Solemn League and Covenant — Boston's Response to the Intolerable Acts

June 5, 1774

The Solemn League and Covenant was an agreement designed by Patriot leaders in Boston in response to the Boston Port Act. It was intended to stop all trade between the towns in Massachusetts and merchants in Great Britain and was a precursor to the Continental Association.

Solemn League and Covenant, Boston, 1774

Joseph Warren (top) and Samuel Adams (bottom) are widely believed to have written the Boston version of the Solemn League and Covenant.

Solemn League and Covenant Facts

  • The Solemn League and Covenant was created by the Boston Committee of Correspondence in June 1774.
  • It organized a trade embargo — non-importation and non-exportation — against Great Britain, as a formal protest against the Boston Port Act.
  • The agreement was controversial and was initially opposed by both Patriots and Loyalists, although many towns, including Boston, eventually accepted it.
  • Many of the towns that accepted it, including Worcester and Braintree, made adjustments, so the agreement was inconsistent.
  • The Solemn League and Covenant was superseded by the Continental Association, which was established by the First Continental Congress.

Important Dates and Events

  • The Boston Port Act received Royal Assent on March 31, 1774, and was to be enforced starting June 1, 1774.
  • A copy of the text arrived in Boston on May 10 and was printed in the newspapers on May 12.
  • A Town Meeting was held in Boston on May 13 and resolved to establish a non-importation/non-exportation agreement until the Boston Port Act was repealed. A committee was created to draft the agreement.
  • The Solemn League and Covenant was presented to the Boston Committee of Correspondence on June 5 and sent to the towns in Boston on June 8.
  • The Continental Association was signed by 53 delegates to the First Continental Congress on October 20, 1774.
Boston Tea Party, Illustration, Currier
The Boston Port Act was enacted to punish Boston for the Boston Tea Party. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Solemn League and Covenant Significance

The Solemn League and Covenant was significant because it contributed to the formation of the First Continental Congress, the first organized American government. It was also a precursor to the Continental Association, which organized and enforced a non-importation and non-exportation agreement against Great Britain.

Solemn League and Covenant Overview and History

Following the passage of the Boston Port Act, Patriot leaders in Boston worked to organize opposition to the closure of the Port of Boston. 

The Boston Town Meeting Suggests a Trade Embargo

On May 13, 1774, a Town Meeting was held in Boston, where the participants agreed to a resolution to stop imports and exports — a trade embargo — with British merchants. 

The meeting resolved:

“That it is the opinion of this town, that if the other, Colonies come, into a joint resolution to stop all importation from Great Britain, and exportations to Great Britain, and every part of the West Indies, till the Act for blocking up this harbour be repealed, the same will prove the salvation of North America and her liberties. On the other hand, if they continue their exports and imports, there is high reason to fear that fraud, power, and the most odious oppression, will rise triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom.”

Trade embargoes such as what the Town Meeting agreed to had been used by the larger cities and colonies in the past to successfully protest the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Acts.

A committee was formed to draft a circular letter to send to the “…towns… of this province and to the several colonies, acquainting them with the present state of affairs.” The committee included prominent Patriot leaders such as Samuel Adams, John Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Josiah Quincy Jr. John Rowe, a wealthy merchant was also a member of the committee.

John Adams, 2nd President, Portrait, Trumbull
John Adams. Image Source: White House Historical Association.

Paul Revere also took copies of the resolutions and delivered them to Committees of Correspondence in New York City and Philadelphia.

Thomas Gage Arrives in Massachusetts

General Thomas Gage arrived at Castle William on the same day this meeting was held. Four days later, on May 17, he landed at the Long Wharf in Boston and took control of Massachusetts, succeeding Thomas Hutchinson as Governor.

As Gage acquainted himself with the city and the key people he would have to deal with, Admiral John Montagu worked to organize the blockade of Boston Harbor that would close the Port of Boston down, per the Boston Port Act. 

