ictory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) united Britain and its American colonies. Despite this, however, the new conflicts that arose in the following decade led to the colonists’ revolt and ultimately American independence. Historians of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic empire have long grappled with identifying the causes of that shift—only in retrospect did it appear inevitable. Many colonists in the war’s aftermath considered themselves Englishmen. Benjamin Franklin wrote of America happy “under the best of kings…happy too in the vigor and wisdom of every part of administration, particularly that part whose peculiar province is the British plantations.”

But as the partnership’s terms changed, imperial patriotism faded. A disillusioned Franklin complained in 1767 that “every man in England seems to consider himself as a piece of a sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself into the throne, and talks of our subjects in the same colonies.” Rather than sharing in the war-forged empire, Americans watched as longstanding practices of self-government were challenged by British efforts to standardize imperial structures under their more direct control. Colonial opposition initiated an escalating cycle of resistance that led to the shots heard around the world at Lexington and Concord.

While many historians consider the Stamp Act the turning point, Patrick Griffin, a Professor of History at Notre Dame, locates the pivotal moment in the ascendency of George and Charles Townshend. The brothers pursed an imperial reform program in Ireland and the American colonies that attempted to make them provinces of a Greater Britain. In The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Griffin explores the forces that drove imperial reform and the reactions to it, by taking seriously the ideas and principles that informed the political culture. He concludes that, in effect, the attempt to impose order on the complex, organic, colonial system brought revolution.

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.

Charles abandoned a legal career to enter the House of Commons in 1747. He was posted to the Board of Trade and Plantations, just as the Board’s minister, Lord Halifax, began reforming it into a policy making body. Halifax’s aim was to rationalize the complex net of relationships between the colonies and metropole in order to tighten London’s control. The legal structures defining the colonies and their relationships to the empire had always been organic and piecemeal; the colonies had been founded at different times under different rules and the empire was a patchwork of settlements that had developed considerable autonomy. What Edmund Burke called “salutary neglect” had evolved into a reality that many in England found increasingly unsatisfactory.

Halifax welcomed Charles’s diligence and eye for detail. His initial responsibilities on the Board gave him valuable experience synthesizing information on trade and governance problems. Charles was a systematic thinker whose growing expertise lead him to conceptualize imperial restructuring schemes that would enhance metropolitan control and make resources from the periphery serve British ends more effectively.

In 1753, Charles decided to address anachronisms in colonial governance in order to strengthen the crown’s authority to ensure that war efforts had the needed resources. Charles rejected a plan for colonial unity drafted by the Albany Congress (which included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hutchinson), and a similar proposal by Halifax, because he saw them as giving the colonies too much control. Individual colonies, he believed, would always put their own interests first and mutual jealousies would impede cooperation. The demands of global war, even before new imperial acquisitions would force ministers to think about how they would be governed, set imperial reform on the agenda.

George chose a military career. Under the Duke of Cumberland, he helped to subdue the Scottish Highlands. His experience imposing civility on the recalcitrant Scottish population was formative to his future colonial policy. It shaped his longstanding opinion that rebels who rejected civilization in its imperial guise of Protestantism and commercial society forfeited claims to protection. That said, George urged that those who had made their peace with the new order be offered a place within it. Scots who had resisted the Hanoverians would soon fight for Britain, and George envisioned similar possibilities for the Irish. For Griffin, George lived in “a conceptual world that bridged conquest and reform, civility and barbarism.”

Internal military politics alienated George from his patron. A clash with Cumberland over George’s support for raising an English militia brought George and Charles together as their work extended Britain’s colonial dominion and trade. When Cumberland was relieved of command during the Seven Years’ War, George was called to active service in Quebec. His resentment at serving under men who earlier had been his juniors damaged his standing, though not before he participated in an epochal victory over the French. 

The Seven Years’ War also initiated political trends that would upend British stability. William Pitt the Younger, for example, had gained power with the support of independent Whigs and Tories against the Duke of Newcastle’s Court Whigs, who had long drawn criticism for their liberal use of patronage. Bolstered by his independent stance, Pitt had used popular support to stake a claim to high office. Sweeping military victories under his management brought Pitt further prestige, though the rising cost of war brought pressure to end it now that key aims were secured.

After his 1760 ascension, George III broke with his two predecessors and was unwilling to let Court Whig politicians like Newcastle monopolize the distribution of offices and policy development. He sought to safeguard Britain’s constitution against oligarchy by ruling independent of party, but his removal of Newcastle opened a power vacuum filled by numerous factions. Lord Bute, the king’s favorite who replaced Newcastle as prime minister, made peace with the Court Whigs over Pitt’s objections. Conflicts over debt, taxes, and colonial policy made forming stable governments difficult. Any embarrassment, like colonial resistance to the Stamp Act, could bring down a minister.

