Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Boston Massacre And Other "Intolerable Acts"


I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we American and British reactions to Boston Massacre in 1770, the Boston Tea Party, and the British attempts to restore authority through the Tea Act and the so-called Intolerable Acts.


In the supercharged political environment of Boston in 1770, the stationing of red-coated troops only raised tensions further. Quartered on private properties seized from the city, guarded by sentries who challenged townsfolk at will, these soldiers inevitably provoked resentment by their mere presence.  Poorly paid soldiers seeking work on the side competed with local laboring men.  Fights with civilians led to prosecutions of soldiers in local courts, where convictions and fines confirmed the army’s sense of being surrounded by enemies.  When townsfolk confronted merchants accused of violating the non-importation agreement, soldiers on patrol served as targets of rage and frustration.


The explosion finally came on the moonlit night of March 5, 1770, when a detachment of army privates, commanded by Captain Thomas Preston, faced an angry crowd in front of Boston’s custom house.  The crowd began to throw snowballs, some containing rocks. One of the soldiers was hit by a chunk of ice, slipped to the ground, regained his feet and fired his musket.  The soldiers in formation beside him then fired into the crowd, hitting eleven men.  Five died, including Crispus Attucks, a mixed-race dockworker of African and Wampanoag descent.  (Historians are uncertain whether Attucks was a slave or free.)  Hutchinson, then serving as acting governor of the colony, faced the furious crowd the following day, promised justice, and managed to prevent further bloodshed.

The “Boston Massacre” had immediate local consequences.  The British troops were redeployed to an island fortress in Boston Harbor.  Samuel Adams, and others in the thick of the struggle to enforce non-importation, immediately sought to portray the incident as a deliberate attack on helpless civilians—a view illustrated in the famous engravings by local silversmith Paul Revere.  Captain Preston and his men were held and later tried in colonial court, defended by John Adams, Samuel’s second cousin.  John Adams was equally dedicated to the opposition movement but, as an attorney, believed in the principle of a fair trial.  Adams secured acquittals of all the defendants on murder charges (although two of the privates were convicted of manslaughter and released after being branded with an iron).

 Beyond Boston, the incident coincided with a partial reversal of imperial policy toward the colonies.  A new set of ruling ministers in London was willing to modify the Townshend policies, mainly in response to new petitions by London merchants.  The original rationale—that modest import duties and firm enforcement could prepare the way gently for future imperial revenue gathering—now lay in ruins.  The new prime minister, Lord North, secured the repeal of most of the Townshend duties but kept the tax on tea, which would continue to pay the salaries of governors and other leading officials. North calculated, correctly, that partial concessions would appeal to colonists afraid of further violence and tip the political balance against non-importation.  In July 1770, merchants in New York, over the objections of the local Sons of Liberty, declared that they would resume import shipments.  Over the months that followed, the resistance movement continued to die down.  In October, the Boston merchants gave in as well.  On Bowling Green at the tip of Manhattan, a new equestrian statue of George III was raised, to general acclaim.  For the time being, as Lord North had intended, peace, order, and normal commerce appeared to prevail once again in the British North American colonies.

The Boston Tea Party

A deceptively quiet pause of three years ensued, a time that encouraged complacency on the part of government ministers in London and frustrated firebrands like Sam Adams.  In fact, discontent and frustration with imperial rule continued to fester, sustained by minor incidents in the absence of major provocations such as the Townshend Acts.  The relationship between colonies and mother country had already been altered forever, though most in America and Great Britain did not realize it at the time.

The Tea Act shattered the surface calm, and set in motion a final sequence of events leading to war and independence.  The new Prime Minister, Frederick North, really had no intention of demonstrating imperial power over the colonies.  His attitude toward the colonies was relatively conciliatory.  The British Empire, however, still badly needed revenues to pay its expenses, and the leadership of that Empire remained adamantly opposed to allowing any self-rule for the colonies or their representation in the Parliament.  Then, a new fiscal problem arose.  The British East India Company, a vast commercial enterprise controlling British trade with India and the Far East that heavily impacted the overall British economy, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.  The company 
wielded great influence in Parliament, and government ministers basically granted the company more favorable terms for the importation of its Indian tea to the American colonies. The company would now be allowed to bypass Britain (where even tea sold for transshipment had been subject to British import duties) and use its own ships and consignment agents to supply colonial markets (where the tea would now be available to consumers at lower prices, even with the Townshend duty included).  Americans would pay a lower price, but the East India Company would be able to undersell smugglers and would eventually achieve a monopoly that could come back to haunt the colonies.  Again, the colonists continued to object to a tax that had been passed without their consultation, whatever the amount of the duty. Tea represented a major issue. Americans preferred tea to coffee and quaffed gallons of it.  North received advice that the existing tea duty remained a sensitive issue, and that the Tea Act risked stirring new controversy if the duty were maintained.  But as a continuing source of funds for payment of royal officials, North reasoned that the duty was too valuable to be abandoned.

