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The Intolerable Acts was the term invented by 19th century historians to refer to a series of punitive laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party. The laws were meant to punish the Massachusetts colonists for their defiance in the Boston Tea Party protest in reaction to changes in taxation by the British to the detriment of colonial goods. In Great Britain, these laws were referred to as the Coercive Acts.
The acts took away self-governance and historic rights of Massachusetts, triggering outrage and resistance in the Thirteen Colonies. They were key developments in the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
Four of the acts were issued in direct response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The British Parliament hoped these punitive measures would, by making an example of Massachusetts, reverse the trend of colonial resistance to parliamentary authority that had begun with the 1764 Sugar Act. A fifth act, the Quebec Act, enlarged the boundaries of what was then the Province of Quebec and instituted reforms generally favorable to the French Catholic inhabitants of the region; although unrelated to the other four Acts, it was passed in the same legislative session and seen by the colonists as one of the Intolerable Acts. The Patriots viewed the acts as an arbitrary violation of the rights of Massachusetts, and in September 1774 they organized the First Continental Congress to coordinate a protest. As tensions escalated, the American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, leading in July 1776 to the declaration of an independent United States of America.
Relations between the Thirteen Colonies and the British Parliament slowly but steadily worsened after the end of the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War) in 1763. The war had plunged the British government deep into debt, and so the British Parliament enacted a series of measures to increase tax revenue from the colonies. Parliament believed that these acts, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, were legitimate means of having the colonies pay their fair share of the costs of maintaining the British Empire. Although protests led to the repeal of the Stamp and Townshend Acts, Parliament adhered to the position that it had the right to legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever" in the Declaratory Act of 1766.
A further tension especially with the Southern colonies was the Somerset v Stewart ruling of 1772 in which chattel slavery of humans was found totally unsupported in common law and as England had no statute for it, unenforceable. As the "slave owner" concerned (Stewart) was from another British colony (Jamaica) this evolution ending slavery at common law was very disturbing to colonists travelling with servants.
Many colonists, either sincerely or with motives to avoid English imposed law as above, developed a different conception of the British Empire. Under the British Constitution, they argued, a British subject's property could not be taken from him (in the form of taxes) without his consent (in the form of representation in government). Therefore, because the colonies were not directly represented in Parliament, some colonists insisted that Parliament had no right to levy taxes upon them, a view expressed by the slogan "No taxation without representation". After the Townshend Acts, some colonial essayists took this line of thinking even further, and began to question whether Parliament had any legitimate jurisdiction in the colonies at all. This question of the extent of Parliament's sovereignty in the colonies was the issue underlying what became the American Revolution.
On December 16, 1773, a group of Patriot colonists associated with the Sons of Liberty destroyed 342 chests of tea in Boston, Massachusetts, an act that came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. The colonists partook in this action because Parliament had passed the Tea Act, which granted the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the colonies, thereby saving the company from bankruptcy. This made British tea less expensive, which Parliament thought would be a welcome change in the colonies. In addition, there was added a small tax on which the colonists were not allowed to give their consent, but the tea still remained less expensive even with the tax. Again, Parliament taxed the colonists without their representation. This angered the colonists. News of the Boston Tea Party reached England in January 1774. Parliament responded by passing four laws. Three of the laws were intended to directly punish Massachusetts. This was for the destruction of private property, to restore British authority in Massachusetts, and to otherwise reform colonial government in America.
The Americans have tarred and feathered your subjects, plundered your merchants, burnt your ships, denied all obedience to your laws and authority; yet so clement and so long forbearing has our conduct been that it is incumbent on us now to take a different course. Whatever may be the consequences, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over.
The Boston Port Act was the first of the laws passed in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party. It closed the port of Boston until the colonists paid for the destroyed tea and until the king was satisfied that order had been restored. Colonists objected that the Port Act punished all of Boston rather than just the individuals who had destroyed the tea, and that they were being punished without having been given an opportunity to testify in their own defense.
