MIKE KEELER: Spring 1774: Intolerable

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Francis Scott Key bridge this past week, folks in Baltimore and throughout the United States can’t help wondering – as we head into what should usually be a spring full of promise – what the future may hold with the closure of one of the largest ports in America.

The situation has some similarities with something that folks in Boston must have been worrying about 250 years ago this month. In the spring of 1774, the city must have been buzzing and anxious about the repercussions of the Tea Party that had taken place in their harbor just three months previously. The news of that protest had been spread via Committees of Correspondence down the coast to the other colonies, and citizens in at least one – New Jersey – had burned some tea in solidarity with Boston. Would others follow? Closer to home, would the citizens of Massachusetts rise in support of the Sons of Liberty, or would Loyalists to the crown demand retribution? And most importantly, once the news had made its way slowly to England, how would Parliament respond?

The answer took shape in the form of the Boston Port Act, signed by King George the 3rd on March 31, 1774. It was a two-headed monster: 1. The citizens of Boston were ordered to pay the British East India Company for the loss of the 342 chests of tea that they dumped into the harbor (worth at least $1M in today’s currency); 2. Until that happens, the port of Boston, approximately equivalent in shipping volume and passenger traffic to New York and Philadelphia, would be closed to all maritime commerce, and there would be no further “landing or discharging, lading or shipping of goods, wares and merchandise at the town and within the harbor of Boston.” The Royal Navy will enforce the blockade on the water, and British troops will be posted in the city, reporting to a newly appointed Royal Governor, Major General Thomas Gage. In effect, Boston will become an armed camp.

In that year, Easter Sunday fell on April 3, so as the good folks of Boston knelt to pray for a peaceful and profitable spring to come, they would not yet have known about the decision just taken in London. But in about a month – the time it takes to make the crossing from England  –  a ship will arrive from London bearing the terrible news that their port will be closed as of June 1. From that point on, the lives and businesses of the people of Boston will be dead in the water.

It won’t take long for the rest of the colonies to find out about it, and they will each have to decide whether to support their fellow citizens in Massachusetts. And when they do, Parliament may be shocked to find their decision to isolate and punish Boston may have backfired.

The Boston Port Act is the first of what will become known in America as the Intolerable Acts of 1774. Three more such Acts will follow shortly, and they may just ignite the fuse of Revolution…

Mike Keeler

Mike Keeler

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