The Coercive Acts

coercive acts
‘Bostonians in Distress’, a satirical representation of the Coercive Acts

The Coercive Acts is a term used to refer to four acts of British Parliament passed in the wake of the Boston Tea Party. This package of legislation was intended to crush colonial opposition to British policy and hold Boston accountable for the events of December 1773. Instead, it had the opposite effect, pushing moderate colonists to take a stand against Britain, increasing revolutionary sentiment outside Massachusetts and leading to the organisation of the First Continental Congress, the first significant show of national unity.

Outrage in Britain

On December 16th 1773, a group of between 40 and 50 Sons of Liberty boarded three British cargo ships at anchor in Boston Harbour. They restrained the crew, hauled some 340 crates of tea to the decks and dumped them overboard. The value of this destroyed tea, the property of the British East India Company, was almost £10,000.

The first account of the Boston Tea Party arrived in England on January 20th, 1774 – ironically, aboard one of John Hancock‘s cargo ships. The news produced a firestorm of outrage in London. Charles Van, a Tory member of the House of Commons, suggested that “Boston ought to be knocked about their ears and destroyed… You will never meet with proper obedience to the laws of this country until you have destroyed that nest of locusts”.

Such views were not uncommon for reactionary Tories like Van – but the Boston Tea Party also drew strong criticism from the Whigs and moderates who had previously backed the Americans against the Stamp Act. Even Benjamin Franklin, then still in London, endorsed some action against the Bostonians. Whatever their political views, propertied men could not tolerate the wanton destruction of private property.

Historian John Phillip Reid wrote that the Tea Party:

“..caused an even greater sensation in the mother country than had the Stamp Act riots… Even the opposition in Parliament said something had to be done about Boston. There was little disagreement about the need of hitting the town with a bill of pains and penalties. Debate was over the nature of the punishment and its severity.”

Formulating a response

The British cabinet, led by prime minister Lord North, met on January 29th and affirmed that “in consequence of the present disorders in America, effectual steps be taken to secure the dependence of the colonies on the mother country”. Meanwhile, George III interviewed and was impressed by General Thomas Gage, forming a belief that he was the man to command the British response in America.

The cabinet continued to meet through February 1774. It received legal advice that the Boston Tea Party constituted an act of “high treason” and “the levying of war against His Majesty”. It was decided to focus punitive action on the city of Boston and the individuals most responsible for fomenting the events of the previous December.

A list was compiled of Bostonians suspected of treasonous acts, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren and numerous members of the Sons of Liberty and the Massachusetts assembly. Many in the British establishment wanted these men placed on trial for high treason but with the likelihood of conviction slim, that was ruled out.

In early March, King George III urged Parliament to pass laws to quell “the violent and outrageous proceedings in the town and port of Boston” and secure the “just dependence of the colonies upon the Crown and Parliament of Great Britain”.

The Boston Port Act

The first of these punitive laws, introduced to the Commons on March 14th was the Boston Port bill. This legislation, if passed, would close the city’s port to all shipping, save for Royal Navy vessels and some ships carrying limited supplies.

This closure would come into effect on June 1st and remain in place until the East India Company was fully compensated for “the destruction of their goods sent to the said town”. Customs officials who had suffered personal or property damage at the hands of the Sons of Liberty were also to be restituted.

This plan to indefinitely close Boston to shipping went much further than many expected. British merchants who were dependent on trade with Massachusetts saw the dangers it posed to their own businesses. Edmund Burke opposed the bill, seeing it as compounding a problem of Parliament’s own creation. Nevertheless, the bill passed almost two weeks after its introduction.

The Massachusetts Government Act

The second of the punitive acts was the Massachusetts Government bill, launched in the House of Commons on April 15th. In simple terms, this bill abrogated or abolished the 1691 charter and reestablished Massachusetts as a royal colony. Lord North justified this by arguing that if the people of the province could not obey British law, they were entitled only to “dependence”.

Under the bill, Massachusetts’ executive council was reformed, its members appointed by the Crown rather than being elected by locals. The council had been a thorn in the side of previous governors like Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson, behaving like a de facto cabinet and blocking the governor’s appointments and other requests.

In addition, North’s bill banned all future town meetings unless they had the approval of the royal governor. Such applications would only be considered if the governor was provided with an agenda for the meeting.

The Massachusetts Government bill encountered more opposition in the Parliament than the Boston Port Act. Some argued that it was foolish to junk a charter that had functioned smoothly for 80 years as a response to one incident. Isaac Barre spoke against it, as did Edmund Burke. Nevertheless, the bill passed with significant majority on May 2nd.

