The Intolerable Acts

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The Intolerable Acts

Issued by British Parliament

Passed on March 31, 1774, and June 2, 1774;
excerpted from Documents of American History,
1958, and American Journey (CD-ROM), 1995

"… dangerous commotions and insurrections have been fomented and raised in the town of Boston, in the province of Massachuset's Bay, in New England, by divers ill-affected persons, to the subversion of his Majesty's government, and to the utter destruction of the public peace, and good order of the said town…."

From the Boston Port Act, one of the Intolerable Acts

The Tea Act of 1773, which was soon followed by the Intolerable Acts, was passed because Parliament was trying to save the British-owned East India Company from going out of business. The company was ailing because Americans were refusing to import British tea (instead, it was being smuggled in from Holland). Parliament decided to impose small, secret taxes on East India tea (the taxes would be paid in London before the tea reached the colonies). Parliament thought that even with the secret tax, the tea would still be so cheap Americans would prefer to buy it rather than the more expensive tea they were smuggling in from elsewhere.

But Americans saw through this trick. They still objected to paying taxes of any kind "without representation" in Parliament. What was to stop the British from trying this same trick with other goods, the colonists wondered? American merchants would be left out in the cold, while British merchants reaped big profits. This threat to American interests brought angry colonists together in a way not seen since the Stamp Act. (The Stamp Act was a 1765 attempt to raise money in the colonies to help pay for British soldiers stationed there.

It taxed printed material, legal documents, and even dice and playing cards.) All the colonies refused to accept East India tea, but Boston's defiance of the British proved the most dramatic. On December 16, 1773, a group of Boston patriots disguised as Indians dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, an act known to history as the Boston Tea Party.

The dumping of the tea was considered by Parliament to be a wicked and totally illegal act. In London, British prime minister Sir Frederick North (1732–1792) went before an out raged Parliament with several proposals designed to punish the colonists. The proposals included the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. Together these measures came to be known by the colonists as the Intolerable Acts.

As England's prime minister, North was the highest-ranking member of Parliament. He also acted as an adviser to King George III (1738–1820), but unlike many of the king's other advisers, North was a capable man. However, in order to stay in the king's good graces, North often argued in favor of measures of which he did not approve. One such measure was the tax on tea that remained after the Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770. North's first act after he became prime minister in 1770 was to argue in favor of keeping the tea tax. He wanted peaceful relations with the colonies, but after the Boston Tea Party, he went along with King George's desire to teach Bostonians a lesson. He hoped to accomplish this with the Intolerable Acts of 1774. Of all the Intolerable Acts, the Boston Port Act was the most hateful to Bostonians.

Lord North declared that the inhabitants of Boston deserved punishment, even if the innocent suffered along with the guilty. According to his Boston Port Act, the port would not be opened until Boston paid the East India Company for the dumped tea. The Act closed the harbor even to fishing boats; the idea was that eventually Boston's citizens would be starved into paying for the tea. British soldiers were sent by King George to occupy Massachusetts's largest city, to keep its unruly citizens in line.

Parliament also passed three other Intolerable Acts aimed at punishing Boston: the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act.

The Massachusetts Government Act gave the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts (1) the power to appoint members of the Massachusetts Council (they had always been elected by the Massachusetts Assembly) and (2) complete control of town meetings. To the citizens of Massachusetts, this takeover of their form of government, which they had held sacred since 1691, was even worse than taxation without representation.

The Administration of Justice Act declared that British officials who committed major crimes would be tried in another colony or in Great Britain. So, if another incident similar to the Boston Massacre took place, for example, British soldiers would stand trial far from the scene.

The fourth Intolerable Act was the Quartering Act of 1774. In 1765, General Thomas Gage (1721–1787), commander in chief of British soldiers in America, had requested that Parliament pass a Quartering Act because the colonists were refusing to provide living quarters and supplies for Gage's soldiers (see Townshend Revenue Act entry on page 25). The first of the colonial Quartering Acts had gone into effect in 1765. It required the colonies to provide buildings for British troops and to supply them with free bedding, firewood, cooking utensils, cider, and other items. A second Quartering Act followed in 1766 and required the colonies to put up troops in public buildings such as inns, taverns, and unoccupied dwellings. The Quartering Act of 1774, an Intolerable Act, required that the colonists put up troops not only in public buildings but also in dwellings belonging to private citizens. This meant that citizens were required to feed and house an enemy soldier on their private property. The Quartering Act was cruel punishment, indeed; it treated Boston as though it were a captured enemy city.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from the Boston Port Act and the Quartering Act of 1774:

