J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

Sunday, April 27, 2008

No Tolerance for “Intolerable Acts”

I’ve written a few times on the Quartering Acts, and what Parliament’s laws on housing soldiers really said (as opposed to what many latter-day American authors have claimed). While I did that research, I read several authors saying that American Patriots had listed the Quartering Act of 1774 as one of the “Intolerable Acts” while several others said the Patriots had left it off those lists. I decided to check out the original sources, and here’s what I found.

There were no lists of “Intolerable Acts.” In fact, I couldn’t find the phrase “Intolerable Acts” in any of my digital sources from the pre-Revolutionary period (most of them listed at the left). Boston 1775 readers know I like to point out myths, but this one astonished even me.

Encarta defines “Intolerable Acts” this way:

popular name given by Americans to four laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party.
And that reference site is by no means alone in that definition. Many resources state that in Britain those same laws were referred to as “Coercive Acts” since they were meant to coerce Massachusetts into behaving better.

However, the Early American Newspapers database pops out the first use of the phrase “intolerable act(s)” only in 1808, and then in regard to recent foreign news. The first newspaper story in that database to use “Intolerable Acts“ in connection to the American Revolution was the Kansas City Times on 25 May 1913.

The phrase “intolerable act(s)” doesn’t appear in the George Washington correspondence on the Library of Congress’s American Memory website or the George Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia (except in modern footnotes). The phrase doesn’t appear in John Adams’s diary, autobiography, and correspondence with Abigail Adams available through the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“Intolerable act(s)” doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress’s “Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention” or “A Century of Lawmaking” databases. The phrase doesn’t appear in the documents printed in the massive American Archives, compiled by Peter Force in the early 1800s.

The American Patriots did occasionally use the word “intolerable,” as in the Continental Congress’s resolution on 9 June 1775 authorizing Massachusetts to hold elections for its General Court again. But I’m still looking for the phrase “Intolerable Acts.”

Back in 1810, Robert Bisset’s History of the Reign of George III characterized the Congress’s 1774 “Address to the People of Great Britain” this way:
Their grievances (they said) arose from eleven acts of parliament passed in the present reign; but the most intolerable resulted from the three acts of the last session of parliament, respecting the colony of Massachusetts Bay, and the law for extending the limits of Canada.
However, Congress’s actual address, drafted by John Jay, didn’t use the word “intolerable.”

In 1826, Edward Everett gave an Independence Day speech in Cambridge that described the Patriots this way:
Not only was the independence, for which they struggled, a great and arduous adventure, of which they were to encounter the risk, and others to enjoy the benefits; but the oppressions, which roused them, had assumed, in their day, no worse form than that of a pernicious principle. No intolerable acts of oppression had ground them to the dust. They were not slaves rising in desperation from beneath the agonies of the lash; but free men, snuffing from afar “the tainted gale of tyranny.”
In The American Laborer in 1842, co-published by Horace Greeley, an author complained:
The degrading restrictions imposed upon our industry while British Colonies, were intolerable acts of oppression, and enforced with the utmost rigor by the Parliament of Great Britain.
Those ante-bellum writers used the phrase “intolerable acts” in a general sense. That implies that they didn’t link the phrase to the 1774 coercive measures, and they didn’t expect their audiences to do so.

The earliest example of the phrase “Intolerable Acts” as a label for specific legislation that I’ve found on Google Books appears in A History of the United States for Schools, by Alexander Johnston, with a copyright date of 1885. It lists “The Four Intolerable Acts,” the same four that Bisset had said were most grievous. In 1893, A History of the United States, a rival school textbook by Allen C. Thomas, went further and listed “The Five Intolerable Acts.” (That’s when the Quartering Act of 1774 entered the picture.)

Within a few years, a new orthodoxy appeared in American textbooks and popular histories: whether there were four or five parliamentary bills involved (and books continued to differ), people had called them the “Coercive Acts” in Britain and the “Intolerable Acts” in America. Still, no book quoted a Revolutionary-era source for the second label.

Even the “Coercive Acts” label appears to have been less common than that textbook formulation implies, but at least it’s documented in one very prominent place: George III’s speech to Parliament on 26 Oct 1775.

As for me, unless I hear from someone with a period reference, I’m swearing off any mention of “the Intolerable Acts.” (Not that I liked the phrase to begin with.)


Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Also, in 1775, Gen. Gage recommended to the King the use of "coercive measures". The King relates this in his letter George III to Lord North, Feb 4, 1774, in Fortescue 3:59.

On the Intolerable Acts, I am surprised, and will now add a caveat to the few times I refer to them as such in my book, 1775.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

The full quote of the above is:

To His Majesty, Gage expressed “his readiness[,] though so lately come from America[,] to return at a day’s notice if the conduct of the Colonies should induce the directing coercive measures”.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

And let met add, the term "coercive measures" appears quite often in the Parliamentary debates on these Acts. See Cobbett’s Parliamentary History v. 17 and v. 18 and search for "coercive".

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

I have one more thought: while it is clear there is no actual list of which acts qualify as the coercive acts, it seems strange to me that some authors would not qualify the Quartering Act of 1774 as among those coercive acts. We can at least label the act coercive if it was intended to coerce the populace of Boston into some behavior. We can also arguably call it a coercive act if the colonists found it coercive, regardless of the intent by Parliament (e.g. the Quebec Act). However, both qualifiers apply for the Quartering Act of 1774. On the one hand, the Bostonians were loathe to have regular troops in great numbers walking and billeted among them in Boston, particularly after "The Boston Massacre". (I put it in quotes because I've always felt the name was a sensationalized misnomer.) But more importantly, Parliament intended that act as a method of coercion. You link to this version of it from another post. The act clearly states: "And whereas it may frequently happen, from the situation of such barracks, that, if troops should be quartered therein, they would not be stationed where their presence may be necessary and required..." Why was this line put there? Because previously, Bostonians felt they met the requirements (of the old) Quartering Act by barracking the troops in Castle William on an island in Boston Harbor. This new Quartering Act had teeth: the Royal Governor had stronger power to decide where the troops would be quartered, as did the military commander-in-chief, and moreover, Bostonians would now be required by law to barrack the troops in Boston, not offshore. That is, the Quartering Act of 1774 was also meant to coerce the Bostonians into a particular behavior, and thus should be kept on that unwritten list of Coercive Acts.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that the term "Coercive Acts" comes from the period, and was used by both sides, and is therefore historically unimpeachable.

I'm not sure I'd include the Quartering Act among the Coercive Acts of 1774, however, because:
(a) it wasn't aimed just at Boston or Massachusetts.
(b) it was permanent, not contingent on any colony's behavior.
(c) I believe Parliament saw the 1774 act simply as a way of clarifying how the previous Quartering Act could be enforced.

I also don't include the Quebec Act among the Coercive Acts, though it undoubtedly aroused New Englanders' opposition. Parliament saw the administration of Quebec and France's southern lands as a separate important issue from the unrest in New England and the other coastal colonies.