The Administration of Justice Act

Considered alongside the Massachusetts Government Act, and closely aligned to it, was the Administration of Justice bill. This legislation determined that if British officials were charged with crimes in the colonies, the governor was empowered to order their trials be held in Britain or elsewhere.

The purpose of this bill was to protect British or Loyalist officials carrying out government business from vexatious charges levied by prejudiced local magistrates and juries. These petty charges had been a minor problem for British troops in Boston in 1768-69.

Much as the Massachusetts Government Act was a withdrawal of confidence in colonial representatives, the Administration of Justice bill suggested that colonial judges and courts were likewise not to be trusted. Some believed it might allow British soldiers and officials to commit crimes with impunity.

The Quartering Act

A month after the passing of the Administration of Justice Act came another iteration of the 1765 Quartering Act. This legislation was simpler and more straightforward, expanding the list of structures where British soldiers may be housed:

“It shall be lawful for the Governor… to order and direct such and so many uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns or other buildings as he shall think necessary to be taken, making a reasonable allowance for the same… and to put and quarter such officers and soldiers therein for such time as he shall think proper.”

The intent and meaning of the phrase “other buildings” is as contentious now as it was then. What is more certain is that many colonists took it to mean inhabited private dwellings. This raised the spectre of gentile and religious New England families being forced to provide accommodation, against their will, to coarse and unruly British soldiers.

Implementing the acts

News of the Boston Port legislation, the first of the Coercive Acts, reached the city in May 1774 alongside General Thomas Gage, who carried orders to replace Hutchinson. Bostonians responded with predictable anger to the Port Act, which threatened their livelihoods as much as their freedoms. Nor did it escape their attention that their new governor was a British military commander.

As Gage locked down Boston Harbour, the city’s merchants set about finding new avenues for trade. Some built or acquired wagons and began hauling cargo to ports some 20 or 30 miles away. The undeveloped roads and need for livestock and labour made this a costly business. In the end, many gave up and relocated to other colonial port cities.

Within weeks, the blockade had sparked severe shortages in Boston, particularly of firewood and some foods. The decline in trade also put many poorer Bostonians out of work, leaving them in a state of destitution. This was somewhat alleviated by donations of food, goods and money that trickled in from outside Boston, even from sympathetic Englishmen.

Colonial responses

News of the Coercive Acts had a radicalising effect in the colonies. Firebrands like Samuel Adams and James Otis cursed the ‘Intolerable Acts’, as they had cursed almost every British policy since 1765. This time, however, they were joined by more moderate figures, who condemned its direct attacks on the rights and livelihoods of the people of Boston. Those who had previously spoken in support of Britain, or encouraged patience with her, could no longer do so.

Through the middle of 1774, a series of protests erupted in towns and communities across New England. In Farmington, Connecticut, around 1,000 people burned the acts in effigy, condemning the “present ministry, being instigated by the Devil” and the “pimps and parasites” who contributed to the legislation. Loyalists in the countryside were subjected to threats and intimidation, forcing many to relocate to the comparative safety of the cities.

The punitive measures against Boston also drew other colonies closer to revolutionary sentiment. Before 1774, many figures in the Middle Colonies and the South had viewed Boston’s conflict with England as a problem largely of the city’s own making. The broad potency of the Coercive Acts, however, was a concerning development. If Parliament could neuter the government of Massachusetts, bypass its courts and shut down its trade, it could do likewise in any of the other 12 colonies.

The Coercive Acts thus gave rise to organised and cohesive action. Rallied by the various Committees of Correspondence, politicians in every colony began electing delegates to attend a ‘Continental Congress’ in Philadelphia. This body was attended by representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies, the most significant show of colonial unity to that point.

In September, as members of the First Continental Congress were en route to Philadelphia, the leaders of Suffolk County, Massachusetts drafted an indignant response to the Coercive Acts. In it, they pledged to ignore and undermine the acts at every turn, halting all trade with Britain until the restoration of elected government in Massachusetts. The Suffolk Resolves, as this document was known, was widely circulated through the colonies and endorsed by the First Continental Congress.

coercive acts

1. The Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts, refers to a quartet of British legislation passed between March and June 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party.

2. The purpose of these acts was to punish Boston, force it to pay restitution to the East India Company and restore order and obedience to British laws and policies.

3. The first of the acts closed the Port of Boston until the cost of the destroyed cargo was repaid, while another abrogated the Massachusetts charter and reformed its government.

4. The legislation also protected British officials for being tried in the colonies and widened the terms of the 1765 Quartering Act to include “other buildings”.

5. Colonial opposition to the acts was swift and organised, producing many local protests, resolutions and the organisation of the First Continental Congress.

Citation information
Title: ‘The Coercive Acts’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 16, 2019
Date updated: November 22, 2023
Date accessed: June 23, 2024
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