  • With the adoption of the Boston Port Act, the struggle between Great Britain and America took on a new meaning. It was no longer a struggle over trade regulations or taxes; now it was about making Americans submit to "the supreme authority of Great Britain"—in the words of Lord North—or face the consequences. But the American colonists considered such submission to be slavery. According to David Ramsay (1749–1815), who would serve as a doctor in the Revolutionary War and publish his History of the American Revolution in 1789: "The people of Boston alleged … that the tea was a weapon aimed at their liberties, and that the same principles of self-preservation which justify the breaking of the assassin's sword uplifted for destruction, equally authorized the destruction of that tea." Boston was sure to suffer dreadfully from the closing of its harbor, and clearly the city would need help from the other colonies. It remained to be seen whether this would happen.
  • It is hard to imagine what a serious effect the harbor closing would have on Boston. The Boston economy depended on shipbuilding and trade. The sea supplied Bostonians with a large part of their diet, because the Massachusetts soil was too poor and rocky to farm. With the closing of the harbor, Boston's population would have to look elsewhere for food. The food would have to be carried over long distances, over inadequate roads.
  • The years of calm between the repeal of the Townshend Acts (April 12, 1770) and the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) were frustrating ones for Sons of Liberty member Samuel Adams (1722–1803). He kept busy sending letters to newspapers calling for American independence. But most of the colonists felt secure from further unfair treatment by the British, and they began calling Adams and his ideas "old-fashioned." When news of the passage of the Boston Port Bill reached Boston in May 1774, Adams's views found more sympathetic listeners for the first time in years. On May 18, 1774, Adams wrote to his friend and fellow radical Arthur Lee (1740–1792) that the people of Boston, with the help of its "sister Colonies" would "sustain the shock with dignity and … gloriously defeat the designs of their enemies." Adams and his followers drew up a proposal asking all the colonies to cut off all trade with England until the Boston Port Bill was eliminated. Many people feared that such a move would harm America more than England.
  • On the eve of June 1, 1774, when the Boston Port Act was scheduled to go into effect, less radical colonial voices still urged a nonviolent, reasoned response. One such voice was that of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), who recommended that Bostonians pay for the dumped tea. Merchants feared that mob actions by groups like the Sons of Liberty would result in widespread destruction of property. There were wide differences of opinion as to what should be done.
  • Francis Bernard (1712–1779) served as the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts from 1760 to 1769. He served during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, when violent protests broke out in Massachusetts over England's attempts to tax the colonies to raise money to pay for British soldiers in America. British tax collectors could not carry out their duties and appealed to Governor Bernard to call out British soldiers to help and protect them. Bernard said his council would never approve of calling out British soldiers to patrol the streets of Boston. Bernard's council was elected by the Massachusetts Assembly, and he often complained that instead of advising him, his council worked with the assembly and against him. In 1769, Bernard traveled to England to try and convince Parliament to change the Massachusetts government to give more power to the governor and less power to the elected assembly. This move did not make Bernard popular with the Massachusetts Assembly, and it asked King George III to appoint a new governor. In 1771, Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780), who had been acting governor in Bernard's absence, was officially appointed governor of Massachusetts.
  • Hutchinson proved to be no more popular than Bernard (see entries on Hutchinson letters in chapter 3), because the colonists believed Hutchinson favored British attempts to deny Americans' rights. In June 1773, six months before the Boston Tea Party took place, and one year before the Intolerable Acts went into effect, the Massachusetts Assembly asked King George to remove Hutchinson from office. Hutchinson (who was born in Massachusetts and whose ancestors were early settlers in the New World) sailed to England in June 1774, the very same month the Intolerable Acts went into effect. He never returned to his beloved homeland. General Thomas Gage was appointed in Hutchinson's place, assuming the dual role of governor of Massachusetts and commander in chief of British forces. His orders were to "quiet the people [of Boston] by gentle means…. Troops are not to be called out unless it isabsolutely necessary." Charged with the task of enforcing the Intolerable Acts, Gage would find it impossible to do so "by gentle means."

