Tax Dispute Abates
The issue thus drawn centered on the question of representation. From the colonies' point of view, it was impossible to consider themselves represented in Parliament unless they actually elected members to the House of Commons. But this conflicted with the orthodox English principle of "virtual representation," that is, representation by classes and interests rather than by locality.
Most British officials held that Parliament was an imperial body representing and exercising the same authority over the colonies as over the homeland: It could pass laws for Massachusetts as it could for Berkshire in England.
The American leaders argued that no "imperial" Parliament existed; their only legal relations were with the Crown. It was the King who had agreed to establish colonies beyond the sea and the King who provided them with governments. That the King was equally a King of England and a King of Massachusetts they agreed, but they also insisted that the English Parliament had no more right to pass laws for Massachusetts than the Massachusetts legislature had to pass laws for England.
The British Parliament was unwilling to accept the colonial contentions. British merchants, however, feeling the effects of the American boycott, threw their weight behind a repeal movement, and in 1766 Parliament yielded, repealing the Stamp Act and modifying the Sugar Act. The colonies rejoiced. Colonial merchants gave up the non-importation agreement, the Sons of Liberty subsided, trade resumed its course, peace seemed at hand.
But it was only a respite. The year 1767 brought another series of measures that stirred anew all the elements of discord. Charles Townshend, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, was called upon to draft a new fiscal program. Intent upon reducing British taxes by makng more efficient the collection of duties levied on American trade, he tightened customs administration, at the same time sponsoring duties on paper, glass, lead, and tea exported from Britain to the colonies.
This was designed to raise revenue to be used in part to support colonial governors, judges, customs officers, and the british army in America. Another act suggested by Townshend authorized the superior courts of the colonies to issue writs of assistance, thus giving specific legal authority to the general search warrants already hateful to the colonists.
The agitation following enactment of the Townshend duties was less violent than that stirred by the Stamp Act, but it was nevertheless strong. Merchants once again resorted to non-importation agreements. Men dressed in homespun clothing, women found substitutes for tea. Students used colonial-made paper. Houses went unpainted. In Boston where the mercantile interests here most sensitive to any interference, enforcement of the new egulations provoked violence. When customs officials sought to collect duties, they were set upon by the populace and roughly handled. For this, two regiments were dispatched to protect the customs commissioners.
The presence of British troops in Boston was a standing invitation to disorder. On March 5, 1770, after 18 months of resentment, antagonism between citizens and soldiery flared up. What began as a harmless snowballing of the redcoats degenerated into a mob attack. Someone gave the order to fire; three Bostonians lay dead in the snow; and colonial agitators had a valuable issue n their campaign to arouse hostility toward England. Dubbed the Boston Massacre, the incident was dramatically pictured as proof of British heartlessness and tyranny.
Faced with such opposition, Parliament in 1770 opted for a strategic retreat and repealed all the Townshend duties except that on tea. The tea tax was retained because, as George III said, there must always be one tax to keep up the right. To most colonists the action of Parliament constituted, in effect, a "redress of grievances," and the campaign against England was largely dropped. An embargo on "English tea" continued but was not too scrupulously observed.
Generally, the situation seemed auspicious for imperial relations. Prosperity was increasing and most colonial leaders were willing to let the future take care of itself. Inertia and neglect seemed to succeed where bolder policies had failed. The moderate element, everywhere predominant in the colonies, welcomed this peaceful interlude.