Intolerable Acts (1774)

views updated May 18 2018


The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, helped unite American resistance to the British government. It also launched, however, a campaign in Parliament that was led by King George III's Prime Minister Lord Frederick North to punish the rebellious Bostonians. Between March and June of 1774 the government passed four bills aimed at ending dissent in the colony of Massachusetts. They are known collectively as the Intolerable Acts.

The Boston Port Act, passed in March of 1774, stopped all shipping into or out of the port of Boston until payment was received for the tea ruined in the Boston Tea Party and the tax that was due on it. Another measure, the Massachusetts Government Act, was passed in May 1774. The act altered the charter presented to the colony in 1691, changed the representative assembly to an appointed body, and gave much greater powers to the colony's governor Thomas Hutchinson, who was appointed by the king. When Hutchinson requested a leave of absence the government replaced him with a soldier who would unquestioningly obey orders: General Thomas Gage, commander of all British forces in North America.

The Administration of Justice Act, also passed in May, moved trials for capital offenses that involved British officials or soldiers out of Massachusetts. The British Parliament believed local juries would never render a fair verdict. Finally, the Quartering Act, passed in June, gave General Gage the power to house British soldiers in private homes, something forbidden in the previous Quartering Act of 1764. Although Gage had to pay fair rental prices for his soldiers' lodgings, the act's intent was to punish the people of Boston for the Tea Party. Gage received four regiments of soldiers to keep order in the town.

These four acts, all directed primarily against the people of Massachusetts and Boston in particular, constituted the Intolerable or Coercive Acts. The acts aroused little direct opposition because they were limited in scope to New England and did not affect the interests of the majority of colonists. Taken together, however, the statutes posed a threat to American interests and institutions throughout the colonies. They denied the power of local political organizations, supported military law over civil law, and changed customary judicial practices. The end result was that most colonists felt sympathy for the Bostonians. The colony of Virginia, for instance, observed a day of fasting and prayer to protest the closing of Boston Harbor.

Parliament's passage of another bill, however, sparked feelings of alarm throughout British North America. The Quebec Act, passed in June, 1774, created a government for the former province of French Canada. Part of the act established the rights of French-speaking residents to worship as Roman Catholics and created a royal governorship and advisory council for the area. The act also expanded the territory of Quebec south from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River. Although Parliament did not intend the Quebec Act to be part of the Intolerable Acts, colonial radicals grouped it with the others as a way of uniting opposition to the king's government.

If there was a single act of Parliament that was almost guaranteed to offend all the colonies, it was the Quebec Act. The measure took away all the claims that colonial governments had to western lands through their original charters. It also created a reserve area for Native Americans bordered by the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in the west and by the Appalachian Mountains in the east. By stopping colonial expansion at the mountains, the act alienated both rich and poor Americans. Impoverished settlers had been making homesteads west of the Appalachians since the end of the French and Indian War (175463). Richer colonists, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, had already laid claim to thousands of acres of these western lands and risked losing their private fortunes. George III's Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn publicly acknowledged the anti-American bias of the Quebec Act. He declared in Parliament that the Quebec Act was meant to keep the colonies tied economically and politically to the sea, so that they would be easier to control.

In order to resolve the differences brought about by the Intolerable Acts, the colonists called the First Continental Congress (1774). Representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies (Georgia declined to participate) met in Philadelphia in September of that year. The delegates represented a complete spectrum of political beliefs, ranging from conservative loyalists to radical patriots. They joined together to petition the Crown for repeal of the acts. They split, however, over the question of what measures should be taken if the acts remained in effect. In a document known as the Suffolk Resolves, the Massachusetts delegationincluding Samuel Adams and his cousin John Adamscalled for a complete boycott of British goods and the training of local militia to resist British troops. The stage was set for the beginning of the American Revolution (177583).

See also: American Revolution, Appalachian Mountains, Boston Tea Party, Benjamin Franklin, French and Indian War, Quebec Act, George Washington


Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1974.

Brown, Richard D. Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence, 17731774. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Donoughue, Bernard. British Politics and the American Revolution: The Path to War, 17331775. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.

Thomas, Peter D. G. Tea Party to Independence: The Third Phase of the Revolution, 17731776. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Wells, William V. The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1865.

there is no animal, however weak and contemptible, which cannot defend its own liberty, if it will only fight for it.

samuel adams, june 27, 1774

Intolerable Acts

views updated Jun 08 2018


The Parliament of Great Britain passed the Intolerable Acts, also known as the Coercive Acts, in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Angry with the "dangerous commotions and insurrections" that had roiled Boston, the British ministry passed these acts in Parliament for the "reestablishment of lawful authority" in Massachusetts. By doing so, Parliament inspired widespread resistance in North America to its policies, including the meeting of the first Continental Congress later in 1774 and the actions at Lexington and Concord the following year.

The Boston Port Act closed and blockaded the city's harbor beginning 1 June 1774. Boston could neither ship outward nor import any goods (with the exception of supplies for the British armed forces and fuel or food via the coastal trade). The blockade would not be lifted until the townspeople had repaid the East India Company for the tea that had been destroyed. The Massachusetts Government Act altered the colony's cherished charter by directing that the king could appoint members of the council and that the royally appointed governor could appoint judges and county sheriffs, who in turn selected jurors; Parliament sought effective law enforcement by ridding these offices of men with Whig sympathies. In addition to stripping the House of Representatives of these powers, the act also curtailed the incidence of town meetings. The Administration of Justice Act allowed the Massachusetts governor to transfer the trials of certain persons (magistrates, those suppressing riots, and customs officials) to another colony or to Great Britain, particularly in the case of capital offenses. The law was intended to protect British officials and supporters of the crown, who believed they could not get a fair trial in front of a Boston jury. The law's detractors believed (erroneously) that soldiers might now kill Massachusetts people with impunity. The Quartering Act, which applied to all the colonies, allowed British officers, in conjunction with governors, to demand suitable billeting in uninhabited buildings.

