A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 2, "Revolution And The 14th Colony" TOC
Ch. 9 - The Intolerable Acts (1774)

Most of the talk in the colonies, at the turn of the year, 1773/1774, was of taxes and tea, and of tyranny. In London the talk was how their once loving subjects in America have turned into disobedient rebels. What might be done to restore these balking colonists back to being useful, subservient and dutiful servants of the crown? Examples needed to be set; control needed to be taken. It was determined to legislate; and legislate they did. In that year, in 1774, the British parliament, at the behest of the king's ministers, cranked out pieces of parchment with the intention to cure the mischief. This legislative approach, as we will see, was to be no cure. It did, as legislation so often does, but bring on more mischief worse than that to be cured.

We enumerate these acts:

  1. The Boston Port Act
  2. The Massachusetts Government Act
  3. The Administration of Justice Act
  4. The Quartering Act
  5. The Quebec Act

In history, these acts are known collectively as the Intolerable Acts, or Coercive Acts. In this chapter we shall briefly deal with these acts. To set the tone let us turn to Pitt's biographer, Albert von Ruville:
"The government's first measures were to recall the revenue officials from Boston and to close the port to foreign traffic. On the Port Act followed other bills, which provided for changes in the government and the courts of justice of Massachusetts. The quartering of troops in Boston or any other town of the colony was legalized and a new delimitation of the Canadian frontier was determined. The aim of all these measures was to curb the independence and check the territorial extension of the rebellious colony."1
The Boston Port Act2 was passed, to quote from its preamble, because of the "dangerous commotions and insurrections have been fomented and raised in the town of Boston." The effect of the act was to shut the Port of Boston down from the 1st of June, 1774, so that no goods of any kind could be brought into or out of the port. If any one should be involved in the loading or unloading of cargo in any way, then that person "shall forfeit and lose treble the value thereof ... , together with the vessels and boats, and all the horses, cattle, and carriages, whatsoever made use of in the shipping, unshipping, landing, removing, carriage, or conveyance of any of the aforesaid goods, wares, and merchandise." The act also provided authority to the navy to order off any vessel found "hovering about" and if it did not do so within six hours, that vessel and its cargo was to be forfeited to the crown. Of course, there was an exception in the act for any goods that were destined for the navy, and "for the necessary use and sustenance of the inhabitants of the said town of Boston, provided the vessels wherein the same are to be carried shall be duly furnished with a cocket and let-pass, after having been duly searched by the proper officers of his Majesty’s customs at Marblehead."3

The traders in Nova Scotia such as those at Liverpool were to immediately feel the effect of The Boston Port Act. Simeon Perkins made these entries into his diary:

26 May, Thursday, 1774: "Bartlett, skipper of a Plymouth vessel, informs me that five men of war are at Boston. Harbor to be shut June 1, and Custom House to be removed to Plymouth."
27 May, Friday, 1774: "Vessels with fire wood and victuals allowed in if they first go to Marbelhead, where the Customs is to be, and there get a docket and an officer with sufficient force to protect him on board. This act [Perkins saw in its full in a newspaper brought up from Massachusetts] is due to destruction of East India tea last fall. The Act appears to have been made in a hurry, if not in some heat, and I fear will be productive of disagreeable consequences."
It was intended by The Massachusetts Government Act4 (to take effect the 1st of July, 1774, or, at least, most of it) that the government of Massachusetts Bay was to be transformed. Massachusetts, at the expense of its long standing democratic institutions, was to be given a large dose of aristocratic and monarchial principles.5 The act provided that councilors6 should be chosen by the Crown and hold office "for and during the pleasure of his Majesty." More dreadful was the provision that all judges and the courts were to be under the control of the governor, thus to be hired and fired as he saw fit. Further, extensive provisions were made so that only juries sympathetic to the crown could be assembled. Worst, yet, was the muzzling of the democratic assembly:
"That from and after the said first day of August, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-four, no meeting shall be called by the select men, or at the request of any number of freeholders of any township, district, or precinct, without the leave of the governor, or, in his absence, of the lieutenant-governor, in writing, expressing the special business of the said meeting, first had and obtained, except the annual meeting in the months of March or May, for the choice of select men, constables, and other officers, or except for the choice of persons to fill up the offices aforesaid, on the death or removal of any of the persons first elected to such offices, and also, except any meeting for the election of a representative or representatives in the general court7; and that no other matter shall be treated of at such meetings, except the election of their aforesaid officers or representatives, nor at any other meeting, except the business expressed in the leave given by the governor, or, in his absence, by the lieutenant-governor."
The Administration of Justice Act8 was meant to rejig the judicial process so "to prevent a failure of justice, from the want of evidence." By it a "reasonable sum" was to be allowed for "the expenses" of witnesses. It provided further that "all prosecutors and witnesses ... shall be free from all arrests and restraints." Further that any person may be let off on any charge of "murder, or other capital crime" where it was shown that the act occurred while the person charged committed the act in "support of the laws of revenue, or in acting in his duty as an officer of revenue, or in acting under the direction and order of any magistrate, for the suppression of riots, or for the carrying into effect the laws of revenue ... any law, custom, or usage, to the contrary thereof in any-wise notwithstanding." Further, any trial, upon order of the governor may be transferred to another jurisdiction such as another colony or, indeed, over to England. There was also a provision that should the crown fail to get a wanted conviction, then they may start up once again in any jurisdiction, which, of course, is much against the long established common-law immunity of England, that a person is not to be placed in jeopardy twice for the same offence. This act, as one of the Coercive Acts, was to come into effect much about the same time as the others, on the 1st of June, 1774, however, only "for and during the term of three years."

