial unity. In the fall of 1765, an organization called the Sons of Liberty was established in New York and soon spread throughout the colonies. Members of the Sons of Liberty communicated with each other and coordinated efforts to resist the British government. The nonimportation movement against the Sugar Act gained new strength with the Stamp Act. Americans actively boycotted British goods. American ladies took pride in wearing woolen garments made of homespun. This, combined with the effective work of mobs and the Sons of Liberty to make the Stamp Act a dead letter, placed the American colonies in open economic revolt against Parliament.Townshend Splits the Difference
The American resistance to the Stamp Act soon began to hurt British merchants engaged in the American trade. Many British voices began to join those of the Americans in advocating the repeal of the offending legislation. The Grenville government fell in the summer of 1765 for reasons unrelated to the crisis in America. The ministry of the Marquis of Rockingham moved to restore harmony. In 1766 Parliament repealed the Stamp Act and cut back on the provisions of the Sugar Act, decisions that were greeted with joy and gratitude in the colonies. Nonimportation was quickly dropped.
In New York, grateful colonists erected a statue of George III made of lead. A decade later, years of crisis had changed the popular mood, and a Patriot mob pulled the statue down and melted it into bullets for use against the British army.
The King and Parliament wanted an end to the strife with the American colonists. They were not, however, persuaded by American arguments, nor were they prepared to concede what they regarded were their rightful prerogatives in the colonies. Even as it satisfied the demands of the Americans, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, asserting the power of Parliament to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”
The Rockingham ministry did not last long. In 1766 it was succeeded by a ministry headed by William Pitt, now elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Chatham. Americans were delighted by the return to office of the hero of the French and Indian War. Unfortunately, ill health incapacitated Chatham. Real power in the new ministry fell into the hands of Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Townshend was a superficially brilliant man. He was famously damned by Horace Walpole, who said of him, “He had almost every great talent … if he had had but common truth, common sincerity, common honesty, common modesty, common steadiness, common courage and common sense.”
Townshend seized on a distinction that he believed the Americans had made between external taxes, which they accepted, and internal taxes, which they rejected. The colonists had been willing to accept certain duties as part of the regulation of British trade, but they had been consistent in objecting to any revenue-raising taxes that had not been voted by their own representatives. Townshend's misunderstanding led him to renew the effort to fiscally subdue the Americans in 1767.
Parliament passed laws increasing the tax on American imports of glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. Too clever by half, Townshend made it clear that the revenues raised by these taxes would be used to pay the salaries of British officials in America, liberating them from their traditional dependence on colonial legislatures. Townshend also increased the number of customs commissioners in America, created more of the hated vice-admiralty courts, and strengthened the power of British officials to use writs of assistance to search American property without warrants from local courts. Parliament also took another step sure to inflame American opinion by suspending the New York assembly, which had been dragging its heels in complying with the Quartering Act.A Rebirth of Resistance
Americans responded to news of this new legislation with chagrin and anger. Many in the colonies had dared to hope that the issue of taxation had been resolved with the repeal of the Stamp Act. Now another British ministry was challenging American rights.
Worse, Townshend's open attempt to strengthen the hand of British functionaries in the colonies could only be interpreted as a direct assault on American self-government. The traditional control of the salaries of British governors and other officials by colonial legislatures had given the colonists an effective check on the Crown's executive power. Townshend's reforms would make it much easier for royally appointed authorities to defy local opinion. The suspension of the legislature in New York was especially troubling. If the British government could abolish the colonial legislatures over differences of opinion, a century and a half of constitutional development was overthrown. It appeared that the British government wanted to leave the colonies naked before its arbitrary power.