The colonists also associated the Quebec Act of 1774 with the Intolerable Acts, though it was not intended as a response to the Boston Tea Party. The bill expanded the boundaries of Quebec to include the land north of the Ohio and Illinois Rivers, allowed French Catholics the free exercise of their religion, recognized French civil law (which did not include trial by jury) in Canada, and established a council appointed by the king in lieu of an elected legislature. To the Protestant colonists south of the St. Lawrence River, many of whom feared ecclesiastical control, the Quebec Act was a provocation: the establishment of an arbitrary, tyrannical government filled with Catholic subjects menacing their borders and blocking westward expansion. To the north, however, the Act effectively helped Parliament retain Canadian loyalty to the British Crown.

Though most of the Intolerable Acts were aimed solely at Massachusetts, people throughout the colonies recognized them as setting a dangerous precedent for the subversion of constitutional rights and liberties. Parliament was testing its supremacy against the autonomy of colonial legislatures, and it was clear which side most Americans favored. Arguments against the Intolerable Acts spread through newspapers and committees of correspondence across North America. Though the colonies had often bickered over boundaries and other issues, the acts motivated them to unite. Boston became a martyr, suffering for the cause of all America. Americans sent aid to the blockaded city, and twelve colonies sent delegates to the first Continental Congress at Philadelphia in September 1774. These delegates soon endorsed the Suffolk Resolves, passed by Boston and its surrounding towns, which proclaimed the Intolerable Acts unconstitutional and called for a boycott of British goods. The Continental Congress enumerated the Intolerable Acts as grievances and asserted the Americans' rights as citizens under the British constitution. The Intolerable Acts provoked a striking unanimity and assertiveness among the delegates.

Meanwhile, the king had appointed General Thomas Gage, commander of His Majesty's forces in America, to serve as governor of Massachusetts. When Gage attempted to enforce the Intolerable Acts by appointing sympathetic judges and suspending town meetings, he met with anger and resistance. General Gage, therefore, believed it prudent to seize the colony's stores of arms, powder, and ammunition. In each instance, New Englanders rose to stop his movements. Gage sent one such expedition of seizure to Concord on 18 April 1775, and the next day British troops exchanged fire with Americans for the first time. Boston became a city under siege. Thus, the Intolerable Acts mobilized military and political action in ways that united the colonies in their resistance to Great Britain. The execution of the acts had failed, just as these laws had misfired as tools of persuasion and authority.

See alsoBoston Tea Party; Lexington and Concord, Battle of; Quartering Act; Revolution: Military History .


Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974.

Bushman, Richard L. King and People in Provincial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Reid, John Phillip. Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Law. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Benjamin L. Carp

Intolerable Acts

views updated May 29 2018


INTOLERABLE ACTS. The four Intolerable Acts, also known as the Coercive Acts, formed Britain's punishment of both the town of Boston and the province of Massachusetts for the destruction of the East India Company's tea on 16 December 1773. They were rushed through Parliament in the spring of 1774. Their purpose was to show rebellious colonials that, unlike 1766, when the Stamp Act was repealed, and 1770, when four of the five Townshend taxes were withdrawn, Britain would not retreat this time.

The Boston Port Act closed Boston to seaborne commerce until the town paid for the tea. Since trade was the town's life, the act and its enforcement by the Royal Navy amounted to a blockade, which was an act of war. The Massachusetts Government Act abolished the province's royal charter of 1692. The new structure would replace a provincial council elected by the assembly with one appointed by the governor in the name of the king. Towns would meet once per year, solely to elect local officers. County courts would enforce the act's provisions. The Administration of Justice Act let the Crown remove the trials of public officials under accusation to another province or to Britain on the ground that they could not get fair trials in local courts. The Quartering Act allowed British commanders to billet soldiers in colonials' homes if no barracks or public buildings could be found. The commander in chief in America, General Thomas Gage, became governor of Massachusetts.

The Quebec Act, passed at the same time, granted legal privileges to the Catholic Church in the former French province, established nonrepresentative government there, and gave Quebec control of much of the interior north of the Ohio River. It was not part of the package of punishments. But the Intolerable Acts, the Quebec Act, and the naming of Gage all figured among the "abuses and usurpations" listed in the Declaration of Independence.


Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton, 1975.

Bushman, Richard L. King and People in Provincial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.


See alsoBoston Tea Party ; Revolution, American .

‘Intolerable Acts’

views updated May 17 2018

Intolerable Acts’, 1774. These Acts were the British government's response to the Boston Tea Party and an attempt to isolate and suppress the allegedly contagious radicalism of Massachusetts. The Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, and the Massachusetts Justice Act temporarily closed the port of Boston, replaced an elective council by a crown-nominated one, and allowed capital trials of soldiers and officials to be transferred outside Massachusetts. These Acts received overwhelming parliamentary support. In America, together with the Quebec Act and a new Quartering Act, they were seen as proof of Britain's wish to destroy American freedoms.

Richard C. Simmons

Intolerable Acts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Intolerable Acts (1774) British legislation designed to punish the American colonists after the Boston Tea Party. Also known as the Coercive Acts, they closed the Boston port and moved the customs house to Salem. British officials accused of capital offences would be tried in England (Administration of Justice Act); another law (the Massachusetts Government Act) annulled the Massachusetts Charter, giving the governor power to control town meetings and making the council and judiciary appointed bodies. The colonists' opposition resulted in the calling of the First Continental Congress.