January 24, 2012 essays

The Coercive Acts and Their Theoretical Significance

The British response to the Boston Tea Party and the revolution-sparking Coercive Acts.

The Boston Tea Party has often been called a pivotal event that led to the American Revolution, but it would be more accurate to say that the British response was the true catalyst.

Beginning in March 1774, in retaliation for the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor, Parliament passed four pieces of legislation known as the Coercive Acts. (Some historians include a fifth, The Quebec Act, among the Coercive Acts, but this had been in the works for some time and was not a direct response to the Boston Tea Party.) These measures, which many Americans called the Intolerable Acts, amounted to a declaration of martial law in Boston. They left Americans with no plausible course of action between the extremes of total submission and revolution.

The Coercive Acts closed the Port of Boston (with some minor exceptions) until Bostonians provided restitution to the East India Company, compensated customs officers for their losses, and showed proper respect for law and order. The charter of Massachusetts (its constitution, in effect) was severely altered to give the royal governor extensive powers. He could now appoint or fire “all judges of the inferior courts of common pleas, commissioners of Oyer and Terminer [i.e., judges who dealt with treason, felonies, and misdemeanors], the attorney general, provosts, marshals, justices of the peace, and other officers of the council or courts of justice.” And “upon every vacancy of the offices of chief justice and judges of the superior court…the governor…shall have full power and authority to nominate and appoint the persons to succeed to the said offices, who shall hold their commissions during the pleasure of his Majesty.”

Jurors would no longer be elected but instead would be appointed by sheriffs who served at the pleasure of the governor. Except for conducting routine business once a year, the Massachusetts Assembly was forbidden to meet without permission from the governor. Town meetings throughout Massachusetts required similar permission to convene, and participants were forbidden to discuss anything that the governor deemed inappropriate.

In addition, a military governor, General Gage, replaced the civilian governor, Thomas Hutchinson; and Gage’s authority would be backed by four regiments of British soldiers. (This was the same number — around 4000, a ratio of one soldier to every four civilians — that had led to the Boston Massacre a few years earlier.) Civilians could be compelled to provide lodgings for these soldiers. And if a soldier or any officer of the Crown was accused of murder or other capital offense, his trial could be moved to England (or to another colony) at the discretion of the governor. It was with good reason that some Americans dubbed this last provision “the Murder Act.”

The Tea Party had been universally excoriated by members of Parliament. Even those MPs known as “friends” of America called it a criminal act and demanded restitution for the East India Company. But some of these MPs vigorously protested the Coercive Acts as overkill. It was unfair, they said, to punish all Bostonians – indeed, all residents of Massachusetts – for the criminal actions of a small group. Moreover, the Coercive Acts would compel Americans to confederate in self-defense, and a full-scale revolution would probably be the result.

These were reasonable concerns – and accurate predictions, as it turned out — but most MPs were not in a reasonable mood. Indeed, one member went so far as to demand that Boston be burned and completely destroyed, as the Romans had done with Carthage.

The British Ministry had considered the possibility of bringing ringleaders of the Boston Tea Party to England for trial. The British had a list of the usual suspects, such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock, but they knew they had virtually no chance of finding witnesses who would testify against these popular resistance leaders. Prime Minister North therefore consoled himself with the belief that it was reasonable to punish the entire town of Boston, because that town “has been the ringleader of all violence and opposition to the execution of the laws of this country.” In other words, the Coercive Acts were payback for much more than the Boston Tea Party.

Many prominent Americans also condemned the destruction of East India Company tea. Benjamin Franklin, writing before passage of the Coercive Acts, called the Tea Party “an act of violent injustice on our part,” claiming that it was improper to destroy private property “in a dispute about public rights.” Franklin feared the Tea Party would give the British an excuse to wage war against Americans, so he urged the Massachusetts Assembly to indemnify the East India Company before Parliament retaliated.

