Charles Townshend (August 29, 1725 – September 4, 1767), was born at his family's seat of Raynham Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the second son of Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend, and Audrey (died 1788), daughter and heiress of Edward Harrison of Ball's Park, near Hertford, a lady who rivalled her son in brilliancy of wit and frankness of expression.
He represented Great Yarmouth in Parliament from 1747 to 1756, when he found a seat for the admiralty borough of Saltash, subsequently transferring in 1761 to Harwich, another borough where the seat was in the government's gift. Public attention was first drawn to his abilities in 1753, when he delivered a lively attack, as a younger son who might hope to promote his advancement by allying himself in marriage to a wealthy heiress, against Lord Hardwicke's marriage bill. Although this measure passed into law, he attained this object in August 1755 by marrying Caroline Campbell (d. 1794), the eldest daughter of the 2nd duke of Argyll and the widow of Francis, Lord Dalkeith, the eldest son of the 2nd duke of Buccleuch.
With the accession of the new monarch in 1760 this volatile politician transferred his attentions from Pitt to the young king's favorite, Bute, and when in 1761, at the latter's instance, several changes were made in the ministry, Townshend was promoted to the post of secretary-at-war. In this place he remained after the great commoner had withdrawn from the cabinet, but in December 1762 he threw it up. Bute, alarmed at the growth in numbers and in influence of his enemies, tried to buy back Townshend's co-operation by sundry tempting promises, and at last secured his object in March 1763 with the presidency of the board of trade.
When Bute retired and George Grenville accepted the cares of official life, the higher post of first lord of the admiralty fell to Townshend's lot, but with his usual impetuosity he presumed to designate one of his satellites, Sir William Burrell (1732-1796), to a place under him at the board, and the refusal to accept the nomination led to his exclusion from the new administration. While in opposition his mind was swayed to and fro with conflicting emotions of dislike to the head of the ministry and of desire to share in the spoils of office. The latter feeling ultimately triumphed; he condescended to accept in the dying days of Grenville's cabinet, and to retain through the "lutestring" administration of Lord Rockingham "pretty summer wear," as Townshend styled it, "but it will never stand the winter" the highly paid position of paymaster-general, refusing to identify himself more closely with its fortunes as chancellor of the exchequer.
The position which he refused from the hands of Lord Rockingham he accepted from Pitt in August 1766, and a few weeks later his urgent appeals to the great minister for increased power were favorably answered, and he was admitted to the inner circle of the cabinet. The new chancellor proposed the continuance of the land tax at four shillings in the pound, while he held out hopes that it might be reduced next year to three shillings, whereupon his predecessor, William Dowdeswell, by the aid of the landed gentlemen, carried a motion that the reduction should take effect at once.
This defeat proved a great mortification to Lord Chatham, and in his irritation against Townshend for this blow, as well as for some acts of insubordination, he meditated the removal of his showy colleague. Before this could be accomplished Chatham's mind became impaired, and Townshend, who was the most determined and influential of his colleagues, swayed the ministry as he liked, pledging himself to find a revenue in America with which to meet the deficiency caused by the reduction in the land tax. His wife was created (August 1767) baroness of Greenwich, and his elder brother George, the 4th viscount, was made lord-lieutenant of Ireland.
He himself delivered in the House of Commons many speeches unrivalled in parliamentary history for wit and recklessness; and one of them still lives in history as the "champagne speech." His last official act was to carry out his intention by passing through parliament resolutions, which even his colleagues deprecated in the cabinet, for taxing several articles, such as glass, paper and tea, on their importation into America, which he estimated would produce the insignificant sum of ₤40,000 for the English treasury, and which shrewder observers prophesied would lead to the loss of the American colonies. These measures were known as the Townshend Acts, and he received the support of his cousin Thomas Townshend who was also a minister in the government. Soon after this event he died somewhat suddenly on the 4th of September 1767.
From the Percy Anecdotes we read; "If we can believe the evidence of his contemporaries, Charles Townshend must have been one of the most accomplished senators that ever sat in Parliament. He was a man of the most pointed wit, and of the most polished eloquence. His speeches in the House of Commons never lasted more than half an hour, and he had, in that time, always debated his subject without fatiguing his hearers. Mr. Burke, who knew him well, has paid his talents the tribute of a splendid eulogy. ' In truth, ' says he, ' Charles Townshend was the delight and ornament of the House; and if he had not so great a share of knowledge long treasured up, as some have had who flourished formerly, he knew better than any other man I ever was acquainted with how to bring together, within a short time, all that was necessary to establish, to illustrate, and to decorate that ride of the question he supported. He stated his matter skillfully and powerfully; he particularly excelled in a most luminous explanation and display of his subject; his style of argument was neither trite nor vulgar, nor subtle and abstruse; he hit the house just between wind and water; and not being troubled with too anxious a zeal for any matter in question, was never more tedious, or more earnest, than the preconceived opinions and present temper of his hearers required, to whom he was always in perfect unison; he conformed exactly to the temper of the house, and seemed to guide, because he was always sure to follow it.
' Failings, ' continues Mr. Burke, ' he undoubtedly had; many of us remember them. But he had no failings which were not owing to a noble cause, to an ardent, generous, perhaps an immoderate, passion for fame; a passion which is the instinct of all great souls. He worshipped that goddess wherever she appeared, but he paid his particular devotions to her in her favourite habitation, in her chosen temple, the House of Commons. He was truly the child of the House; he never did, thought, or said anything but with a view to it; he every day adapted himself to your disposition, and adjusted himself before you, as at a looking-glass. '"
The town of Townshend in Vermont, USA was named after Charles Townshend in 1753.