June 2, 1774 – with the passage of the renewed Quartering Act, the British Parliament finalized the Coercive Acts, designed to punish the Massachusetts Colony for the Boston Tea Party.
Up until the French and Indian War (1755-1763) the 13 colonies had been more or less left alone to manage their own affairs without much interference from mother England. Following the successful conclusion of the War in 1763, however, the English government began to suddenly exercise both economic and legal control over its American colonies. Of particular objection to the colonists was the fact that the English Parliament began, for the first time, to impose taxes on the colonists, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765.
Colonists reacted to the Stamp Act with boycotts, riots, attacks on tax collectors, and, more ominously, proclamations that Parliament had not right to rule over the colonies. Although Parliament quickly repealed the Act in 1766, the damage had been done: from that point forward, the colonists and the English government viewed each other with growing distrust and animosity. With each further attempt by Parliament to control the colonies over the next few years – such as passage of the Quartering Act, the Declaratory Act, the suspension of the New York legislature, passage of the hated Townshend Revenue Act, and the stationing of British soldiers in Boston – the two sides grew further and further apart.
Following the repeal of the Townshend Revenue Acts in 1770, however, a short period of uneasy calm returned to the colonies. That peace was shattered in 1773 with the passage of the Tea Act. Although this Act did not create a new tax, but simply continued an already extant 3¢/pound tax on tea, it inflamed an already volatile situation, and the colonists reacted with predictable fury. In addition to boycotts, riots, and attacks on tax collectors, the colonists, led by Sam Adams’ Sons of Liberty, added some guerilla theater to their repertoire, and on the night of December 16, 1773, boarded three East India Company ships moored in Boston Harbor and dumped their entire cargo of Tea into the water, to the cheers of onlookers.
When news of the Boston Tea Party reached London a few weeks later, King George III and Parliament were furious. The government quickly set to work responding with an iron fist, passing four laws designed both to punish Boston and frighten Massachusetts and the other 12 colonies into obeying Parliament. Four laws were ultimately passed, and together they were called the Coercive Acts, named after their intended effect: to force the colonies to come to heel. To the Americans, they became known as the Intolerable Acts, because they were considered so harsh.
The first law, known as the Boston Port Bill, completely closed the Port of Boston until all of the destroyed tea was paid for. Royal Navy ships were ordered to prevent any ships from entering or leaving the harbor. As a result, Boston was cut off from trading with anyone.
Second, the Massachusetts Government Act stripped Massachusetts’ elected assembly of almost all of its powers and gave nearly complete control of the colony to the royal governor. Under the law, the governor now had the power to dismiss elected representatives, appoint nearly all officials, and forbid colonists from holding town meetings. In effect, it put the colony under British military rule, with General Thomas Gage acting as military governor.
Third, the Impartial Administration of Justice Act barred Massachusetts courts from trying any British soldiers or officials accused of a crime – instead, they would be sent back to England for trial. Colonists protested that this would protect dishonest officials, by practically making them free from being prosecuted for any wrongdoing.
Finally, Parliament passed a new Quartering Act. Whereas the Quartering Act of 1765 had simply required the colonies to pay for housing English soldiers, this new Quartering Act allowed English commanders to require private families to house soldiers in their homes and feed them if no other quarters could be found.
Of course, the Intolerable Acts had exactly the opposite effect that Parliament intended. Parliament never imagined that the 13 colonies, with their different economies, histories, religious backgrounds, and history of squabbling, would ever rally to Massachusetts’ defense, yet that is precisely what happened. In a mere 9 years since the passage of the Stamp Act, the English government’s actions had turned the 13 very different colonies into one, united group. As news of the Intolerable Acts and their effect on the people of Boston spread, money and food began to pour into Boston from the other colonies, and colonial legislatures, in defiance of their royal governors, issued public calls of support.
More importantly, 12 of the 13 colonies (Georgia, needing English soldiers to deal with Indian “problems” on its border, declined to join) sent delegates to a joint meeting in Philadelphia to discuss how to deal with the current crisis. This group of delegates – including George Washington and John Adams – became the First Continental Congress. In less than a year, the Revolutionary War would begin.