Coercive Acts: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Before the American Revolutionary War had officially broken out, the British Crown would pass the 1774 Coercive Acts, which would further deteriorate the relationship between the British and the American colonies. Read this lesson to learn more about the acts that helped bring America one step closer to revolution.


During the 1760s and 1770s, tensions between the British Crown and the American colonies were rising. The British Crown would raise taxes or limit the freedom of the colonists, and the American colonists would commit acts of protest. In turn, the British would then punish the colonies with more restrictions or taxes. This created a cycle of mistrust and hostility. By 1774, the Revolutionary War had not yet officially broken out, but the revolutionary mindset was growing thanks to important pieces of legislation: the Coercive Acts. Passed throughout 1774, the Coercive Acts were a series of laws that restricted trade and increased British control in Boston and the rest of Massachusetts. The Coercive Acts were designed to scare and silence the colonists, but they actually brought the colonies closer together-- and closer to outright rebellion.

British cartoon depicting the Coercive Acts being forced on America. The caption reads: The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught.
British cartoon depicting the Coercive Acts


The Coercive Acts were actually a direct response to the Boston Tea Party of December, 1773, which was itself a protest of the restrictive 1773 Tea Act. The British Crown passed the Tea Act to give the British a monopoly over tea sales in the colonies. The colonies resented such overreach, and some colonists in Boston responded by dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

Needless to say, the Boston Tea Party did not sit well with the British! Remember that cycle of mistrust and hostility? Here we go again. The British could not let the Boston Tea Party go unpunished. They wanted to send a message to Boston-- and the rest of the colonies-- that any sign of protest and rebellion would not be tolerated.

1789 engraving of the Boston Tea Party
1789 engraving of the Boston Tea Party

The Coercive Acts

The Coercive Acts were that message. The Coercive Acts began as 3 separate laws passed in 1774 designed to punish Massachusetts in particular. More generally, the Coercive Acts also included an additional two laws from 1774 that affected other parts of the colonies. Altogether, these 5 laws also became known as The Intolerable Acts. Today, the term 'Intolerable Acts' and the term 'Coercive Acts' are used almost interchangeably.

The first Coercive Act, the Boston Port Act, crippled Boston's economy because it required the colonists to pay for all the tea they destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. Until they could do so, Boston Harbor was shut down to trade. The second law was the Massachusetts Government Act, and it banned town meetings in Massachusetts and gave the British Crown more direct control over Massachusetts. The third law, The Administration of Justice Act, protected British officials from being prosecuted for criminal offenses in Massachusetts, which essentially gave British officials free reign to oppress the colonists without fear of being punished.

A fourth law, called the Quartering Act, reinforced an earlier law that said the British could house their soldiers in the colonists' homes and businesses. Finally, a fifth law, the Quebec Act, revised the governance and the territory of Quebec. Though this last act was not meant to punish the colonists, they still saw it as an act of tyranny.

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