The Quartering Act9, passed in 1765, and which set a legislative requirement for local authorities in the colonies, where barracks were not available, to furnish quarters, was, as part of the 1774 package, changed. The 1774 amendment obliged local authorities not only to find quarters for troops, but to find them at the scene of the trouble; and not, as had been done in 1768, several miles away from the trouble. We might add, by the way, this quartering proved no problem for the colonists located in the newly settled and scattered communities, indeed their assistance and protection was welcomed; but, in the old established centres this quartering was regarded as a menace and a burden.10

The Quebec Act11 consisted of a number of provisions, but the one that proved to be the biggest irritant to the English colonies was the one that dealt with Canadian geography. To understand why this was so, it is necessary to put the matter into historical perspective. There was, as a practical matter, up to 1760, one hundred and seventy years of conflict between the English and French as to who, as between these two European countries, "owned" America. The contest was, of course, with the Treaty of Paris (1763), concluded on terms entirely favourable to Great Britain: France ceded most all of her territorial rights to her old foe. Well, there is the end of it. But wait! While it maybe that Great Britain, by force of arms, settled the French question in America, there still was a great number of original American natives who figured they should have a say as to who owned what. This continuing problem -- natives versus European usurpers -- is well represented in history by what became known as the "Pontiac Rebellion." Pontiac (c.1720-69), was an Ottawa Indian chief who led an uprising beginning with an attack on the fort at Detroit in 1763. The raid failed and the Indians began a siege. News of the attack sparked similar raids throughout the region until all but three forts -- Detroit, Pitt, and Niagara -- had fallen. British forces rushed to their relief. With no French aid materializing, Pontiac in October secured a truce and withdrew to the west. A final peace agreement in 1766 marked the end of the rebellion. The point of this, in respect to the current work, is that in its attempt to deal with the "Indian problem" the British aggravated the colonists even further: first "the British government issued a proclamation which established a line of demarcation -- roughly the summit of the Alleghenies -- westward of which no British subject could purchase land or settle"; and second, an intention was declared that there should be a standing army of ten thousand men stationed in the colonies, for their protection and at their expense. The Americans were quick to point that they saw no need for the British government to have armies in America; the situation was unlike that, but a few years ago, when France was in possession of Canada and Louisiana. At any rate the colonists were of the view that "as long as bluejackets commanded the seas there was no necessity of burdening the colonies with redcoats."12

The Quebec Act, in part, was but a follow up to the policy which Great Britain had struck as a reaction to the "Pontiac Rebellion." This is to be combined with the long standing problem as had existed between the English and the French. It was never clear where Canada, territorially speaking, began and where it ended.13 One of the purposes, ostensibly, was to settle this question. The Quebec Act defined the borders such that Canada was to include those lands long claimed by the French (and in part also by the British in the bad old days), being the Great Lakes, the Valley of the Ohio, and part of the basin of the Ohio. It was interpreted by the colonists as an attempt to hem them in.14

The primary purpose of The Quebec Act, however, as was passed in June and as was to come into force in October of 1774, was to bring Quebec under the control of Great Britain's parliament. During the previous decade, Quebec, as conquered territory, was essentially under military rule where governance was by royal proclamation. The act cut into the power of the military governors located at Quebec and put matters more under the direct control of the British parliament. No democratic assemblies were set up, as then did exist in Nova Scotia and the thirteen colonies. Nor, we might add, was there much agitation for such amongst a French population who, up to this time, had never known or likely cared for such a thing. Great Britain was of course anxious to promote peace and tranquility in the French speaking population, and it did so with considerable success due to the compassion of the British governors who ruled for the decade or so just after the war. In 1774, Great Britain wanted to further ingratiate itself with the French speaking population. One of the provisions of The Quebec Act was that it provided that Roman Catholics in Quebec should be no longer obliged to take the test oath, but only the oath of allegiance; thus "the Roman Catholic population of Canada were relieved of their disabilities many years before people of the same belief in Great Britain and Ireland received similar privileges."15 Further, in addition to allowing them the right to practice their own religion, the act allowed the French Canadians, now British subjects, to enjoy their own laws.

