The Intolerable Acts of 1774: Definition, Summary & Significance

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  • 0:00 What Are the Intolerable Acts?
  • 1:45 The Tax on Tea
  • 6:03 The American Reaction
  • 7:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
The relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies, already deteriorating after 1763, plunged in 1773 with the Boston Tea Party. In this lesson, learn about the British reaction to this event, and how it caused a big step toward war and revolution.

What Are the Intolerable Acts?

The Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts, were passed by the British Parliament in 1774 as punishment for the destruction wrought during the Boston Tea Party, a violent reaction to the British tea tax of 1773. There was a series of events that led up to this moment.

By 1774, the relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies had become extremely tense. In 1763, the French and Indian War had ended, with England victorious over its traditional enemy, France. However, in winning the war, Great Britain had gone practically broke. It also now had the responsibility of protecting all of France's former colonial holdings, and that meant troops, forts, and money.

At this point, the British made the fateful decision to tax the American colonies. Many opponents of British taxation pointed to the fact that the colonies already made money for Britain, but through the system of mercantilism, not taxes. In fact, this was the whole reason to have colonies at all: they would produce raw materials, like tobacco, cotton, and lumber, which would then be shipped to the mother nation, which would produce finished products (cured tobacco, clothing, furniture, etc.). The colonies were then required to purchase those finished products back from Great Britain.

The initial attempt to tax, the Sugar Act of 1764, was met with mild grumbling by the colonists but no organized resistance. The next attempt, however, the Stamp Act of 1765, was violently rejected by Americans, who boycotted British goods and staged riots up and down the East Coast.

The Tax on Tea

In 1773, the British tried again, by instituting a new tax on tea. This was actually not a new tax at all, but a holdover of a previous law, the Townshend Duties of 1766. The idea this time was that the tax would actually lower the cost of tea in the colonies, but it would be collected more strictly this time around. The aim was to bring in more money and not ruffle any feathers.

This might have worked, except for the fact that the people who would suffer most were those who either brought in smuggled tea or profited from such smuggling, like Massachusetts' richest man, John Hancock). It didn't help that part of the law granted a British company, the East India Company, the exclusive right to ship tea to America, which had the effect of cutting American merchants out of the trade.

Frankly, most Americans at this point weren't particularly trustful of any British attempt to tax, no matter how sensitive or sensible it might be. The rumor flew around town that any ship that landed in Boston with East India tea on board was in trouble.

In December 1773, three ships, the Eleanor, the Dartmouth, and the Beaver, arrived in Boston. Shortly after arriving, a group of Bostonians, primarily made up of members of the pro-independence group, the Sons of Liberty and their leader, Samuel Adams, boarded the ships, many of them dressed as Mohawk Indians. They seized 342 chests of tea and unceremoniously dumped them overboard, destroying a cargo worth around 90,000 pounds, which is a little under 2 million dollars in today's currency.

It took around six weeks for the news of the Boston Tea Party to arrive in London. The reaction was swift, even among politicians who had been sympathetic to the colonies' arguments against British taxation: the Americans had to pay. The Coercive Acts were passed, designed to both punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party and to bring all the rebellious colonies into line. There were four of them:

The Boston Port Act

This act closed the port of Boston until the destroyed tea had been paid for, and until order was restored in Boston to the crown's satisfaction. This was viewed, by many Americans as the most punitive of the acts, especially since Boston, as a seafaring city, depended almost entirely on port business for economic survival.

The Administration of Justice Act

This act gave the colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, the power to send accused criminals to Great Britain for trial, rather than hold them in Massachusetts if he felt that the accused couldn't get a fair trial in America.

This was seen as a positive in Great Britain, but it was viewed by many Americans as a direct assault on their natural rights - primarily their right to a jury of their peers. How could a Massachusetts man, for instance, get a fair trial in London, judged by men he'd never met? George Washington, in particular, hated this provision, calling it the 'Murder Act,' since he thought British officials could use it to ship colonials to their own execution, without justification.

The Quartering Act

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