How the Coercive Acts Helped Spark the American Revolution
As colonists grew increasingly defiant, the British government responded with punishing measures that only angered them more.
In 1774, the British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, a group of measures primarily intended to punish Boston for rebellion against the British government—namely, the Boston Tea Party. However, the impact of these acts stretched far beyond Massachusetts.
The four acts, along with the Quebec Act, became known as the Intolerable Acts among the 13 colonies. The punitive measures marked a major turning point in the conflict between the British government and the colonies, and helped set the two sides on the path to the Revolutionary War.
Coercive Acts Target Boston
Boston was the focal point of colonial rebellion when Britain passed the Coercive Acts in 1774. In December 1773, colonists had dumped British tea into the Boston Harbor to protest the Tea Act, which had made taxed British tea as cheap or cheaper than the untaxed and illegally imported Dutch tea that many colonists bought and preferred.
The Coercive Act that most directly responded to the Boston Tea Party was the Boston Port Bill. With this, the British Parliament announced that it was closing Boston Harbor until the city paid for the wasted tea. In addition to this, the Massachusetts Government Act drastically reduced the number of local town hall meetings that communities could hold each year. Though Britain passed the act to punish Boston, it affected all of Massachusetts, and many property-holding white men throughout the colony saw this as a major threat to their local governments and autonomy.
Next were the Administration of Justice Act and the Quartering Act. Though these two acts could potentially apply to any of the 13 colonies, the British Parliament was specifically targeting Boston when it passed them.
The Administration of Justice Act said that British officials accused of capital crimes in the 13 colonies could be tried in Britain. Those in the colonies saw this as a way of protecting soldiers like the ones who killed colonists during the Boston Massacre of 1770, leading some to call it the the “Murder Act.”
The Quartering Act stated that Britain could use empty buildings to house its soldiers in port cities. Again, though this could apply to any of the 13 colonies, the act referenced the fact that Boston had tried to house British troops on an island a few miles off of the coast. The act ensured British troops could stay in the actual city of Boston, thus maintaining an increased military presence there.
Coercive Acts Lead to Boycott Against Britain
In the 13 colonies, the Coercive Acts and the 1774 Quebec Act became known as the Intolerable Acts. The Quebec Act was a separate measure that claimed all territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers for Quebec, one of Britain's many other North American colonies. Though not intended as a punitive measure, the act angered land speculators in the 13 colonies who wanted to claim more western territory.
Even though most of these acts were meant to punish Boston, colonists outside of Massachusetts worried that if the British Parliament could close down one colony’s port and restrict its local governments, Parliament could potentially do the same to the other 12 colonies, too.
“Parliament’s Coercive Acts led all of the colonies, except for Georgia, to unite behind Massachusetts and boycott trade,” says Woody Holton, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution.
Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, opposed the Coercive Acts but still wished to remain part of the British Empire. What they took issue with wasn’t the empire itself but Parliament’s treatment of the colonies, sometimes making egregious comparisons between this and their own treatment of enslaved people.
“For my own part, I shall not undertake to say where the Line between Great Britain and the Colonies should be drawn, but I am clearly of opinion that one ought to be drawn,” Washington wrote in a letter shortly before the First Continental Congress. If not, he wrote that Britian “will make us as tame, abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”
Rather than rallying colonists to declare independence, the Coercive Acts made prominent colonists ask, “What are terms under which the colonists can stay in the empire?” says Alan Taylor, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.
“What the Coercive Acts do is they make it much more unlikely that there will be a compromise,” Taylor says. “The Coercive Acts raise the stakes of this confrontation in a dramatic new way, and they make it much more likely that there will be a war.”