Path to the Revolution: Intolerable Acts
The Intolerable Acts were one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution. These include:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
The Intolerable Acts were 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 Tea Party protest in reaction to changes in taxation by the British Government. In Great Britain, these laws were referred to as the Coercive Acts.
The acts took away self-governance and rights that Massachusetts had enjoyed since its founding, triggering outrage and indignation in the Thirteen Colonies. They were key developments in the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in April 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 notably Southwest into the Ohio Country and other future mid-western states, 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.
- 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 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 trials of accused royal officials to 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.
- Although unrelated to the aforementioned Acts, the Quebec Act, passed in the same Parliamentary session, was considered by the colonists to be one of the Intolerable Acts. The Act expanded the territory of the Province of Quebec into much of what is now the American Midwest, which appeared to void the land claims of the Ohio Company on the region. The guarantee of free practice of Catholicism, the majority religion in Canada, was seen by colonists as an “establishment” of the faith in the colonies which were overwhelmingly Protestant. Furthermore, colonists resented the lenient provisions granted to their erstwhile enemies who they had fought hard against during the French and Indian War.
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 Intolerable Acts, even more colonists turned against British rule.
Great Britain hoped that the Intolerable 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 which backfired, due to the harshness of some of the acts having 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.
- A biography of Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794). (n.d.). https://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/richard-henry-lee/
- Intolerable acts. (2003, July 30). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intolerable_Acts#