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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Retaliation by the British Government

Reception of the News of the Tea Riot.—The news of the tea riot in Boston confirmed King George in his conviction that there should be no soft policy in dealing with his American subjects. “The die is cast,” he stated with evident satisfaction. “The colonies must either triumph or submit.... If we take the resolute part, they will undoubtedly be very meek.” Lord George Germain characterized the tea party as “the proceedings of a tumultuous and riotous rabble who ought, if they had the least prudence, to follow their mercantile employments and not trouble themselves with politics and government, which they do not understand.” This expressed, in concise form, exactly the sentiments of Lord North, who had then for three years been the king’s chief minister. Even Pitt, Lord Chatham, was prepared to support the government in upholding its authority.

The Five Intolerable Acts.—Parliament, beginning on March 31, 1774, passed five stringent measures, known in American history as the five “intolerable acts.” They were aimed at curing the unrest in America. The first of them was a bill absolutely shutting the port of Boston to commerce with the outside world. The second, following closely, revoked the Massachusetts charter of 1691 and provided furthermore that the councilors should be appointed by the king, that all judges should be named by the royal governor, and that town meetings (except to elect certain officers) could not be held without the governor’s consent. A third measure, after denouncing the “utter subversion of all lawful government” in the provinces, authorized royal agents to transfer to Great Britain or to other colonies the trials of officers or other persons accused of murder in connection with the enforcement of the law. The fourth act legalized the quartering of troops in Massachusetts towns. The fifth of the measures was the Quebec Act, which granted religious toleration to the Catholics in Canada, extended the boundaries of Quebec southward to the Ohio River, and established, in this western region, government by a viceroy.

The intolerable acts went through Parliament with extraordinary celerity. There was an opposition, alert and informed; but it was ineffective. Burke spoke eloquently against the Boston port bill, condemning it roundly for punishing the innocent with the guilty, and showing how likely it was to bring grave consequences in its train. He was heard with respect and his pleas were rejected. The bill passed both houses without a division, the entry “unanimous” being made upon their journals although it did not accurately represent the state of opinion. The law destroying the charter of Massachusetts passed the Commons by a vote of three to one; and the third intolerable act by a vote of four to one. The triumph of the ministry was complete. “What passed in Boston,” exclaimed the great jurist, Lord Mansfield, “is the overt act of High Treason proceeding from our over lenity and want of foresight.” The crown and Parliament were united in resorting to punitive measures.

In the colonies the laws were received with consternation. To the American Protestants, the Quebec Act was the most offensive. That project they viewed not as an act of grace or of mercy but as a direct attempt to enlist French Canadians on the side of Great Britain. The British government did not grant religious toleration to Catholics either at home or in Ireland and the Americans could see no good motive in granting it in North America. The act was also offensive because Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia had, under their charters, large claims in the territory thus annexed to Quebec.

To enforce these intolerable acts the military arm of the British government was brought into play. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces in America, General Gage, was appointed governor of Massachusetts. Reinforcements were brought to the colonies, for now King George was to give “the rebels,” as he called them, a taste of strong medicine. The majesty of his law was to be vindicated by force.

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