Intolerable Acts

In response to the Boston Tea Party, in 1774 the British Parliament passed a series of acts that helped push the Thirteen Colonies into conflict with Great Britain. These acts were designed to restore Britain’s authority in the Colonies, punish Massachusetts for the destruction of private property, and generally reform the governments of the Colonies. Many American colonists hated these acts and they would be known as the Five Intolerable Acts.

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    Of the Five Intolerable Acts, only three actually applied to Massachusetts. However, other colonies were afraid that Parliament would also try to change their governments. These acts were essential in uniting the colonists and were the principal reason for the First Continental Congress, in September 1774.

    Five Intolerable Acts Key Dates

    DateEvent
    23 December 1773The Boston Tea Party.
    March 1774The Boston Port Act, the first of the Intolerable Acts, is passed.
    May 1774

    The Massachusetts Government Act and the Administration of Justice Act are passed by parliament.

    June 1774Parliament expands the Quartering Act of 1765 and passes the Quebec Act.
    5 September 1774The First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia.
    October 1774Governor Thomas Gage invokes the Massachusetts Government Act and dissolves the colony's assembly. In defiance, assembly members establish a provisional Provincial Congress in Salem, Massachusetts.

    Context of the Five Intolerable Acts of 1774

    After the British government passed the Townshend Acts, colonists were upset because they felt they were being unfairly taxed. This brought up the issue of being taxed without representation. Colonists resisted by boycotting tea. The Sons of Liberty took this protest one step further by throwing over 340 chests of British tea into the Boston Harbour on 23 December 1773. This would be known as the Boston Tea Party.

    Five Intolerable Acts The flag of the Sons of Liberty StudySmarterThe flag of the Sons of Liberty, Wikimedia Commons.

    Townshend Acts: a series of tax laws passed by the British Government between 1767 and 68, named after the Chancellor, Charles Townshend. They were used to raise money to pay the salaries of officials who were loyal to Britain and punish the colonies for failing to follow previous laws imposed on them.

    The Sons of Liberty was an organisation formed to oppose taxes imposed by the British on the Colonies. It particularly fought the Stamp Act and was formally disbanded after the Stamp Act was repealed, although there were a few other fringe groups who continued to use the name after that.

    Starting in early 1774, Parliament passed new acts in response to the Boston Tea Party. In the Thirteen Colonies, these acts came to be called the Intolerable Acts but in Great Britain, they were originally called the Coercive Acts.

    Intolerable Acts List

    There were five intolerable acts:

    • The Boston Port Act.

    • The Massachusetts Government Act.

    • The Administration of Justice Act.

    • The Quartering Act.

    • The Quebec Act.

    The Boston Port Act

    Five Intolerable Acts A painting of Boston harbour StudySmarterA painting of Boston harbour, Wikimedia Commons.

    This was one of the first laws passed, in March 1774. It essentially closed the port of Boston until the colonists had paid back the cost of the destroyed tea and when the King was satisfied that order had been restored in the Colonies.

    The Port Act further angered the citizens of Boston because they felt that they were collectively being punished, rather than only the colonists who had destroyed the tea. This once again raised the issue of representation, or rather lack of it: the people had nobody they could complain to and who could represent them before the British.

    The Massachusetts Government Act

    This act upset even more people than the Boston Port Act. It abolished the Massachusetts government and placed the colony under the direct control of the British. Now, leaders in every colonial government position would be appointed either by the King or by Parliament. The Act also limited town meetings in Massachusetts to one per year.

    This led other colonies to fear that Parliament would do the same to them.

    The Administration of Justice Act

    This act allowed accused royal officials to have trials in Great Britain (or elsewhere in the Empire) if the Royal Governor felt that the defendant would not receive a fair trial in Massachusetts. Witnesses would be reimbursed for their travel expenses, but not for the time they were not working. Thus, witnesses rarely testified because it was too costly to travel across the Atlantic and miss out on work.

    Washington called this the 'Murder Act' because Americans felt that British officials would be able to harass them with virtually no consequences.