Responses to the Tea Act in the colonial ports of entry were decisive, reflecting the underlying strength and renewed intensity of the opposition movement.  Special circumstances made Boston’s response uniquely provocative.  As the Tea Act’s provisions appeared in the colonial newspapers, the Sons of Liberty insisted that the Act was a ruse to “trick” colonists into accepting the Townshend duty, and portrayed the East India Company as a rapacious monopoly extending its reach into the colonies—a perfect example of the general corruption that many colonists now associated with the mother country and its government. Merchants now faced the loss of their own profitable trade in smuggled tea, as well as the prospect of seeing the legitimate trade taken over by East India Company consignment agents.  On the question of allowing the new law to take effect, merchants were drawn back into alliances with artisans and planters.  The Sons of Liberty gently—or not so gently—persuaded local recipients of the company’s tea consignment rights to resign their commissions.  In New York and Philadelphia, incoming tea ships were warned away and sailed for England with their cargoes.  But Governor Hutchinson—who, true to form, had secured company commissions for his two sons—insisted on allowing three Boston-bound vessels to enter the port.  As the casks of tea remained on board, a standoff commenced between the ship owner and consignment agents, who wanted the vessels unloaded, and Adams and the other leaders of the Boston town meeting.

Once again the city was like a boiling kettle.  The committee of correspondence appealed to the rest of the colony for support.  Mass meetings at “Liberty Hall” and the Old South Church attracted thousands of townsfolk and thousands more from the surrounding counties, demanding that the ships leave for England.  Adams and the other Sons of Liberty felt compelled to act before a legal deadline empowered the governor to confiscate the cargo.  On the night of December 17, 1773, dozens of men dressed as Indians boarded the ships, smashed open the casks, and threw the tea into the harbor waters.  The event, later called the Boston Tea Party, had one long-term cultural impact on the future United States, marking when Americans would begin to prefer coffee to the tea preferred in the British Isles.  In modern times, right-wing protestors objecting to the federal debt and to President Barack Obama’s health care reform proposals would imitate the original Tea Party, dressing in colonial garb and wearing tea bags during protests in 2009.

The Intolerable Acts

English responses to the “Boston Tea Party” showed how much political, economic and emotional distance had grown between Boston and London.  Even previous friends of the colonies fell silent, finding the action incomprehensible.  Franklin was summoned before a council of ministers, ostensibly to defend a petition from Boston, and instead had to stand silently while his own character was impugned in extravagant terms, in obvious retaliation against Boston as well as against him.  (Perhaps defiantly, Franklin remained in England for another year but then left, never to return.)  For North, at this point, the only issue now involving the colonies was “whether we have, or have not, any authority in that country.”  

A package of proposals quickly approved by Parliament became known as the Coercive Acts. (They were also referred to as the Intolerable Acts).  These included the Boston Port Act, which closed the port to all commerce until the destroyed tea was paid for; the Massachusetts Government Act, which unilaterally rewrote the colony’s charter to strengthen the governor’s powers and limited town meetings to once a year; and new procedures for royal officials accused of crimes, allowing their trials to be held in England, which amounted to a grant of impunity, since witnesses for the prosecution were unlikely to be able to afford attending the proceedings.  Under the new law, General Thomas Gage, a longtime commander of British forces on the western frontier and elsewhere in the colonies, was appointed military governor of Massachusetts and sent to Boston in command of some four thousand regular troops.

A separate piece of legislation, the Quebec Act, was passed several months later, but colonists associated it with the Coercive Acts.  Much of it related to the internal governance of formerly French Canada and the rights of French-speaking Catholic residents, but it also included an expansion of the province’s boundaries south to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi River, taking in vast lands previously granted to New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  This actually favored not so much the Quebecois themselves as the Iroquois nations occupying these lands, who were entitled to new protections against white squatters.  The British were already worried about the French and the Spanish, and hoped that by protecting the Iroquois they would make peace with one of the Native American nations within their Empire. By the same token, the act amounted to a new assault on the financial interests of colonial land speculators, whose claims made under the previous colonial boundaries were now rendered invalid.  With few exceptions, members of Parliament agreed that the rebellious colonies needed to be cut down to size. In addition, the Quebec Act granted freedom of worship to French Catholics living in the province and ended the requirement that Catholics renounce their faith before they could serve in public office.  This expression of religious tolerance infuriated many in the 13 colonies, especially in Puritan New England, where anti-Catholic prejudice burned the brightest.

The British government could hardly have done anything more to confirm the colonists’ worst suspicions.  Admittedly, even now, at least some divisions persisted among colonists.  A significant minority of Boston merchants, facing the extinction of the city as a trading center, were willing to offer payment for the tea destroyed during the Tea Party and beg for mercy.  Others elsewhere remained reluctant to go back to non-importation.  But the “Intolerable Acts” or “Coercive Acts” (as colonists called them) seemed far more of an immediate threat.  As the Boston Port Act took effect, with its catastrophic economic consequences for the city, colonists in other places recognized Boston as a martyr in a common cause.  In Williamsburg, Virginia, Patrick Henry and a young burgess named Thomas Jefferson proposed a “Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer” for their fellow colonists facing a “hostile invasion.”  (John Murray, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore and the royal governor of Virginia, then promptly dissolved the legislature.)  Once again, denied a legal framework to express their grievances, the colonists turned to each other and acted outside of the law.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

No comments: