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American Revolution: The Intolerable Acts

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Intolerable Acts - Conflict & Dates:

The Intolerable Acts were passed in spring 1774, and helped cause the American Revolution.

Intolerable Acts - Background:

On May 10, 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act with the goal of aiding the struggling British East India Company. Prior to the passage of the law, the company had been required to sell its tea through London where it was taxed and duties assessed. Under the new legislation, the company would be permitted to sell tea directly to the colonies without the additional cost. As a result, tea prices in America would be reduced, with only the Townshend tea duty assessed.

For several years, the colonies, angered by the taxes levied by the Townshend Acts, had been systematically boycotting British goods and claiming taxation without representation. Aware that the Tea Act was an attempt by Parliament to break the boycott, groups such as the Sons of Liberty, spoke out against it. Across the colonies, British tea was boycotted and attempts were made to produce tea locally. In Boston, the situation climaxed in late November 1773, when three ships carrying East India Company tea arrived in the port.

Rallying the populace, the members of the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans and boarded the ships on the night of December 16. Carefully avoiding damaging other property, the "raiders" tossed 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. A direct affront to British authority, the "Boston Tea Party" forced Parliament to take action against the colonies. In retribution for this affront to royal authority, the Prime Minister, Lord North, began passing a series of five laws, dubbed the Coercive or Intolerable Acts, the following spring to punish the Americans.

The Boston Port Act:

Passed on March 30, 1774, the Boston Port Act was a direct action against the city for the previous November's tea party. The legislation dictated that the port of Boston was closed to all shipping until full restitution was made to the East India Company and the King for the lost tea and taxes. Loudly protesting, many Bostonians argued that the act punished the entire city rather than the few who were responsible for the tea party. As supplies in the city dwindled, other colonies began sending relief to the blockaded city.

Massachusetts Government Act:

Enacted on May 20, 1774, the Massachusetts Government Act was designed to increase royal control over the colony's administration. Abrogating the colony's charter, the act stipulated that its executive council would no longer be democratically elected and its members would instead be appointed by the king. Also, many colonial offices that were previously elected officials would henceforth be appointed by the royal governor. Across the colony, only one town meeting was permitted a year unless approved by the governor.

Administration of Justice Act:

Passed the same day as the previous act, the Administration of Justice Act stated that royal officials could request a change of venue to another colony or Great Britain if charged with criminal acts in fulfilling their duties. While the act allowed travel expenses to be paid to witnesses, few colonists could afford to leave work to testify at a trial. Many in the colonies felt it was unnecessary as British soldiers had received a fair trial after the Boston Massacre. Dubbed the "Murder Act" by some, it was felt that it allowed royal officials to act with impunity and then escape justice.

Quartering Act:

A revision of the 1765 Quartering Act, which was largely ignored by colonial assemblies, the 1774 Quartering Act expanded the types of buildings in which soldiers could be billeted and removed the requirement that they be provided with provisions. Contrary to popular belief, it did not permit the housing of soldiers in private homes. Typically, soldiers were first to be placed in existing barracks and public houses, but thereafter could be housed in inns, victualing houses, empty building, barns, and other unoccupied structures.

Quebec Act:

Though it did not have a direct effect on the thirteen colonies, the Quebec Act was considered part of the Intolerable Acts by the American colonists. Intended to ensure the loyalty of the king's Canadian subjects, the act greatly enlarged Quebec's borders and allowed the free practice of the Catholic faith. Among the land transferred to Quebec was much of the Ohio Country, which had been promised to several colonies through their charters and to which many had already laid claim. In addition to angered land speculators, others were fearful about the spread of Catholicism in American.

Reaction to the Intolerable Acts:

In passing the acts, Lord North had hoped to detach and isolate the radical element in Massachusetts from the rest of the colonies while also asserting the power of Parliament over the colonial assemblies. The harshness of the acts worked to prevent this outcome as many in the colonies rallied to Massachusetts’s aid. Seeing their charters and rights under threat, colonial leaders formed committees of correspondence to discuss the repercussions of the Intolerable Acts.

These led to the convening of the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia on September 5. Creating the Continental Association, the congress called for a boycott of all British goods. If the Intolerable Acts were not repealed within a year, the colonies agreed to halt exports to Britain as well as support Massachusetts if it was attacked. Rather than exact punishment, North's legislation worked to pull the colonies together and pushed them down the road towards war.

Selected Sources

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  5. Battles & Wars: 1601-1800
  6. American Revolution
  7. Intolerable Acts - The Intolerable Acts 1774

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