J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 07, 2018

Reviewing the “Townshend Moment”

A few weeks back, I attended a talk at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts by Prof. Patrick Griffin about his new book, The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century.

Here’s a review of The Townshend Moment by William Anthony Hay for the Claremont Review of Books.

Griffin posits that the rise of power in 1767 of two brothers—George and Charles Townshend—was a crucial juncture in the late-eighteenth-century British Empire. George, who had succeeded to the title of Viscount Townshend in 1764, took the job of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Simultaneously, Charles became Chancellor of the Exchequer and the government’s principal voice in the House of Commons.

Though the Townshends consulted closely with each other, they had grown up apart and were quite different men. Hay summarizes:
The brothers were the scions of a failed aristocratic marriage. After their parents separated, the eldest, George, was raised by his father while their mother raised Charles. George, “brave, clever and not devoid of good feeling,” was intemperate in his judgements, impatient with authority, and exaggerated his superiors’ faults. Charles’s talent matched his ambition, but Griffin describes him as fickle, uncertain which political faction to join, and thereby unwilling to be pinned down. The confident and well-connected brothers relied on each other almost exclusively.
In 1767 the goal they shared was to strengthen the authority of the London government over its dependent territories, both across the Irish Sea and across the Atlantic.

The Townshend Act(s), named after Charles, not only instituted tariffs on certain goods shipped to North America but also established that the primary purpose of those funds was to pay salaries for royal appointees in North America, this insulating them from local popular pressure. Charles Townshend died suddenly in late 1767, but the British government remained committed to that model, despite widespread protest from American colonists.

George, Lord Townshend, also ran into opposition from the local legislature—in his case, the Irish parliament. He clearly felt it didn’t deserve as much deference as the Parliament in London. He lasted five years in that job, returning to Ireland in 1773 to fight a duel with an Irish peer. After that, Lord Townshend amassed additional offices, military titles, and a higher peerage but never seems to have exercised as much authority again.

Given the brothers’ short tenure, I’m not sure how influential the Townshends really were. How far ahead of other British ministers were they, and how much did the programs they instituted depend on them? Indeed, the Townshends’ biggest influence appears to have been the antithesis to their plans—the pushback from locals who felt these new rules turned them into second-class subjects.

Hay concludes his review by noting the eventual results of the “Townshend moment” in 1767:
Neither Townshend brother would have intended the ultimate outcomes of their reform projects. Instead of rationalizing empire to make it more governable, those efforts challenged the underlying assumptions that had sustained order. Their reforms unearthed frustrations that ended up pulling the periphery of empire apart. Lord Townshend, who lived until 1807, saw the colonies win their independence. Irish patriots gained fragile autonomy in 1782, but failed to resolve contradictions in their own regime that made it ungovernable. Union with Britain in 1800 traded the fragile autonomy for the benefits of full participation.
Still, it’s always valuable to consider America’s Revolutionary conflict from the perspective of the British government and the men, however briefly, at its head.

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