What were the Intolerable Acts?

”The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught.” Etching. From the London Magazine, May 1, 1774. British Cartoon Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZC4-5289. Prime Minister Lord North, author of the Boston Port Bill, forces the ”Intolerable Acts,” or tea, down the throat of America, a vulnerable Indian woman whose arms are restrained by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, while Lord Sandwich, a notorious womanizer, pins down her feet and peers up her skirt. Behind them, Mother Britannia weeps helplessly. This British cartoon was quickly copied and distributed by Paul Revere

”The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught.” Etching. From the London Magazine, May 1, 1774. British Cartoon Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZC4-5289.

The Intolerable Acts consisted of a number of measures meant to punish the port of Boston and the people of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea party. Parliament, now under the leadership of Lord North, passed the first of these measures, the Boston Port Act, in March 1774. This act provided that the port of Boston would be closed until the East India Company received compensation for the loss of the tea and the Royal Government received payment for the lost income it would have received on the customs duty. The second of these laws was known as the Administration of Justice Act of 1774. This act allowed a change of venue to another British colony or to Great Britain for trials of officials charged with a crime growing out of their enforcement of the law or suppression of riots. The third of the Intolerable Acts, the Massachusetts Government Act, abolished the popularly elected upper council of the colony and replaced them with a 12 to 36 member council appointed by the King. The act also gave the Massachusetts royal governor broad powers to remove various judges, marshals, and justices of the peace. The fourth of the Intolerable Acts was the Quartering Act. This law was passed on June 2, 1774. Like the previous Quartering Act, the new law allowed a colonial governor to house British soldiers in unoccupied houses and barns. Another measure, the Quebec Act, passed by Parliament during this period, also troubled the American colonies. Though it was not intended by the British government to punish the people of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea party, many colonists consider the act as one of the Intolerable Acts.

Passed in June 1774, the act extended the jurisdiction of Quebec into the area north of the Ohio River. The act also restored some of the rights previously enjoyed by the French-speaking residents of Quebec and provided that the area would be governed by a royal governor and an appointed council. The act wiped out the claims of Virginia and several other colonies to the areas west of the Appalachian Mountains. The act appeared to favor the French-speaking residents of Quebec over the colonialists of the older British colonies.

Mass protests in the colonies greeted the news of the Intolerable Acts. In May 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses set aside June 1, 1774, as a day of “Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer for Boston.” Though the Royal Governor of Virginia dissolved the House of Burgesses upon learning of this act of solidarity with the people of Massachusetts, the members reconvened at Raleigh Tavern. In July 1774, George Washington, now a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and his neighbor, George Mason, drafted the Fairfax Resolves. These resolves detailed many of the complaints against British rule, called for non-importation of British goods, demanded an end to the slave trade, and urged the calling of a general congress to draft a petition to the King. George Washington carried the Fairfax Resolves to the Virginia Houses of Burgesses which took up the matter on August 1, 1774 as the First Virginia Convention, the revolutionary body which governed Virginia until l776. Across the thirteen colonies, local groups were adopting similar resolutions to protest the Intolerable Acts. In Massachusetts, the Suffolk Resolves would mirror the spirit of the Fairfax Resolves while the Orangetown Resolutions captured the anger of the colonists in the colony of New York.

The British goal of isolating and making an example of the people of Boston and the Massachusetts colony using the Intolerable Acts completely failed. Instead of isolating Massachusetts from the other colonies, it united the colonies against a common enemy. The closing of the port of Boston indiscriminately punished the innocent, as well as the guilty and drove many unaligned neutrals into the ranks of the patriots. The number of loyalists, people who supported the British government, declined dramatically. People residing outside Massachusetts realized that they could be punished as harshly as the people of Massachusetts if they offended Parliament. In addition to formal protests, a number of colonies sent aid to the isolated people of Boston.

The Intolerable Acts compelled a number of patriot leaders, committees of correspondence, and colonial legislatures to endorse the call for a general congress of the thirteen colonies to discuss how to resolve the newest crisis. This congress, known as the first Continental Congress, met briefly in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774 to consider ways of redressing colonial grievances. Peyton Randolph, the former Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, chaired the first Continental Congress. Delegates to this convention included George Washington and Patrick Henry of Virginia and John Adams and Samuel Adam of Massachusetts. The Congress created The Continental Association, a system for implementing a trade boycott of British goods. The delegates agreed the colonies would cease importation of British goods on December 1, 1774 but delayed the ban on exporting goods to Britain until September 1775. The Congress also agreed to a broad Declaration of Rights which strongly stated that only the American colonies had the right to tax themselves. Before adjourning, the Congress also agreed to reconvene in May 1775 to decide if further action was necessary.