In response to the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament in March 1774 passed a series of punitive laws known as the Coercive Acts, which many colonists interpreted as a deliberate conspiracy against their rights. As a part of the protests against British taxation, Bostonians had in December 1773 destroyed a large shipment of tea, in open defiance of Governor Thomas Hutchinson and all British authority.
Since this protest was only the latest in an escalating series that would eventually lead to the American Revolution, the administration of Oliver, Lord North planned to make an example of unruly Massachusetts in the hope of getting the American colonies back in line. While these measures were officially known as the Coercive Acts, colonists critical of British policies since 1763 typically dubbed them the Intolerable Acts.
The Coercive Acts consisted of four laws. The Boston Port Act shut down Boston Harbor until restitution was made for the destroyed tea and King George III decided it was safe to reopen the harbor. In the Massachusetts Government Act, Parliament decreed that the colonial council should be appointed by the king.
The law also forbade the traditional town meetings from debating anything other than local matters. The Justice Act allowed for the trial of British officials and their subordinates in another colony or Great Britain, if the governor decided a fair trial was not possible in Massachusetts.
Finally, the Quartering Act allowed the governor to requisition unoccupied public buildings for the housing of troops. A fifth law, the Quebec Act, was unconnected to the Coercive Acts but critical colonists perceived it as part of the Intolerable Acts as well. This measure organized the colony of Quebec, only recently acquired from France as the result of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763).
The Quebec Act allowed the Catholic Church to retain many aspects of being the established church in the predominantly Catholic colony. It also upheld French civil law, which differed considerably from English common law; for example, it did not include trial by jury.
For American patriots, the Coercive Acts in conjunction with the Quebec Act amounted to no less than an outright conspiracy to eradicate traditional liberties in America. In their interpretation, the laws enabled the British government to choke the colonies economically by closing down the ports, dissolve representative government and regional traditions of political autonomy, and quarter soldiers in private homes and have them kill political dissidents at will. Trial would take place in England where the soldiers would be acquitted.
Finally, this conspiracy theory continued, Quebec would serve as an example for a tyrannical government of colonial America, eliminating traditional boundaries, destroying religious liberty, and imposing alien laws that did away with sacred rights like trial by jury.
Many of these charges were quite unfounded. The Quebec Act was quite unrelated to the events in Massachusetts, and the Quartering Act did not actually allow for the quartering of soldiers in private homes. This erroneous interpretation nevertheless found its way into twentieth-century U.S. schoolbooks.
On the other hand, the Coercive Acts certainly did aim at curbing the political autonomy of Massachusetts, and they reduced participatory elements of the political system and imposed harsh economic sanctions.
The idea was to single out Massachusetts and by extension discipline the other colonies. However, while the North administration’s intention for the Coercive Acts was limited and specific, many colonists’ interpretations were vast and alarmed.
Instead of intimidating the other colonies, the Coercive Acts prompted them to declare their solidarity with Massachusetts. The First Continental Congress convened as a response to the crisis and decided upon general nonimportation of English goods.
In its Declaration of Colonial Rights and Grievances, the Congress echoed a conspiratorial interpretation of British policy by denouncing it as “a system formed to enslave America.” The ill will generated by the Coercive Acts controversy contributed substantially to the outbreak of the American Revolution.