The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century by Patrick Griffin
Patrick Griffin's The Townshend Moment offers a study of the lives and careers of the Townshend brothers, George (1724–1807) and Charles (1725–67). Remarkably, Griffin offers the first book-length examination of the Townshends, a curious lacuna given their prominent involvement in British politics in the years immediately prior to the American Revolution. In addressing that omission, Griffin has chosen not to write a conventional biography but instead to pursue something rather more interesting. Retelling the familiar story of imperial crisis and revolution via the brothers' experiences, Griffin presents their lives and careers through a series of "moments"—intersections of the Townshends' lives and careers with decisive points in a larger imperial narrative. Griffin's alternative approach offers refreshing new context and perspective by elevating two hitherto bit players to leading roles. His guiding theme in exploring the Townshends emerges from his fascination with causality and the manner in which "contingency, providence, or good fortune—call it what you will—shapes broad dynamics" (xi): in this example, the dynamics of British governance and empire.
In eschewing a straightforward biographical study, Griffin avoids having to interpret his subjects as remarkable or exceptional. Indeed, he establishes "his brothers" as conventional products of a polite eighteenth-century upbringing. It is a well-considered choice, for notwithstanding the scandalous affaires du coeur of their mother, Etheldreda Townshend (known to posterity as "Naughty Audrey" ), scholars of Georgian Britain would find little surprising about the Townshends' early years. In their educations and their exploitation of kinship and connections to obtain appointments, Griffin's Townshends are instantly recognizable as archetypal eighteenth-century gentlemen: born and raised in Robert Walpole's Britain, with worldviews colored by a sociopolitical landscape long familiar to readers of Sir Lewis Namier. Rather than railing against such historical typecasting, Griffin accepts the Townshends' well-worn paths to office as a given and passes swiftly to the formative first moments of their careers.
For the younger brother, Charles, Griffin contends, the first moment was the fortunate coincidence of his appointment to the Board of Trade and Plantations just as the office entered into a period of marked activity, driven by the dynamic leadership of George Montagu Dunk, 2d Earl of Halifax. [End Page 349] This meeting of minds and kindred spirits, Griffin argues compellingly, served to define Charles's subsequent vocation as a meticulous student and practitioner of the logistics of empire. "What Halifax needed more than anything," Griffin contends, "was someone who had a passion for the arcane details of a commercial empire and the intricacies of the mercantilist system of trade" (22). Charles offered the perfect acolyte; he was a fervent devotee of Halifax's philosophy of blue-water imperialism, and through his experience of colonial administration he became a convincing advocate for both the preservation of metropolitan sovereignty and the necessity of imperial reform.
Though Charles's professional life was defined by the fortuitous alignment of personality, mentor, and vocation, his elder brother was shaped by jarring personal incompatibility. George Townshend pursued a military career and by his early twenties was already an accomplished aide-de-camp, experienced combat veteran, and rigid disciplinarian. But what might have seemed like a perfect calling proved calamitous as his beliefs increasingly clashed with those of his superiors, most notably the commander in chief of British forces, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. With generous understatement, Griffin observes that "George championed virtue even when it proved politically inexpedient" (35), a succinct précis of how his temperament led to his downfall. George's caustic depictions of his enemies in political pamphlets and scurrilous caricatures, Griffin argues, provide a vivid demonstration of his "vindictive and idealistic streak" (41). Griffin chooses to afford his subject the benefit of the doubt in this matter, presenting George's actions as evidence of his high moral virtue. A less sympathetic interpretation, however, could equally portray his ill-advised campaign against Cumberland as a peevish response to his own wounded self-interest. In either case, George's actions reflected a deep-seated character trait that rendered him unsuited to military life and effectively put an end to any prospect of appointment to public office while Cumberland and his allies occupied key offices of state.
Given Griffin's depiction of George as stubborn and judgmental, it seems curious that he was ever considered a suitable candidate for the delicate role that marked the high point of his career: the lord lieutenancy of Ireland. After years of waiting for a perfect opportunity to arise—an exile from office that Griffin contends stymied his brother's prospects as well—the appointment ought to have been George's chance to realize his ambitions and enact his political views. Adopting a self-determined strategy to restore the royal prerogative, from 1767 to 1772 he pursued a relentless campaign against the "provincial cabal" (186) he saw operating at every level of Ireland's political hierarchy. George sought to break regional authorities by proroguing the Irish Parliament, wresting control of the Revenue Board, and supplanting local patronage with his own. Griffin does not balk at confronting how George, a self-professed paragon of virtue, acted in the [End Page 350] same manner as those he accused of corruption. Rather, he points to George's frequent, obsessive calls for the imposition of system and order as the ultimate ends that he—in his single-minded manner—believed justified the underhanded means.
Whereas George was obdurate and immovable, Griffin presents Charles as accommodating to friends and rivals alike. This affability, combined with his aptitude for finance and an unshakeable belief in parliamentary sovereignty, led to his appointment as chancellor of the exchequer and de facto prime minister during the lengthy abscences of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. It was in this role that Charles's most influential moment came, in 1767, with the enactment of the eponymous colonial duties to which his reputation has become inextricably attached. Griffin identifies the Townshend Acts as the defining incident of Charles's career, the culmination of his metrocentric beliefs in Britain's political supremacy. To Griffin, Charles's systemic view of empire constituted an amalgamation of the long-established mercantilist values of the Board of Trade with newer free trade ideals, such as those espoused by his friend and economic adviser, Adam Smith. In describing the inception and implementation of the Townshend duties, Griffin illuminates how they reflected Parliament's myopia toward its American colonies. He observes that the legislation passed into law without contest, with Edmund Burke and Thomas Pownall the only apparent naysayers to the scheme's viability. Charles's first great moment of imperial statecraft proved to be his last because he died suddenly shortly after the acts' passage; he was spared from observing the repercussions of the catastrophic reception of the duties in America.
With Charles's death and with the effective curtailment of George's political ambitions after his appointment in Ireland, the book encounters something of an obstacle. Neither brother established a faction or political interest—no Townshendite protégés emerged to take up their cause—and with their passing from office it is hard to view either as having established a particular legacy. Though George's actions in Ireland paved the way for sovereignty in Dublin, Griffin contends, he has been all but erased from that national narrative; Charles's only lasting memorial is the divisive duties that bear his name. But in retelling elements of the broader narrative through the narrower lens of the brothers' experiences, Griffin sympathetically reveals glimpses of an alternative, systemic vision of empire that he depicts as a missed opportunity and a victim of circumstance and contingency.
In the latter part of the book, however, Griffin proposes a different interpretation of the brothers' lasting impact. The Townshends' moments, Griffin suggests, should also include those of their respondents—contemporary figures prompted by Charles and George to action. Offering a sort of counter-legacy to the Townshends, Griffin introduces John Dickinson and Henry Flood, whose respective objections to Charles's duties in North America and to George's leadership in Ireland prompted vociferous responses [End Page 351] in print. Here in particular this study comes alive, departing from its lead actors to illustrate how the opportunities of the brothers' careers—taken and untaken—proved catalysts in turn for the making of others. These collateral moments support Griffin's overarching claims for the brothers' lasting influence, but they do so by showing how their actions and beliefs fostered resentment and opposition.
Nonetheless, even with the prominence afforded to them by this dedicated study, this conclusion reinforces the sense that the Townshends were political also-rans: close enough to have had an influence upon events, but not sufficiently involved to have decisively dictated their course. Notwithstanding their clear potential—particularly Charles, in the opinions of his contemporaries—the Townshends remained members of the general throng of career politicians that populated the upper circles of metropolitan power in the decades prior to the American Revolution. Ultimately, the brothers never rose to the prominence that Griffin suggests they could have or that they themselves believed they deserved.
The lives of political operators do not always provide the most fertile ground for biographers, and this book succeeds as a career study where a conventional biography of the Townshends' fleeting careers would likely have fallen short. As an alternative exploration of the period leading up to revolution, Griffin's study is both refreshing and compelling. Exploring the escalating crisis through the brothers' perspectives proves a worthwhile exercise, not only in revealing their respective contributions (the broader significance of which has receded from historical view) but also in showing the value of exploring different viewpoints when considering this period. [End Page 352]