Administration of Justice Act (1774)

The “Administration of Justice Act” was one of the so-called Intolerable Acts which, as a group, went a long way to precipitating the War of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

More specifically, and according to this rather brief Wiki link, the Act was to “assure a fair trial despite the prejudices of local juries, . . . (and) granted a change of venue to another British colony or Great Britain in trials of officials charged with a crime growing out of their enforcement of the law or suppression of riots”.

To my mind this hardly seems egregious. Indeed, it seems rather fair and high-minded, anticipating features of a more enlightened set of laws, i.e. guaranteeing a fair trial even if it inconveniences the state.

My question, then, is why was this so “intolerable”?

Yale link to text

Basicaly, England was pissed over the Boston Tea Party and wanted to protect those charged with enforcing the Intolerable Acts from the people affected by the acts. Specifically, it allowed officials who killed people in the process of collecting taxes or possibly supressing another Tea Party to shop venues, to be tried overseas where the judiciary would be more friendly to them.

At least, that’s my layman’s take.

The exact Text of the Act.

In sum, the local Governor could toss out any criminal charge against any Crown official upon his say-so.

Local courts were nullified. It is obviously an open door to every abuse.

Bosda, where does it say the governor could toss out the charges? I only see provisions for the transfer of charges to other courts in other colonies or in England?

Sorry, regular legalese is bad enough; 18th Century legalese…

After the Boston Massacre (5 March 1770), the British soldiers were tried by a local court. The jury did a fine job, the commander and six of the soldiers were found Not Guilty. Two were convicted, but skated out by an obscure procedure. The Americans proved there were willing and able to adminisiter justice to British officials impartially.

The A of J Act was designed to ensure local British officials could not be held accountable by the people they governed. In this way, the act was “intolerable.”

Thanks. I can see that when phrased this way, the Act would have been a bitter pill to swallow. Likewise, if people believed that what Bosda said was true (i.e. that “the local Governor could toss out any criminal charge against any Crown official upon his say-so”), then I can see where they’d view it as “intolerable”.

All in all, though, the Act still seems relatively benign to me. My bet is that much of the fuss it engendered was simply the result of a concerted and well coordinated exercise in ‘propoganda’ by the more radical residents of “Massachuset’s Bay”.

To some extent, the whole Revolution was the result of a very successful propaganda campaign, in which Samuel Adams played a vital role.

However, the act in question was part of an escalating battle between the colonists and the crown over the more fundamental issue of what the purpose of the colonies was, and to what extent could the colonists exercise control over their lives and livelihoods. With the removal of the potential for abuse of royal power being answered for in a local court, some colonists saw this as further limiting their control over their lives. The Governor could simply do as he saw fit, and so could his minions, and the colonists would have no way to limit those actions.

When a government diminishes its citizens to subjects, it runs the substantial risk of losing the title “government,” as the American Revolution proved. :eek:

If juries are refusing to abide by their oath and try the case fairly according to the evidence produced in court, whether from partiality or fear of the consequences, then the trial can and should be transferred to a jurisdiction far away. Still happens in England today.

I couldn’t find in the Act as cited at Yale any discussion that the governor could throw out charges. What I did find was Art. III can be very easily used to prevent someone from being arrested - simply claim them as a prosecutor / witness in a relevant case, then find some trivial pretext to say that they are “going to the trial” for just about any legal issue.

What I also had trouble with was that Art. I of the act was a single run-on legalistic sentence. Why have legislators seemingly never heard of a period?

Wasn’t there some sort of Punctuation Tax? :slight_smile:

Because someone might get a word in edgewise if you stop to take a breath. Worse yet, they might be able to think about what you are saying! :stuck_out_tongue: Believe me, I really wanted to cut the part that I quoted above, but it’s some of the most relevant blathering that I have read. My hat is off to the author, whoever they may have been.

Mk VII, changes of venue happen in the US as well. There are also laws allowing the accused to defend themselves against unjust law. The problem at the time was that the colonists were cut out of the political process and could not change the law for the better.

On its own, the act seems to be good law. I don’t think that we can make judgments about any law on its own, though. The act was intended to re-assert the primacy of the Crown over all law and polity in the colonies, and for that reason it was eventual named “intolerable.”

If you have a fair system of laws and justice, based on a written Constitution, with a court system that is at least somewhat independent of politics, then you can probably assume that any particular act is either a fair representation of the goals of the nation and its Constitution, or predict that it will eventually be overturned. Some take longer than others.

The Administration of Justice Act didn’t exist in such a system, nor did it reflect the prevailing attitudes of the system in existence. There was no written Constitution, and nearly 100 years after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 there was still fighting between Parliament and King; Jacobite and Whig (for want of a better term); believers in the supremacy of the “commoners” and believers in a strong leader at the top.

The monarchists saw the Act as a necessity to prevent disorder among the colonial rabble. They were infuriated that so-called “rebels” were constantly being brought to trial for various offenses and then being declared “not guilty” by judges and juries more in sympathy with the defendants than the crown. It was not only the Tea Party that brought this up; men like John Hancock were being tried for smuggling and tax evasion and going free because none of their peers liked the domination of the Crown over colonial economy.

Both the colonists and the Whigs in Parliament thought the Act was dangerous. Today, we assume that moving the venue assures impartiality, as the Act reads. In those days, both the colonists and the Whigs feared it meant an assurance of the Crown getting its own way.

George Otto Trevelyan, the eminent 19th century historian (and Whig), argued that the the colonies won the Revolution as much because the Whigs in Parliament finally overthrew the corrupt, king-worshiping Tories. I think his argument has at least some merit. In short, both Americans and Brits thought the laws were intolerable.

Very informative - thanks!

Exactly. The colonies didn’t have members of Parliament representing them. They had “virtual representation.” A member of Parliament was assigned to represent each colony, in addition to his normal district. Mind you, those guys had never actually lived in the colony they virtually represented, and most probably knew almost nothing about the colonies. It would be like if Congress drew names out of a hat, and the guy from Trenton, New Jersey was assigned the duty of representing Guam, while Topeka, Kansas got Puerto Rico, and the dude from Olympia, Washington got the Virgin Islands. You can imagine how much representation the territories would really get.

Is it really true that individual MPs were assigned to represent colonies? I never heard that before.

In fact, representation in the U.K. was far from perfect. Representation in Parliament was based on borough divisions that were archaic, uneven, and for the most part unfair. The main Tory argument against the colonial idea of “no taxation without representation” was that the colonies had representation, in that every MP had a duty to do the best for the entire country. The Whigs, of course, disagreed, and furthermore believed that the Tories had sold themselves out to the Crown, had indeed become a “King’s Party” instead of merely a more conservative parliamentary party.

If my rapidly failing memory serves me, enfranchisement was worse in the UK than in the colonies. In both places, one had to be a landowner (or possess a certain amount of savings) to have the vote, but this was much more common in the colonies then in the UK.

Practical politics and governance was in the hands of a layer of society just below the high-ranking nobility. It’s hard to equate this to current US practice; the societies are still significantly different.

Imagine, though, that to serve even as a US congressman you had to be Episcopalian, you had to study at Harvard or Yale, you had to be very wealthy, and you and your family had to have political patrons and connections. It would certainly have helped you a lot if your father or uncle were in the Senate. Since the dominant party was conservative, you also probably wanted to be friends with the current President-for-life.

Government had moved down one notch from the king in the past 100 or so years, but no more. The colonists seemed to want a government without a king and with representatives taken from the common people. For this, they were regarded half as despicable and disloyal rebels, and half as complete lunatics. Most British pundits predicted that Washington would set himself up as king, or that the United States government would collapse.