Excerpt from the Boston Port Act

WHEREAS dangerous commotions and insurrections have been fomented and raised in the town of Boston, in the province of Massachuset'sBay, in New England, by divers ill-affected persons, to the subversion of his Majesty's government, and to the utter destruction of the public peace, and good order of the said town; in which commotions and insurrections certain valuable cargoes of teas, being the property of the East India Company, and on board certain vessels lying within the bay or harbour of Boston, were seized and destroyed: And whereas, in the present condition of the said town and harbour, the commerce of his Majesty's subjects cannot be safely carried on there, nor the customs payable to his Majesty duly collected; and it is therefore expedient that the officers of his Majesty's customs should be forthwith removed from the said town: … be it enacted …, That from and after June 1, 1774, it shall not be lawful for any person or persons whatsoever to lade, put, … off or from any quay, wharf, or other place, within the said town of Boston, or in or upon any part of the bay, commonly called The Harbour of Boston, between a certain headland or point called Nahant Point, … and a certain other headland or point called Alderton Point, … or in or upon any island, creek, landing-place, bank, or other place, within the said bay or headlands, into any ship, vessel, lighter, boat, or bottom, any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever, to be transported or carried into any other country, province, or place whatsoever, or into any other part of the said province of the Massachuset's Bay, in New England; or to take up, … within the said town, or in or upon any of the other places aforesaid, out of any boat, … any goods, … to be brought from any other country, province, or place, or any other part of the said province, of the Massachuset's Bay in New England, upon pain of the forfeiture of the said goods, … and of the said boat, … and of the guns, ammunition, tackle, furniture, and stores, in or belonging to the same….(Commager, p. 71)

Excerpt from the Quartering Act

[1.] Whereas doubts have been entertained whether troops can be quartered otherwise than in barracks, in case barracks have been provided sufficient for the quartering of all the officers and soldiers within any town, township, city, district, or place within His Majesty's dominions in North America; and whereas it may frequently happen from the situation of such barracks that, if troops should be quartered therein they would not be stationed where their presence may be necessary and required: be it therefore enacted by the King's Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords … and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled … that, in suchcases, it shall and may be lawful for the persons who now are, or may be hereafter, authorized by law, in any of the provinces within His Majesty's dominions in North America, and they are hereby respectively authorized, empowered, and directed, on the requisition of the officer who, for the time being, has the command of His Majesty's forces in North America, to cause any officers or soldiers in His Majesty's service to be quartered and billeted in such manner as is now directed by law where no barracks are provided by the colonies.

2. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that, if it shall happen at any time that any officers or soldiers in His Majesty's service shall remain within any of the said colonies without quarters for the space of twenty-four hours after such quarters shall have been demanded, it shall and may be lawful for the governor of the province to order and direct such and so many uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings as he shall think necessary to be taken (making a reasonable allowance for the same) and make fit for the reception of such officers and soldiers, and to put and quarter such officers and soldiers therein for such time as he shall think proper.

3. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that this act, and everything herein contained, shall continue and be in force in all His Majesty's dominions in North America, until March 24,1776. (American Journey [CD-ROM])

What happened next …

On the day the Boston Port Bill went into effect, June 1, 1774, the citizens of Boston fasted and prayed. Church bells rang mournfully from morning until night, and public buildings were draped in black, the sign of mourning. British soldiers, conspicuous in their red coats, filled the city. Soon, as Bostonians had hoped, food, supplies, and messages of sympathy poured in from supporters throughout the colonies.

British general Gage tried to carry on with his task of enforcing the Intolerable Acts. In accordance with the terms of the Massachusetts Government Act, he dissolved the elected Massachusetts Council and put his own council in its place. When his councilmen tried to leave home to meet, they were

followed by jeering crowds, and some were fired upon. Most of them promptly resigned. On September 2, 1774, Gage wrote to Parliament that he did not have enough troops to enforce the Intolerable Acts. Gage was supposed to keep Boston in line, but he was close to being its prisoner.

Inspired by the sufferings of Boston, a new spirit of unity arose in the colonies. By July, twelve of the thirteen colonies agreed to send representatives to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to discuss breaking off all trade with Great Britain. Delegates to that Congress met on September 5, 1774. (The accomplishments of that body and of the Second Continental Congress are discussed in chapter 2.)

Did you know …

  • Sir Frederick North, who fought in Parliament to punish Boston with the Boston Port Act, was commonly known as Lord North. He served as a member of Parliament for forty years, but the most important event of his career was the American Revolutionary War. Although he did not cause it, he certainly contributed to it with his support of the Tea Tax and the Boston Port Act. Once the war broke out, he favored peace but King George would not relent in his desire to show the colonies who was boss. Several times North tried to resign, but at the urging of his king, he loyally remained in office and defended a war he knew was hopeless and wrong. When the war ended in March 1782 with the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, a weary and disgusted North insisted that this time he was resigning for sure. King George was furious and would have denied North his pension, but his advisers pointed out that to deny his loyal servant would damage George's public image. North died in 1792 at the age of sixty.
  • Founding Father and Boston citizen John Adams was a man of contradictions. As a lawyer and defender of law and order, he opposed mob violence but he approved of the Boston Tea Party. He opposed Great Britain's tax measures, but he did not favor a complete break with the mother country. Although he had not yet decided that independence was the answer to the conflicts between Boston and England, he seemed oddly cheered by the news of the June 1774 closing of the Port of Boston. When he heard about it in May 1774, he wrote to his wife, Abigail Adams (1744–1818): "We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the consequence, I know not. The town of Boston … must suffer martyrdom. It must expire. And our principal consolation is that it dies in a noble cause— the cause of truth, of virtue, of liberty, and of humanity— and that it will probably have a glorious resurrection to greater wealth, splendor, and power, than ever…. Don'timagine from all this that I am in the dumps. Far otherwise. I can truly say that I have felt more spirits and activity since the arrival of this news [of the port closing] than I had done before for years. I look upon this as the last effort of Lord North's despair, and he will as surely be defeated in it as he was in the project of the tea."

