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The Intolerable Acts were punitive (given as a punishment) laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party. The laws were meant to punish the Massachusetts colonists for their defiance in the Tea Party protest. The Tea Party protest had been a reaction to unfair changes in taxation by the British government. In Great Britain, these laws were referred to as the Coercive Acts.

The acts took away self-governance and rights that Massachusetts had enjoyed since its founding, bringing outrage and anger in the Thirteen Colonies. The Intolerable Acts were part of the colonist's reasons for beginning the American Revolutionary War in April 1775.

Four of the acts were issued in direct response to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. The British Parliament hoped to make an example of Massachusetts and bring an end to the resistance to their authority that had begun when they enacted the 1764 Sugar Act. A fifth act, the Quebec Act, was passed in the same legislative session and therefore seen by the colonists as one of the Intolerable acts. The Patriots viewed the acts as a violation of the rights of Massachusetts, and in September 1774 they organized the First Continental Congress to organize a protest. As tensions grew, the American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, leading to the declaration of an independent United States of America in July 1776.


Relations between the Thirteen Colonies and the British Parliament slowly but steadily worsened after the end of the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War) in 1763. The war was expensive to the British government, so the British Parliament looked for ways to increase tax revenue from the colonies to pay for it. Parliament believed that acts such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 were a legal way to have the colonies pay their share of the costs of maintaining the British Empire. Although protests led to the repeal (reversal) of the Stamp and Townshend Acts, Parliament stuck to the position that it had the right to make laws for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever" in the Declaratory Act of 1766.

Many colonists said that under the unwritten British constitution, a British subject's property could not be taken from him (in the form of taxes) without his consent (in the form of representation in government). Therefore, because the colonies were not directly represented in Parliament, Parliament had no right to tax them. This view was expressed by the slogan "No taxation without representation." After the Townshend Acts, some colonists began to question whether Parliament had any legal jurisdiction in the colonies at all. The amount of power that Parliament had (Parliament's sovereignty) in the colonies was the main issue that started the American Revolution.


On December 16, 1773, a group of Patriot colonists associated with the Sons of Liberty destroyed 342 chests of tea in Boston, Massachusetts, an act that came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. The colonists participated in this action because they thought Great Britain had too much power over the colonies and Parliament had passed the Tea Act, which gave the British East India Company control of tea sales in the colonies. The act saved the company from bankruptcy by making the tea less expensive and keeping a tax on the tea. This angered the colonists. News of the Boston Tea Party reached Great Britain in January 1774. Parliament responded by passing four laws. Three of the laws were intended to directly punish Massachusetts. British Parliament wanted to receive repayment for the destruction of private property (tea owned by the East India Company), to restore British authority in Massachusetts, and to reform colonial government in America.

The Acts

The Boston Port Act was the first of the laws passed in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party. It closed the port of Boston until the colonists paid for the destroyed tea and the king was satisfied that order had been restored. Colonists disagreed with this act for two reasons: the Port Act punished all of Boston rather than just the individuals who had destroyed the tea, and they were being punished without having been allowed to testify in their defense.

The Massachusetts Government Act caused even more outrage than the Port Act because it took away Massachusetts' charter and brought it under the control of the British government. Under the terms of the Government Act, almost all positions in the colonial government were to be decided by the governor, Parliament, or king. The act also severely limited town meetings in Massachusetts to one per year, unless the governor called for one. Colonists outside Massachusetts saw this happening to Massachusetts and were afraid that their governments would also be changed by British Parliament.

The Administration of Justice Act allowed the Royal governor to order trials of accused royal officials to take place in Great Britain or elsewhere within the Empire if he decided that the defendant could not get a fair trial in Massachusetts. Witnesses would then be forced to take time away from work and pay to travel across the Atlantic. They would be repaid for the traveling expenses, but few could afford to travel in the first place. George Washington called this the "Murder Act" because he believed that it allowed British officials to harass Americans and then escape justice. Many colonists believed the Administration of Justice Act was unnecessary because British soldiers had been given a fair trial following the Boston Massacre in 1770.

The Quartering Act, which applied to all British colonies in North America, tried to create a better way of housing British troops. Local governments of the American colonies were required to give British soldiers housing and food when they needed it.

The Quebec Act passed in the same Parliamentary session as the previous four acts and was therefore considered by the colonists to be one of the Intolerable Acts. The Act expanded the territory of the Province of Quebec into much of what is now the American Midwest, which appeared to void the land claims of the Ohio Company on the region. The guarantee of free practice of Catholicism, the majority religion in Canada, was seen by colonists as an "establishment" of the faith in the colonies which were overwhelmingly Protestant. Furthermore, many colonists still viewed the French as enemies they fought hard against during the French and Indian War. They did not like the freedoms that were given to the French.


Many colonists saw the Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) as a violation of their constitutional rights, their natural rights, and their colonial charters. Because of this, they viewed the acts as a threat to the liberties of all of British America, not just Massachusetts. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, for example, described the acts as "a most wicked system for destroying the liberty of America."

The citizens of Boston were not the not only ones who viewed the Intolerable Acts as an act of unnecessary and cruel punishment. As a result of the Intolerable Acts, more colonists turned against British rule, which was the opposite of the intent of Parliament.

Great Britain took a risk that backfired. Parliament had hoped that the Intolerable Acts would make an example of the colonists in Massachusetts and cause American colonists to accept the authority of Parliament over their elected assemblies. Instead, the acts brought sympathy for Massachusetts and encouraged colonists from the otherwise diverse colonies to form committees of correspondence which sent delegates to the First Continental Congress. The Continental Congress created the Continental Association, an agreement to boycott British goods. The Association also decided that if the Intolerable Acts were not reversed after a year, the colonists would stop exporting goods to Great Britain. The Congress pledged to support Massachusetts in case of attack, which meant that all of the colonies would become involved when the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord.

Interesting facts about the Intolerable Acts

  • Other colonies sent supplies to help Boston after Great Britain closed the port of Boston with the Boston Port Act.
  • The name of the acts was different in the two countries they affected: Great Britain thought they would persuade, or coerce, the colonists to accept their rule, so it called the acts the Coercive Acts. The colonists thought that the acts passed by Parliament were unacceptable, or intolerable. They called them the Intolerable Acts.
  • Newspapers published articles about the tyranny of Great Britain and the Intolerable Acts.
  • The First Continental Congress was formed as a result of the Intolerable Acts. The colonists wanted to be unified in their reaction to Britain.
  • Delegates at the First Continental Congress included future United States Presidents George Washington (1st President) and John Adams (2nd President).
  • Today, the tea that was destroyed in Boston Harbor would be worth nearly $1 million.
  • Benjamin Franklin believed the colonies should unite against British rule.
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