Thursday, July 4, 2013

Were They "Intolerable Acts" or "Coercive Acts?"

When I teach my U.S. Survey course or my upper-division course in the American Revolution, I often used the terms "Intolerable Acts" and "Coercive Acts" interchangeably to describe the 1774 acts by Parliament that put the people of Massachusetts on the road to revolution.  These acts--The Boston Port Bill, The Massachusetts Government Act, The Administration of Justice Act, The Quartering Act, and (sometimes) the Quebec Act--were passed in direct response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773.

But when J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame began to look for the use of the term "Intolerable Acts" in the eighteenth century, he came up empty.  In fact, the phrase "Intolerable Acts" was not used on a regular basis to describe these 1774 laws until...wait for it...1885!  And it wasn't until 1893 that the Quartering Act was included in the list of so-called "Intolerable Acts."

I am eager to point this out to my U.S. survey students this Fall.  Check out Bell's entire article at The Journal of the American Revolution.  Here is a taste:

It took another forty years before the phrase “Intolerable Acts” became a standard term for Parliament’s 1774 laws. And the impetus seems to have come from textbook writers seeking a way to organize facts for students. A History of the United States for Schools, by Alexander Johnston (1885), lists “The Four Intolerable Acts,” applying Everett’s term to the four laws 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: though authors continued to differ on whether there were four or five parliamentary bills involved, most wrote that British politicians had called those laws the “Coercive Acts” while Americans had labeled them the “Intolerable Acts.” Soon the latter became a standard historiographical term. And yet no one quoted a Revolutionary-era source.

In discussing the American Revolution, it might be convenient for us to refer to Parliament’s controversial laws of 1774 as the “Intolerable Acts.” After all, we use other terms that are latter-day coinages, such as “Boston Tea Party,” “Newburgh Conspiracy,” and “Year of the Hangman.” But we should be aware that “Intolerable Acts” isn’t how the Patriots of 1774 expressed their opposition.