September 15, 2023 at 11:11 a.m.
The history of the beginning of the United States of America is a history that developed over many years. Some trace the Revolutionary War to the April 1775 incidents at Concord & Lexington. North Carolina honors the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (real or not) by its supposed date in May of that year on our state flag. The First Continental Congress met in early Fall 1774, an important first step in bringing together representatives from the various colonies. The Constitution, which became the crux of our national legal system, was signed on September 17, 1787, just over four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the war for independence. Next week (Sept. 17-23) is Constitution Week.
In this, another in our series from the SAR & DAR leading up to the celebration of America's 250th birthday (based on the Declaration of Independence dated as July 4, 1776) in 2026. This week, we look at that first 'national' gathering that preceded the war, the treaty, and the establishment of our nation.
The Intolerable Acts and the First Continental Congress
By George Barr & Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter
The Coercive Acts of 1774, known as the Intolerable Acts in the colonies, were a series of four laws passed by the British Parliament to punish the Massachusetts colony for the Boston Tea Party. The four acts were the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. These oppressive acts sparked strong colonial resistance, including the meeting of the First Continental Congress, which George Washington attended in September and October 1774.
At the time of the Continental Congress Issuing Continentals (currency) was an act of treason!
Britain kept a boot on colonists' necks at every turn. Consider the effects of the Intolerable Acts. Colonists could only trade with Great Britain. Shipping had to be on British ships. Products that competed with British products were illegal. Colonists were paying artificially high prices for most everything imported and were getting whatever price for exports to Britain that a trader there would allow. Colonists were prohibited from commerce between colonies!
The Boston Port Act was the first of the Coercive Acts. Parliament passed the bill on March 31, 1774, and King George III gave it royal assent on May 20th. The act authorized the Royal Navy to blockade Boston Harbor because “the commerce of his Majesty’s subjects cannot be safely carried on there." The blockade commenced on June 1, 1774, effectively closing Boston’s port to commercial traffic. Additionally, it forbade any exports to foreign ports or provinces. The only imports allowed were provisions for the British Army and necessary goods, such as fuel and wheat. The Act mandated that the port remain closed until restitution was paid to the East India Company (the owners of the destroyed tea), the king had determined that the colony was able to obey British laws, and that British goods once again could be traded in the harbor safely. However, if payment wasn’t made to the East India Company or the king remained unsatisfied, the harbor would be blockaded indefinitely.
The Massachusetts Government Act imperiled representative government in the colony. Assuming that Massachusetts was under mob rule, and to "[preserve] . . . the peace and good order of the said province," Parliament passed the act on May 20, 1774. It received royal assent on the same day. The Massachusetts Council, previously constituted as an elected body with the governor’s approval, became appointed by the crown. Additionally, the Act gave the new royal governor the ability to choose judges and county sheriffs without the Council’s approval. County sheriffs could now also appoint jurors, harming the impartiality of the colony’s judicial system. The Government Act also restricted town meetings to once a year, with any additional meetings requiring the governor’s approval.
The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice gained the king’s approval on the same day as the Massachusetts Government Act. This law sought to further increase the power of the governor by giving him the ability to move a trial to another colony or Great Britain if it was determined “that an indifferent (impartial) trial cannot be had within the said province." The Act eliminated the right to a fair trial by one’s peers, removing an established judicial principle dating back to the Magna Carta.
The Quartering Act was the fourth and final of the Coercive Acts. It was given royal assent on June 2, 1774. The only one to apply to all of the colonies. It allowed high-ranking military officials to demand better accommodations for troops and to refuse inconvenient locations for quarters. The inability to effectively house troops in North America had been a long-standing issue. Troops were often billeted far
from the areas in which they operated, making it difficult for the army to exercise effective control over the colonists. However, the Act did not require colonists to house soldiers within their private homes, as is commonly believed. Rather, it specifically indicated that soldiers were to be housed in “uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings,” yet they were to be quartered at the colonists’ expense.
Every tax, such as the Stamp Tax and Tea Tax was a way to keep colonists indebted to Britain and scratching for hard currency. Colonists were required to pay debts to Britain with the currency of the realm, which was in VERY short supply. Script of any kind was illegal. Illegal Continentals facilitated trade within colonies and was one way that colonists could wiggle out from under the British boot.
The Coercive Acts were meant to break Massachusetts Bay and to warn the other colonies of the consequences of rebellious behavior. Each act was specifically designed to cause severe damage to a particular aspect of colonial life. The Boston Port Bill’s assault on colonial trade damaged the provincial economy, drove up unemployment, and starved the Boston people. The Government Act abolished representative government by establishing an all-powerful governor, and the Justice Act removed the right to a fair trial. The Quartering Act insured the close proximity of British troops to the colonists.
Understandably, colonists did not approve of the Coercive Acts. Yet, the petitioning of Parliament by individual colonies had already proved futile. On July 4, 1774, George Washington asked his friend Bryan Fairfax, “have we not addressed the Lords, and remonstrated to the Commons?" Thus, the First Continental Congress met on September 5, 1774, to coordinate a colonial response to Parliament’s actions. While attending the Congress, Washington advocated for what he called “the non-importation scheme,” or the boycott of British imports, which was similar to the Fairfax Resolves that he had earlier co-authored with George Mason. The Coercive Acts caused a clear shift in American public opinion. Where Washington had once questioned the radical Boston Tea Party, conceding “that we [do not] approve their conduct in destroying the Tea,” he now fully rallied behind the Bostonians, as he understood that the Coercive Acts threatened American liberty.
Parliament did not anticipate the colonies coming to Boston’s defense, and with good reason, as this was the first instance of mass colonial unification. Unlike previous controversial legislation, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, Parliament did not repeal the Coercive Acts. Hence, Parliament’s intolerable policies sowed the seeds of American rebellion and led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775.
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