George Washington was another American who condemned the destruction of tea, but his harsh reaction to the Coercive Acts illustrates their tremendous theoretical significance. The Coercive Acts fit perfectly into the conspiracy theory that some American radicals had been pushing since 1763, because those acts seemed to provide conclusive proof that the unjust actions of the British government over the past decade were not unrelated events. The Coercive Acts were viewed by many Americans as the culmination of a plan, or design, to extinguish American freedom and establish despotism.

As Washington wrote in letters to Bryan Fairfax (July and August, 1774), the Coercive Acts “made it as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation among us.” The British government “is pursuing a regular Plan at the expence of Law & justice, to overthrow our Constitutional Rights and liberties….” This “fixed & uniform Plan” was designed to establish “the most despotick System of Tyranny that ever was practiced in a free Government. In short, what further proofs are wanting to satisfy one of the designs of the Ministry than their own Acts, which are uniform, & plainly tending to the same point….” Washington was “convinc’d beyond the smallest doubt that these Measures [the Coercive Acts] are the result of deliberation….”

To appreciate the theoretical significance of Washington’s remarks, we need to recall this passage from the Declaration of Independence (my italics):

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

As I explained in an earlier essay, a design to establish despotism was the bright line in Radical Whig ideology that separated the right of resistance from the right of revolution. Under certain conditions (which I will discuss in a later essay), resistance against specific laws was viewed by Radical Whigs as justifiable, but revolution was another matter entirely. A revolution was not justified unless it could be shown that unjust laws were part of an overall plan to establish despotism. As John Locke put it in his Second Treatise of Government (1690):

…Revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in publick affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient Laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be born by the People, without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see whither they are going; ‘tis not to be wonder’d, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected.

George Washington was not alone in viewing the Coercive Acts as conclusive proof of a deliberate plan by the British government to establish despotism. Far from it; the same opinion was expressed many times by many Americans in letters, speeches, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and public documents.

According to the Boston Committee of Correspondence, the Coercive Acts were “glaring evidence of a fixed plan of the British administration to bring the whole continent into the most humiliating bondage.” One orator spoke of the decision to station thousands of British troops in Boston as springing from a “PLAN …systematically laid, and pursued by the British ministry, near twelve years, for enslaving America.” In A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Thomas Jefferson wrote of the Coercive Acts:

Scarcely have our minds been able to emerge from the astonishment into which one stroke of Parliamentary thunder has involved us, before another more heavy and more alarming is fallen on us. Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.

In the fall of 1774, John Adams, using the nom de plume Novanglus, published what was perhaps the most detailed account of how British politicians and American Tories had conspired for years to strip Americans of their rights and liberties. Throughout these essays we find references to “a manifest design,” “settled plans,” “systematical means,” and so forth.

The theoretical implications of the Coercive Acts were brilliantly summarized by Bernard Bailyn (The Origins of American Politics, 1967, pp. 11-12). Responding to those modern historians who had dismissed American claims of a British conspiracy as “extravagant, rhetorical, and apparently far from the realities of the time,” Bailyn wrote:

We shall have much disbelief to overcome. For what the leaders of the Revolutionary movement themselves said lay behind the convulsion of the time – what they themselves said was the cause of it – was nothing less than a deliberate “design” – a conspiracy – of ministers of state and their underlings to overthrow the British constitution, both in England and in America, and to blot out, or at least severely reduce, English liberties. This undertaking, it was said, which had long been brewing, had been nourished in corruption – rank, festering corruption, rising from the inmost recesses of the English polity and coursing through every vein. What was happening in America through the 1760’s, point by point in the controversy with England, could be seen, by the end of that decade, as fitting a pattern of concerted malevolence familiar to every eighteenth-century student of history and politics. Britain, it was said, was following Greece, Rome, France, Venice, Denmark, Sweden – in fact almost the whole of continental Europe – from the liberty of a free constitution into autocracy, and the colonies, for reasons variously explained, were in the van. Individual details – Stamp Act, Townshend Duties, Boston Massacre, and ultimately and overwhelmingly the Coercive Acts – added up to something greater, more malevolent than their simple sum, which was finally and fully revealed in the substitution of military for civil actions in 1775.