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4. 1767-69: Crisis Deepens




Had Great Britain generously repealed the whole [of the Townshend Acts] and forever relinquished all claim to the right, or even the exercise of the right of taxation, the union of the two countries might have lasted for ages.

David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 1789

In their jubilance over the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, few Americans heeded an action taken by Parliament on the same day. In the innocuously named Declaratory Act, Parliament firmly asserted its authority to legislate for the colonies and "bind the colonies and people of America . . . in all cases whatsoever." A clear statement of who's boss. This "binding" power became clear to Americans with five parliamentary enactments in 1767 and 1768 known as the Townshend Acts. To Britain and many colonists, the acts were a legitimate use of imperial authority to finance and secure the colonies. To many Americans—those who had condemned the Stamp Act as coercive and unconstitutional—the Townshend Acts were sheer despotism. First, an overview:

1767 Revenue Act · Set new import taxes (duties) on British goods—paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea.
· Enacted to fund British troops in America and to pay salaries of some royal officials.
· Affirmed use of writs of assistance (search warrants) by customs officials without court sanction (i.e., blank warrants) to search ships, warehouses, and other buildings for smuggled goods.
1767 Indemnity Act · Removed duties on tea shipped to the colonies by the British East India Co. so that British tea could compete with (smuggled) Dutch-shipped tea.
1767 New York Restraining Act · Ordered the suspension of the New York assembly if it continued to refuse to comply fully with the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonial legislatures to provide funds for the food, supplies, and housing of British troops stationed in the colonies. The assembly agreed to comply before the Act took effect.
1767 Commissioners of Customs Act · Implemented firmer customs enforcement and assigned five new customs officials—tax collectors and investigators—headquartered in Boston.
1768 Vice Admiralty Court Act · Created new courts in which colonial smugglers would be prosecuted without a jury—verdicts being decided solely by the judge, thus removing a long-valued privilege of Englishmen.

The blandness of this list belies the impact of the acts and the implied ultimatum from Parliament—submit or else. Many would accuse Parliament (and the king's cabinet) of a conspiracy to subjugate them. "We are therefore—SLAVES," warned John Dickinson in his widely read newspaper essays, published as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, that laid out the unique dangers within Parliament's moves. For in passing the Townshend Acts, stresses historian Forrest MacDonald, "Britain was making the most dangerous of all political blunders: it was stating its position clearly and as an absolute. Until that moment, the imperial system had worked, and it had worked precisely because it had never been clearly defined. Now Parliament was declaring, in effect, 'This is what the empire is, and this is what it shall be.'"1 This absolutist position, especially in Britain's anti-smuggling enforcements, made tempers rise to new levels among New Englanders, especially Bostonians, who rioted after tax officials confiscated the merchant ship of John Hancock, a high-visibility leader of resistance. When British troops were sent to Boston to enforce order, all felt that a line had been crossed.

After renewed violence two years later in 1770 (see Section #6), but primarily due to the demands of strapped British merchants, Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts—except for the tax on tea, which generated the most revenue and served as a symbol of parliamentary authority. Might it be, as David Ramsay mused in 1789, that had Parliament repealed the Acts in their entirety, the "union of the two countries might have lasted for ages"?

    Parliament debates the Stamp Act PDF file
  • Colonists respond to the Townshend Acts, 1767-1770. This compilation, one of a series in this Theme CRISIS, includes broadsides, poems, declarations, and debates on the Townshend Acts and on the merchants' nonimportation (boycott) agreements. Among the selections are the first call for united resistance (the Massachusetts Circular Letter), an essay by Benjamin Franklin explaining Americans' "ill humor" to the British, selections from John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, newspaper accounts of the 1768 "Liberty Riot" and of the resulting dispatch of British troops to Boston, and, as always, the retrospective views of the Patriot historian David Ramsay. As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (16 pp.)

  • Colonists respond to the Quartering Act PDF file
  • Colonists respond to the Quartering Act, 1766-1767. This second compilation offers documents illustrating Americans' opposition to (1) the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonial assemblies to provide funds for the food, provisions, and housing (in unoccupied buildings) of British troops, and (2) their response to the threatened suspension of the New York assembly for refusing to fully comply with the act. The selections include New York's petition to the royal governor and his reply, two newspaper essays urging opposition to the threatened suspension of the New York assembly, and a letter by Benjamin Franklin on the prospect of renewed conflict between Britain and America. "Every Act of Oppression will sour their Tempers," warned Franklin, " . . . and hasten their final Revolt: For the Seeds of Liberty are universally sown there, and nothing can eradicate them." (5 pp.)

  • Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania PDF file
  • John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Letters 1 & 2. In twelve essays published in colonial newspapers in 1767 and 1768, John Dickinson bemoaned the complacency exhibited by Americans after the repeal of the Stamp Act and urged them to wake up and resist the encroaching subjugation of Parliament.

