British repress colony: others rally to its aid

A fateful crisis now confronted Britain. The East India Company had carried out a Parliamentary statute. If the destruction of the tea went unheeded, Parliament would admit to the world that its authority over the colonies was nil. Official opinion in Britain almost unanimously condemned the Boston "Tea Party" as an act of vandalism and gave whole-hearted support to the measures proposed to bring the insurgent colonists into line. These took the shape of a series of laws which were called by the colonists "Coercive Acts." The first one, the Boston Port Bill, closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for. This action threatened the very life of the city, for to exclude Boston from the sea meant disaster. Soon after, other bills gave the King the right to appoint Massachusetts councilors, formerly elected; and jurors, hitherto chosen by town meetings, were thereafter to be summoned by sheriffs, agents of the governor. Town meetings would, thenceforth, be held only with the governor's permission, and the appointment and removal of judges and sheriffs were also to be in his hands. A Quartering Act was passed requiring local authorities to find suitable quarters for British soldiers. If they did not fulfill their duty, it would be legal for the governor to direct the use of inns, alehouses, and other buildings for that purpose. The Quebec Act, passed at nearly the same time, was also viewed with hostility for it extended the boundaries of the province of Quebec, and guaranteed the right of the French inhabitants to enjoy religious freedom and their own legal customs. This act the colonists opposed because, disregarding old charter claims to western lands, it generally threatened to interfere with westward movement and seemed to hem them in to the north and northwest by a Roman Catholic-dominated absolutist province. Though the Quebec Act had not been passed as a punitive measure, it was classed by the Americans with the Coercive Acts and all became known as the "Five Intolerable Acts."

These, instead of subduing Massachusetts, as they had been planned to do, brought her sister colonies rallying to her aid. At the suggestion of the Virginia Burgesses, colonial representatives were summoned to meet in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, "to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies." This meeting was the first Continental Congress, an extralegal body chosen by provincial congresses, or popular conventions, and instructed by them. This meant that the patriot party, which favored extralegal action, was in control of the situation, and that extreme conservatives who would have nothing to do with resistance to British laws were not represented. Otherwise the membership of the Congress was a fair cross-section of American opinion-both extreme and moderate. Every colony save Georgia sent at least one delegate, and the total number of fifty-five was large enough for diversity of opinion, but small enough for genuine debate and effective action.

In view of division of opinion in the colonies, the Congress faced a distressing dilemma: it must give an appearance of firm unanimity to persuade the British government into concessions and, at the same time, avoid any show of radicalism or "spirit of independence" that would alarm moderate Americans. A cautious keynote speech was followed by a "resolve" declaring that no obedience was due the Coercive Acts. Then there was addressed to the people of Great Britain and the colonies a Declaration of Rights and Grievances and, in addition, a petition to the King, which summed up anew the traditional arguments of American protest while conceding parliamentary regulation of external commerce and strictly imperial affairs. The most important work of the Congress, however, was the formation of the "Association," which provided for a revival of trade-boycott and for a system of inspection committees in every town or county to supervise nonimportation, nonexportation, and nonconsumption. Committees were charged to inspect customs entries, to publish the names of merchants who violated the agreements, to confiscate their importations, and even to "encourage frugality, economy, and industry."

The "Association" introduced an organized revolutionary element into the controversy. Building upon foundations laid by the "Committees of Correspondence," the new local organizations everywhere assumed leadership of affairs. They spearheaded drives to end what remained of royal authority. They intimidated the hesitant into joining the popular movement and ruthlessly punished the hostile. They began the collection of military supplies and the mobilization of troops. They fanned public opinion.