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1774 Two Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

The Party’s Over

In London, during the spring of 1774, Parliament enacted four punitive laws in response to December’s Boston Tea Party. In the wake of that shocking riot, most Britons saw the Bostonians as spoiled children, and the government’s program was meant to give them the spanking they deserved. After all, hadn’t Britain established the colonies, nurtured them from birth, and sustained them during their long era of unprofitability? Had they not clung to the skirts of the mother country during the recent French and Indian War? Yet ever since, they had balked at paying their share of the expenses.

Moreover, the colonists were protected by the world’s mightiest navy and benefited from Britain’s centuries of experience in statecraft. Despite all this, they talked of autonomy, even independence. And now they had not merely protested, not merely smuggled, not merely boycotted, but wantonly destroyed £9,000 worth of private property. The time had come for Britain to put its foot down.

The government’s first and most draconian response was the Boston Port Act, passed on March 31. It prohibited the loading and unloading of goods in Boston’s waters (except food and fuel brought from other colonial ports) until the town paid for the tea it had destroyed. On May 20 came the Massachusetts Government Act, which replaced the colony’s elected council with an appointed one, gave the royal governor power to select judges, and banned town meetings—even in the remotest village—without permission from the governor.

The Administration of Justice Act, passed the same day, allowed government agents accused of capital crimes in Massachusetts to be tried in other colonies or even in Britain. The intent was to protect them from being railroaded by hostile townsmen, even though local juries had acquitted the Boston Massacre’s perpetrators just a few years before. And finally the Quartering Act, enacted on June 2 and applicable in all the colonies, allowed the governor or military authorities to requisition buildings to lodge soldiers, with private houses exempted and payment of a fair rent required.

All four acts passed with overwhelming majorities. Still, amid the patriotic bluster a few dissenters could be heard. The ailing William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, came to the House of Lords for the first time in two years to urge “a more gentle mode of governing America; for the day is not far distant, when America may vie with these kingdoms, not only in arms, but in arts also.” A decade earlier, as Commons leader, Pitt had brought about a great expansion of Britain’s colonial empire. But now—aging, politically isolated, and racked with gout—he was a man of the past, and his arguments were hooted at by his lordly colleagues.

In the House of Commons Gen. John Burgoyne, who three years later would be defeated at Saratoga, counseled a policy of moderation. He too was shouted down. Edmund Burke, a founder of Anglo-American conservatism and no admirer of revolutionaries, argued for a repeal of the tax on tea, thundering: “When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunter. If ... sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast sovereignty in your face. Nobody will be argued into slavery.” The eloquent Burke, whose views may have been colored by his position as London agent for the colony of New York, was at least given the courtesy of a patient listening, but ultimately he was brushed aside like the others.

The government expected the show of force to end its American troubles. Other colonies, it was thought, would scramble to siphon off Boston’s commerce, just as they had during the recent and unsuccessful nonimportation movement. Bereft of support, the rebels would quickly cave in. Once they were suppressed, the spirit of discontent would wither away, and the colonists’ petty grievances would be forgotten in the return to general prosperity. The Boston Tea Party had been distressing, to be sure, but in the end it would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Now, at last, His Majesty’s government could unleash its full power and expose the Boston rioters as the isolated band of malcontents that they were.

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