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The Intolerable Acts or the Coercive Acts are names used to describe a series of five laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 relating to Britain's colonies in North America. The acts sparked outrage and resistance in the Thirteen Colonies and were important developments in the growth of the American Revolution.

Four of the acts were issued in direct response to the Boston Tea Partymarker of December 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 1765 Stamp Act.

Many colonists viewed the acts as an arbitrary violation of their rights, and in 1774 they organized the First Continental Congress to coordinate a protest. As tensions escalated, the American Revolutionary War broke out the following year, eventually leading to the creation of an independent Americamarker.

Background

Relations between the Thirteen Colonies and the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker slowly but steadily worsened after the end of the Seven Years' 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 a 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.

Many colonists, however, had developed a different conception of the British Empire. Under the British Constitution, they argued, a British subject's property (in the form of taxes) could not be taken from him 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.

Passage of the Acts

In Boston, Massachusettsmarker, the Sons of Liberty protested against Parliament's passage of the Tea Act in 1773 by throwing tons of taxed tea into Boston Harbor, an act that came to be known as the Boston Tea Partymarker. News of the event reached England in January 1774. Parliament responded with a series of acts that were intended to punish Boston for this illegal destruction of private property, restore British authority in Massachusetts, and otherwise reform colonial government in America.

On April 22, 1774, Prime Minister Lord North defended the program in the House of Commons, saying:
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, the first of the acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, closed the port of Boston until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea and until the king was satisfied that order had been restored. Colonists objected to the Port Act on the grounds that it amounted to collective punishment; that is, it punished all of Boston rather than just the individuals who had destroyed the tea.

The Massachusetts Government Act provoked even more outrage among the colonists than the Port Act had because it unilaterally altered the government of Massachusetts to bring 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 or the king. The act also severely limited the activities of town meetings in Massachusetts. 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 governor to move trials of accused royal officials to another colony or even to Great Britain if he believed the official could not get a fair trial in Massachusetts. Although the act stipulated that witnesses would be paid for their travel expenses, in practice few colonists could afford to leave their work and cross the ocean to testify in a trial. George Washington called this the "Murder Act" because he believed that it allowed British officials to harass Americans and then escape justice. Some 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. Although many colonists found the Quartering Act objectionable, it generated the least protest of the Coercive Acts.

The Quebec Act was a piece of legislation unrelated to the events in Boston, but the timing of its passage led colonists to believe that it was part of the program to punish them. The act enlarged the boundaries of the Province of Quebec and instituted reforms generally favorable to the French Catholic inhabitants of the region, although denying them an elected legislative assembly. The Quebec Act offended a variety of interest groups in the British colonies. Land speculators and settlers objected to the transfer of western lands previously claimed by the colonies to a non-representative government. Many feared the establishment of Catholicism in Quebec, and that the French Canadians were being courted to help oppress British Americans.

Effects

Many colonists saw the Coercive 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".

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 unintentionally promoted sympathy for Massachusetts and encouraged colonists from the otherwise diverse colonies to form the First Continental Congress. The Continental Congress created the Continental Association, an agreement to boycott British goods and, if that did not get the Coercive Acts reversed after a year, to stop exporting goods 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 Concordmarker.

Notes

  1. "The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught." Etching from the London Magazine, May 1, 1774. British Cartoon Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-5289.
  2. Middlekauff, Glorious Cause, 241.
  3. 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.
  4. Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 9.
  5. Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 10.
  6. Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 11-12.
  7. Ammerman, In the Common Cause, 15.


References

  • Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton, 1974.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Reid, John Phillip. Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Law. University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.


Further reading

  • Donoughue, Bernard. British Politics and the American Revolution: The Path to War, 1773–1775. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.


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