This instability gave the Townshends their moment. In 1767, the Marquess of Rockingham-led government collapsed and George III approached Pitt, the newly-minted Earl of Chatham, to form a replacement. Charles Townshend became Chancellor of the Exchequer and George, who had succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1763, went to head Ireland’s government as Lord Lieutenant. Even if illness had not forced his absence from affairs, Chatham, as a peer, was ineligible to sit in the Commons. Charles accordingly took control over managing business there. His long experience with colonial policy and expertise in the issues behind it enabled him to impose his vision of imperial reform.

Charles made taxation the fulcrum of reforming imperial governance. Parliament imposed new duties on goods imported by the American colonies that would be used to establish a local customs house to manage collection. These collections would also fund salaries for judges and officials hitherto paid by colonial assemblies. Charles rejected the distinction Benjamin Franklin drew between internal and external taxes, but thought that levies on imports would be more palatable to colonial opinion. Making officials independent of assemblies would strengthen their ability to enforce laws and impose policies over local resistance. A separate measure in the Townshend Acts suspended New York’s legislature for defying the Quartering Act which had required colonies to fund accommodation for troops stationed to protect them. Compliance would enable the legislature to reassemble. 

Where the Stamp Act had been a specific revenue measure, the Townshend duties were part of a systematic effort to bring colonies to heel. Assemblies might protest, but they could not nullify the measures by pressuring officials whose salaries they no longer paid. Enforcement would curb smuggling and other corrupt practices. It would also link colonies more effectively into the wider empire as provinces engaged in a common cause and contributed to a larger whole. As patriot Whigs, the Townshends shared a political commitment to civil virtue over and against corruption, which they believed included preferring special or local interests over the common good.

Only parliament, Charles believed, could resist corruption and uphold ordered liberty. The experience of state-building in the British Isles during the seventeenth century had taught that lesson. Parliament had effectively curbed the abuses of royal prerogative, which had offered the only alternative to parliamentary sovereignty. Charles drew on both classical understanding of empire and contemporary political theory, especially that of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, to interpret recent history. Refashioning the British periphery from marchlands into provinces by promoting commerce, liberty, and Protestantism had raised them from rudeness to refinement. The same dynamic would apply to overseas settlements. Charles believed that decisive action at a moment when relationships were in flux could push societies to a further level of development. His tax program would seize that moment for the colonies.

Charles died unexpectedly in 1767. Others implemented his plan, which took on a life of its own. The Townshend duties, Griffin argues, brought a pivotal shift in American sensibilities: local communities, which had resisted the Stamp Act through sporadic rioting, now organized to resist the Townshend Acts. Colonists thought of themselves not just as subjects, but citizens with rights. Responses to Charles’s plan in the American press opened a serious discussion on the colonies’ proper place in the imperial system.

John Dickinson’s Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer catalyzed a new narrative and shaped debate. Suspending New York’s assembly struck Dickinson as especially pernicious and thus alarming to all colonies. He denied that parliament had that right or any power to levy taxes on colonies through their own legislatures. The American colonies, he argued, were English settlements rather than British provinces. They had never been conquered and therefore retained all their rights as Englishmen. Dickenson encouraged parliament “to preserve or promote mutually beneficial intercourse between the several constituent parts of the empire.” He proposed a federated imperial system that Charles Townshend would never have accepted. Colonial Whigs and British Whigs applied the same principles in seemingly incompatible ways that cultivated a growing rift.

Americans feared becoming a dependency like Ireland, but to Griffin, George Townshend’s Irish reform project provoked a response that actually mimicked the American dynamic. George’s reforms in Ireland had politicized it in new ways. One Dublin agitator described London’s control as French-style despotism at odds with the British constitution. A patriot movement defending Ireland’s parliament as the guarantor of its rights coalesced around Townshend’s tenure as Lord Lieutenant. Pamphlets by Henry Flood made a case akin to Dickenson’s in America, albeit in a tone more vicious and humorous than earnest. Where Townshend had pursued a concerted plan of subordination “reducing us to become a province only of another kingdom” denied the benefits of full union, Irish patriots sought legislative autonomy. As in America, no middle ground stood between patriots and the party upholding British control.

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. A variant of Dickenson’s idea of imperial federation eventually solved Britain’s imperial problem. The happiness Mayhew and Franklin envisioned for America, however, unfolded beneath a different flag.