    –In Letter One, he calls for more vocal outrage against Parliament's threat to suspend the New York assembly for its failure to comply fully with the Quartering Act. "If they may be legally deprived . . . of the privilege of legislation, why may they not, with equal reason, be deprived of every other privilege? Or why may not every colony be treated in the same manner, when any of them shall dare to deny their assent to any impositions that shall be directed?" Dickinson sees no difference between such legislative compulsion and the use of troops.

    –In Letter Two, he begins by acknowledging that the colonies are part of the British Empire and that Great Britain has authority over them. Every law passed by Parliament relating to the colonies, including the imposition of taxes, has been based upon its authority to regulate trade — every law, that is, except the Stamp Act, which was passed simply to raise revenue. For many colonists, this distinction was critical: Parliament can legitimately tax the colonies to regulate trade but not to raise revenue. Since the Townshend duties required colonists to buy the taxed goods from Britain alone, there was no competition, no trade to regulate, and thus the duties were unconstitutional. "HERE then, my dear countrymen," Dickinson pleads. "ROUSE yourselves, and behold the ruin hanging over your heads." (6 pp.)

  • Artists' depictions of the arrival of British troops in Boston, 1768. Internal Link to Discussing Art page The arrival of the soldiers on October 1, 1768, dispatched to enforce order after the "Liberty riot" and heated unrest in Boston, marked a turning point in the colonies' dispute with the mother country. It was the first time the British government had resorted to military force to impose its will on America. Illustrations of this event are among the few American-created images of the early revolutionary era, so dramatic was the effect on the colonial psyche. This effect is apparent (if you turn on your eighteenth-century eyes) in the three depictions presented here, one by Paul Revere and two by Christian Remick, a sailor and occasional artist.

    How do Revere and Remick reveal the impact on Americans of British troops in their midst, troops sent to police them and enforce British supremacy? How do they convey the impression of "occupation"? (6 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. From these documents, characterize the range of Americans' responses to the Townshend Acts, the Quartering Act, and the arrival of British troops in Boston.
  2. In what ways do the responses reflect a continuity with responses to previous parliamentary actions?
  3. In what ways do they reflect a change? What would explain the change?
  4. What new modes of resistance did Americans employ against the Townshend Acts (and against opposition to the Acts)?
  5. What were Americans' arguments for and against the non-importation agreements? Did the arguments follow strict Loyalist-vs.-Patriot divisions?
  6. How did the colonies respond to the call for unity in Samuel Adams's circular letter from Massachusetts?
  7. From these documents, what do you learn of the British people's reaction to American resistance?
  8. Create a dialogue among two to four persons represented in these readings. Guide your dialogue to a conclusion among the speakers, or an acknowledgment that no conclusion can be reached.
  9. What are the characteristics of the persona John Dickinson assumes in his letters "from a Farmer in Pennsylvania"? Why would he depict the author of the letters in such a way? How does Dickinson's farmer seek to establish a rapport with his readers?
  10. What goals did Dickinson hope to achieve with his letters?
  11. Why did he argue that taxes levied to raise revenues are unjust?
  12. Why was he disturbed with the lack of immediate outrage over Britain's threat to suspend the New York assembly?
  13. Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he believed that America could not sustain itself as an independent nation. What arguments in his letters might he have used to support this position?
  14. What are your first impressions of the three depictions of British troops in America? What might have been the impressions of Americans at the time?
  15. How do Revere and Remick differ in depicting the mass arrival of occupying troops in Boston harbor? What similar response did they hope to achieve in the viewer?
  16. In the depiction of British troops encamped on Boston Common, how has Remick made the citizens appear marginalized in their own city?
  17. How are the depictions acts of protest in themselves?
  18. Do you agree with David Ramsay that, had Parliament repealed all of the Townshend Acts including the tea tax, the "union of the two countries might have lasted for ages"?

Framing Questions

  • Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
  • Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
  • How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
  • Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?


COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the Townshend Acts
COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the Quartering Act
John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Letters 1-2
Depictions of the arrival of British troops in Boston
16 pp.
 5 pp.
 6 pp.
 6 pp.
33 pp.

Supplemental Sites

The American Revolution: A Documentary History (Avalon Project, Yale Law Library), including Non-Importation Agreements (Avalon Project, Yale Law Library) Non-Importation notice, "A Copy of the Association," Virginia Gazette, 25 May 1769 (Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library)

John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1767-68 John Dickinson, brief biography (Dickinson College)

1902 engraving of Remick's Prospective View of the Commons, helpful for analyzing original watercolor (New York Public Library)

The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776 (Massachusetts Historical Society) The American Revolution, overviews and primary sources (American Memory, Library of Congress) The Road to Revolution (American Revolution, Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History et al.)

The Revolutionary War, primary documents (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1 Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (John Dickinson). Letters from the Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), intro. by Forrest McDonald (Prentice Hall, 1962), xii.

– Alexander Robertson, "To the Publick . . . ," broadside, New York City, 1769 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Division, Portfolio 103, Folder 23.
– Christian Remick, A Perspective View of the Blockade of Boston Harbour, watercolor, ca. 1768 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
– Paul Revere, A Prospective View of the Town of Boston . . . and the Landing of—Troops in the year 1768, woodcut, 1770 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, LC-USZ62-45559.

Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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