These Intolerable Acts, the details of which we have now set out, set the stage for the explosive and violent events which began within a year of their enactment. Benjamin Franklin likened New England to a blacksmith's forge into which Great Britain introduced a Magazine of Gunpowder. People, even in Nova Scotia, knew of this explosive situation. Simeon Perkins wrote of it on September the 11th, 1774: "Capt. Martin arrives from Salem in three days. Says the disturbances in New England increase. Gen. Gage is entrenched on the Common, and 3,000 people are assembled on Cambridge Common, armed with fire-locks, pitchforks, etc. A number of the new Council there resigned." It was now just a matter of time before the spark would leap across the countryside and ignite an armed rebellion. All that was needed were men, leaders, who could step up and guide others in the action. New England had a great wealth of such men. A meeting was called for the leaders of each of the colonies; they met six days before Perkins had made his entry, on September 5th, at Philadelphia; it is known as The First Continental Congress.16

Von Ruville, Pitt's biographer summed up the activities of this Congress:

"It [The First Continental Congress of 1774] began its work by passing five measures affecting the relations of the colonies with the mother-country. It forbade the import of English wares after December 1, 1774, and ordered the cessation of all exports to Great Britain and Ireland after September 10, 1775, unless there had been a redress of grievances prior to these dates. It approved of the opposition offered to the late acts of Parliament by the people of Massachusetts Bay. It drew up a Declaration of Rights similar to that of 1789. It issued proclamations to the old and to the new colonies, and to the people of Great Britain. It addressed a petition to the king."17
The high sounding cries were heard from the new liberals, the Whigs, both back home in Britain and in the colonies. The Tories, of which there were quite a number in the colonies, figured that by their bellowing and blustering, the bragging Whigs had managed to enlist the mob and thus positioned themselves to bully all others.

John C. Miller:

"The Tories predicted that the committeemen who compelled merchants to open their ledgers for their inspection would next insist upon examining 'your tea-cannisters, and molasses-jugs, and your wives and daughters' petty-coats'; nothing less than a 'good hickory cudgel' could preserves the virtue of American womanhood from these prying Whigs. The only liberty that the patriots wanted, said the Tories, was the liberty 'of knocking out any Man's Brains that dares presume to speak his Mind freely about the present Contest.' They had already almost attained the 'state of nature': they 'swear, drink, and lie and whore and cheat, and rob, and pull down houses, and tar and feather, and play the devil in every shape, just as the devil and their own inclination lead them,' exclaimed a Tory; 'and yet they cry out for liberty; what the deuce would they have, or what would they be at?'"18
That fall, 1774, several British regiments took possession of Boston. While the locals did not resist these troops, they hardly made their occupation comfortable. I again quote Miller:
"The city refused to provide barracks, with the result that the troops were obliged to remain encamped on the Common until November, to the great unhappiness of Boston cows, who were thus deprived of their favorite pasture. The Committee of Correspondence ordered Boston carpenters not to help the troops construct barracks; no lumber was permitted to be brought into the city; and the merchants refused to sell the soldiers blankets, tools, or material of any kind. General Gage was forced to bring carpenters and bricklayers from Nova Scotia in order to make the climate of Boston endurable for the British army."19
As 1774 closed we see the British soldiers on the Boston Common getting the collective cold shoulder from the citizens of Boston. Indeed, in Massachusetts at this time, as a practical matter, there was no British authority except where British troops were camped. The Force of Law as represented by the Intolerable Acts had been tried, without effect. What next could be tried?
Like gun powder, conditions for a revolution come about as the result of a number of ingredients mixed together. In the case of gunpowder we deal with three elements
20, in the case of a social phenomena, as was the American Revolution, there are uncountable elements that had come together. In the 13 colonies the mix was generally right, and, particularly right in Massachusetts where at Lexington Green the explosion was sufficient enough to ignite, in turn, the rest of the thirteen colonies (barely so in certain cases). As for Nova Scotia, the ignition source was somewhat distant and the mix was not quite right.

[NEXT: Pt. 2, Ch. 10 - "The Events of 1775."]

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