The Massachusetts Government Act provoked even more outrage than the Port Act because it unilaterally took away Massachusetts' charter and brought it under control of the British government. Under the terms of the Government Act, almost all positions in the colonial government were to be appointed by the governor, Parliament, or king. The act also severely limited town meetings in Massachusetts to one per year, unless the Governor called for one. Colonists outside Massachusetts feared that their governments could now also be changed by the legislative fiat of Parliament.
The Administration of Justice Act allowed the Royal governor to order that trials of accused royal officials take place in Great Britain or elsewhere within the Empire if he decided that the defendant could not get a fair trial in Massachusetts. Although the act stipulated for witnesses to be reimbursed after having traveled at their own expense across the Atlantic, it was not stipulated that this would include reimbursement for lost earnings during the period for which they would be unable to work, leaving few with the ability to testify. George Washington called this the "Murder Act" because he believed that it allowed British officials to harass Americans and then escape justice. Many colonists believed the act was unnecessary because British soldiers had been given a fair trial following the Boston Massacre in 1770.
The Quartering Act applied to all of the colonies, and sought to create a more effective method of housing British troops in America. In a previous act, the colonies had been required to provide housing for soldiers, but colonial legislatures had been uncooperative in doing so. The new Quartering Act allowed a governor to house soldiers in other buildings if suitable quarters were not provided. While many sources claim that the Quartering Act allowed troops to be billeted in occupied private homes, historian David Ammerman's 1974 study claimed that this is a myth, and that the act only permitted troops to be quartered in unoccupied buildings.
Many colonists saw the Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) as a violation of their constitutional rights, their natural rights, and their colonial charters. They, therefore, viewed the acts as a threat to the liberties of all of British America, not just Massachusetts. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, for example, described the acts as "a most wicked System for destroying the liberty of America."
The citizens of Boston not only viewed this as an act of unnecessary and cruel punishment, but the Coercive Acts drew hatred toward Britain even further. As a result of the Coercive Acts, even more colonists turned against British rule.
Great Britain hoped that the Coercive Acts would isolate radicals in Massachusetts and cause American colonists to concede the authority of Parliament over their elected assemblies. It was a calculated risk that backfired, however, because the harshness of some of the acts made it difficult for moderates in the colonies to speak in favor of Parliament. The acts promoted sympathy for Massachusetts and encouraged colonists from the otherwise diverse colonies to form committees of correspondence which sent delegates to the First Continental Congress. The Continental Congress created the Continental Association, an agreement to boycott British goods. Additionally, it was decided that if the Coercive Acts were not reversed after a year, goods were to stop being exported to Great Britain as well. The Congress also pledged to support Massachusetts in case of attack, which meant that all of the colonies would become involved when the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord.
- Middlekauff, Glorious Cause, 241.
- Reid, Constitutional History, 13. For the complete quote in context, see William Cobbett et al., eds., The Parliamentary History of England: From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (London, 1813) 17:1280–1281.
- "1774: Parliament passes the Boston Port Act". History Channel. Retrieved 20 December 2017.
- Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 9.
- Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 10.
- Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 15.
- Gary B. Nash; Carter Smith (2007). Atlas Of American History. Infobase Publishing. p. 64. ISBN 9781438130132.
- Peter Knight (2003). Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 184–85. ISBN 9781576078129.
- Harlow G. Unger (2011). American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. Da Capo Press. pp. 188–93. ISBN 0306819767.
- Ammerman, David (1974). In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton.
- Middlekauff, Robert (2005). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (Revised and expanded ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516247-1.
- Reid, John Phillip (2003). Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Law. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-11290-X.
- Unger, Harlow G. (2011). American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. Da Capo Press. pp. 188–93. ISBN 0306819767.
- Donoughue, Bernard (1964). British Politics and the American Revolution: The Path to War, 1773–1775. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Breen, T. H. (2010). American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Primary documents (British and American) relating to the Intolerable Acts, originally published in the American Archives and presented online by the Northern Illinois University Libraries, also Camden.
- Text of the Boston Port Act
- Text of the Massachusetts Government Act
- Text of the Administration of Justice Act
- Text of the Quartering Act
- Text of the Quebec Act