The Intolerable Acts and the First Continental Congress

In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament attempted to punish Boston and isolate the colonies. But response to the Intolerable Acts began to unify the colonies instead. 

Overview

  • In the spring of 1774, the British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, which quickly became known in the North American colonies as the Intolerable Acts.
  • The Intolerable Acts were aimed at isolating Boston, the seat of the most radical anti-British sentiment, from the other colonies.
  • Colonists responded to the Intolerable Acts with a show of unity, convening the First Continental Congress to discuss and negotiate a unified approach to the British.

Radical Boston and the Intolerable Acts

By 1774, there had been almost a decade of revolutionary fervor in Boston. British taxation policies, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, had sparked a debate in the North American colonies over the constitutional meaning of representation. Leading radicals like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and John Hancock argued that because the colonists weren’t represented in Parliament, that legislative body had no right to tax them.1^1 The stationing of British troops in Boston had infuriated townspeople, setting the stage for the Boston Massacre in 1770. In 1773 Boston radicals led by the Sons of Liberty boarded British ships filled with thousands of pounds of East India Company tea. They dumped nearly 350 crates into the harbor.2^2
After the Boston Tea Party, the British adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy that sought to isolate troublemaking Boston from the other colonies, which leaders in Parliament believed were merely tagging along with Boston’s radicals. In the spring of 1774, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, which were aimed solely at Boston and envisioned as punishment for its radical opposition to British policies. The Coercive Acts, which quickly became known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts, consisted of four separate legislative measures:
  1. The Boston Port Bill fined Boston for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party and closed the harbor until the fines were paid.
  2. The Government Bill rewrote the Massachusetts colony’s charter granting broadly expanded powers to the royal governor.
  3. The Administration of Justice Act authorized the governor to send indicted government officials to other colonies or to London for trial.
  4. The Quartering Act, which applied to all of the North American colonies, was designed to provide shelter for the British troops, allowing them to be housed in private buildings.3^3
Political cartoon depicting the American colonies as a woman being held down by the men of Parliament, who pour tea down her throat and peer up her skirt.
In this British political cartoon, which was reprinted in the American colonies, notable members of Parliament hold down an allegorical figure of America and force tea down her throat. The London Magazine, "The able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught”, May 1, 1774, etching. Image credit: Library of Congress

Forging unity: the First Continental Congress

Instead of isolating Boston from the other North American colonies, the Intolerable Acts had the opposite result. Delegates from all of the colonies except Georgia gathered in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in the autumn of 1774. The purpose of the Congress was to show support for Boston and to work out a unified approach to the British.
Nevertheless, divisions plagued the colonies. Though the congress agreed to implement a boycott of British imported goods, the northern and southern colonies argued fiercely over a measure to ban all exports to Britain. The southern colonies were economically dependent on revenues from their exports of raw materials such as cotton and rice to the motherland. The delegates ultimately reached a compromise, agreeing that all exports to Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies would be banned after a year, starting in September 1775. This would give the southern colonies some time to prepare for the economic impact of the export ban.4^4
On October 17, 1774, the First Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Colonial Rights and Grievances. The declaration denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies and lambasted the British for stationing troops in Boston. It characterized the Intolerable Acts as an assault on colonial liberties, rejected British attempts to circumscribe representative government, and requested that the colonies prepare their militias. Despite its harsh tone, the declaration did affirm Parliament’s right to regulate trade, and did not challenge colonial loyalty to the British monarch, King George III.
Although some of the more radical delegates, particularly Samuel Adams, already believed that war was inevitable, the congress did not seek or declare independence from Britain at this time. The delegates agreed to meet again the following May if Anglo-American relations did not improve.5^5

What do you think?

Was Britain’s divide-and-conquer strategy effective? Why was Boston singled out for punishment?
Why did Boston’s radicals refer to the Coercive Acts as the Intolerable Acts? Why couldn’t the legislation be tolerated?
What do you think was most significant about the First Continental Congress?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on the leaders of the American Revolution, see Alfred F. Young, Gary Nash, and Ray Raphael, eds. Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 2012).
  2. For more on revolutionary Boston, see Richard Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  3. For more on the Coercive Acts, see David Ammerman, In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (New York: Norton, 1975).
  4. John Ferling, Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), 96-97.
  5. For more on the Continental Congress, see Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (New York: Random House, 1988).
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