Where to Learn More

American Journey (CD-ROM). Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1995.

Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958.

Farley, Karin Clafford. Samuel Adams: Grandfather of His Country. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1994.

Ferling, John E. John Adams: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.

Hull, Mary E. The Boston Tea Party in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.

Olesky, Walter. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.

Potts, Louis W. Arthur Lee, a Virtuous Revolutionary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Arthur Lee, Forgotten Revolutionary

The Lee family of Virginia produced many famous figures in American history, including Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee (1756–1818), a hero in the Continental Army of the American Revolution; and Henry Lee's son, Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), whose surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) in 1865 would end America's Civil War (1861–65). Some Lees made important contributions but are not so famous. One of those was Arthur Lee (1740–1792), the last of the eleven children of Thomas and Hannah Ludwell Lee. Two of Arthur's brothers—Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734–1797) and Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794)—were signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Arthur Lee was educated in England, a common custom for wealthy young men of his day. He returned home to practice medicine in 1764 but soon lost his enthusiasm for that career. He returned to England to study law but delayed his studies to help his brother William set up a trading company. Arthur did not receive his license to practice law until 1775.

While he was in America from 1764 through 1767, Lee read and was impressed by John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (discussed in this chapter), and Lee was moved to add his thoughts to Dickinson's. Like Dickinson, Lee believed that powerful men in Great Britain were trying to make Americans less free than Englishmen. Lee believed these men were trying to turn colony against colony and to divide the colonies from their friends in Great Britain.

Between February 25 and April 28, 1768, Lee wrote weekly essays to the Virginia Gazette newspaper. The essays mostly restated Dickinson's ideas but in a more excited style. To rally Americans against people like George Grenville (1712–1770), author of the Stamp Act of 1765, Lee wrote: "Shall we not be grieved to the heart [at this attempt to deprive us of our freedom]? Will not our jurisdictions, liberties, and privileges be totally violated? Shall we not sink into slaves? O liberty! O virtue! O my country."

In his letters, Lee expressed his belief that independence from Great Britain was sure to come in time, but to try to attain it immediately could only be done with violence. Still, he pledged that "I will maintain our liberty at the hazard of my life."

Reactions to Lee's letters were varied. Thomas Jefferson was not impressed with Lee's writing style, but Samuel Adams liked the letters so well that in 1770 he persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to choose Lee as its agent in

London. Lee sent home valuable information about how the British were dealing with American resistance. While in London, he continued to write letters that were passionate pleas on behalf of American rights.

When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Lee became a secret agent of the Second Continental Congress, negotiating with the French and Spanish to secure desperately needed supplies for the American army. In 1776, he was one of three Americans who were chosen to convince the French to come into the war on the American side. The other two men were Silas Deane (1737–1789) and Benjamin Franklin. While in France, Lee became convinced that Deane and Franklin were secretly plotting with the French to profit at the cost of American soldiers' blood. Lee complained furiously to Congress. He succeeded in having Deane recalled home, but Franklin stayed, and became Lee's enemy. Back in America, Samuel Adams and John Adams (1735–1826), and others who did not like Franklin, supported Lee, and there was much quarreling among members of Congress over the issue.

In 1780, Lee returned to America and two years later was elected to the Continental Congress. There, he became increasingly bitter, seeing enemies everywhere, and believing that no one was listening to his ideas. He never married, and died on his Virginia estate in 1792. Some saw him as a hero, while others saw him otherwise; Franklin called him "insane."

In an 1819 letter to Arthur Lee's nephew, Richard Bland Lee, John Adams described Arthur as "a man of whom I cannot think without emotion; a man too early in the service of his country to avoid making [many] enemies; too honest, upright, faithful, and intrepid [brave] to be popular…. This man never had justicedone him by his country in his lifetime, and I fear he never will have by posterity [all of his descendants]. His reward cannot be in this world."


The Intolerable Acts