    The Quartering Act

    This act applied to all of the Colonies and essentially stated that all Colonies had to house British troops in their region. Previously, under an act passed in 1765, Colonies were forced to provide housing for soldiers, but the colonial governments were very uncooperative in enforcing this requirement. However, this updated act allowed the Governor to house soldiers in other buildings if suitable housing was not provided.

    There is debate about whether the act truly allowed British troops to occupy private homes or whether they only resided in unoccupied buildings.

    The Quebec Act

    The Quebec Act was not actually one of the Coercive Acts but, since it was passed in the same Parliamentary session, colonists considered it one of the Intolerable Acts. It expanded the Quebec territory into what is now the American Midwest. On the surface, this voided the Ohio Company’s claims to the land in this region.

    The Ohio Company was a company set up around present-day Ohio to trade inland, particularly with Indigenous Peoples. The British plans for the region were disrupted by the American Revolutionary War, and nothing ever came of the company.

    Importantly, these reforms were favourable to the French Catholic inhabitants in the region. Parliament guaranteed that the people would be free to practice their Catholic faith, which was the most widespread religion among French Canadiens. Colonists viewed this act as an affront to their faith since the colonists were mostly practising protestants.

    Intolerable Acts Cause and Effect

    Boston was seen as the ringleader of colonial resistance to British rule. In passing the Intolerable Acts, Great Britain hoped that the radicals in Boston would be isolated from the other Colonies. This hope only achieved the opposite effect: instead of separating Massachusetts from the other Colonies, the Acts caused other Colonies to sympathise with Massachusetts.

    This then resulted in Colonies forming the Committees of Correspondence, which later sent delegates to the First Continental Congress. This Congress was especially important because it promised that if Massachusetts was attacked, all the Colonies would become involved.

    Committees of Correspondence: these were emergency contingency governments established by the Thirteen Colonies in the run-up to the War of Independence, in response to increasing hostility by the British. They were the foundation for the Continental Congresses.

    Many Colonists viewed these Acts as a further violation of their constitutional and natural rights. Colonies began viewing these violations as a threat to their liberties, not as separate British colonies, but as a collected American front. For example, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia labelled the acts as

    a most wicked system for destroying the liberty of America.1

    Lee was a former president of the Continental Congress and a Portrait of Richard Henry Lee, Wikimedia Commons.signer of the Declaration of Independence.

    Many Boston citizens viewed these Acts as an unnecessarily cruel punishment. It resulted in even more colonists turning away from British rule. In 1774, colonists organised the First Continental Congress to inform Great Britain of the dissatisfaction they felt.

    When tensions escalated, this resulted in the American Revolutionary War breaking out in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence being issued a year later.

    Five Intolerable Acts - Key Takeaways

    • Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in response to the Boston Tea Party.

    • The Intolerable Acts targeted Massachusetts because the Boston Tea Party had occurred in Boston.

    • Parliament had hoped that in passing these Acts, the other colonies would become wary and would stop rebelling against Parliament’s authority. Instead, colonies began to unite in sympathy for what had happened to Massachusetts.

    • Colonists organised the First Continental Congress in order to send the King a document listing their grievances against Parliament’s rule.


    References

    1. James Curtis Ballagh, ed. 'Letter of Richard Henry Lee to his brother Arthur Lee, 26 June 1774'. The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 1, 1762-1778. 1911.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Intolerable Acts

    What were the Five Intolerable Acts?

    A series of five laws passed by the British Government to penalise the Colonies for not having followed previous laws such as the Quartering Acts.

    What did the Intolerable Acts lead to?

    Even more resentment of the British by the colonists, and the organisation of the First Continental Congress.

    What was the First Intolerable Act?

    The Boston Port Act, in 1774.

    How did the Intolerable Acts backfire on the British Empire?

    The colonists saw this as yet another violation of their natural and constitutional rights. More turned away from the British, and they were a key aggravating factor in the resentment. The Revolutionary War broke out the next year.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What were the Intolerable Acts called in Britain?

    Besides the Boston Tea Party, how else did colonists react to the Townshend Tax? What good did they boycott? 

    What did the Boston Port Act do?

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