Rhode Island Supports Massachusetts and the Origin of the First Continental Congress

On May 17, the Providence Town Meeting declared its support for Boston and the establishment of a trade embargo. In a letter sent to the Committees of Correspondence throughout the colonies, Providence said:

“…universal stoppage of all trade with Great Britain, Ireland, Africa, and the West Indies, until such time as the port of Boston shall be reinstated in its former privileges, &c˙, will be the best expedient in the case…”

However, Providence also called for “…a Congress…of the Representatives of the General Assemblies of the several Colonies and Provinces in North America, for establishing the firmest Union, and adopting such measures as to them shall appear the most effectual to answer that important purpose, and to agree upon proper methods for executing the same.”

With this, Portsmouth set in motion the series of events that led to the First Continental Congress. Philadelphia agreed to the Congress on May 21, followed by New York on May 23, and Virginia on May 27. Between June 15 and August 25, 12 of the 13 colonies agreed to send delegates to the Congress.

The Boston Port Act Goes Into Effect

The closure of the Port of Boston went into effect on June 1. On that day, Americans protested the move. In New York City, British officials were burned in effigy, while the church bells rang and shops owners covered their windows in Hartford, Connecticut.

Boston Learns About More Intolerable Acts

The next day, June 2, news arrived that Parliament was working on another law to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. Known as the Massachusetts Government Act, it dramatically altered the system of government in the colony by eliminating Town Meetings and moving the seat of government to Salem. It also replaced elections for the members of the Governor’s Council with members who were appointed by the Crown through a Writ of Mandamus. Because of this, the men appointed by the Crown were known as “Mandamus Councillors.”

On June 5, Joseph Warren introduced the draft of the agreement to the Boston Committee of Correspondence. Known as the “Solemn League and Covenant,” it was to start on August 31, 1775, and Patriot leaders threatened to publicly announce the names of anyone who violated the agreement by printing them in the newspapers.

On June 8, the Committee of Correspondence sent a letter to the towns on June 8 that said:

“…if we universally come into a solemn league, not to import goods from Great Britain, and not to buy any goods that shall hereafter be imported from thence, until our grievances shall be redressed. To these, or even to the lease of these shameful impositions, we trust in God, our countrymen never will submit.”

Further, it gave the recipients the impression that the trade embargo had already been agreed to by many people in Massachusetts:

“We have received such assurances from our brethren in every part of the province of their readiness to adopt such measures as may be likely to save our country, that we have not the least doubt of an almost universal agreement for this purpose…”

The letter included a copy of the Solemn League and Covenant which each town was expected to sign the document and for it to “be subscribed by all adult persons of both sexes…”

Patriot Opposition to the Solemn League and Covenant

However, the Boston Committee of Correspondence made a significant mistake in assuming the towns, including Boston, would support the Solemn League and Covenant without discussion. There was immediate opposition to the letter, even from people who supported the Patriot Cause. 

Some of the Committees of Correspondence in the towns responded to the Boston Committee and asked for clarification about the Solemn League and Covenant. 

Some of them also felt the Boston Committee was dictating what they were supposed to do, instead of asking for their opinion on how to proceed. Others believed a trade embargo was pointless. Further, some merchants had shipments of imports and exports en route and they could not be canceled by August 31.

On June 10, the Boston Committee sent another letter apologizing for the June 8 letter and clarifying what they were asking the towns to do:

“We have thought it necessary to inform our respectable fellow countrymen, that the committee, neither in this or any other matter mean to dictate to them, but are humbly of opinion, that if they keep to the spirit of that covenant, and solemnly engage not to purchase any goods which shall be imported from Great Britain after the time stipulated, and agree to suspend dealing with such persons as shall persist in counteracting the salutary design, by continuing to import or purchase British articles so imported, the end we proposed will be fully answered, and the salvation of North-America, under providence, thereby insured.”

On June 13, the Worcester Committee of Correspondence sent a letter to the other committees. Worcester supported the trade embargo, but also wrote its own version, known as the “Worcester Covenant.”

While some towns adopted the Boston version, others, including Pittsfield, adopted the Worcester version (See John Brown, ‘Pittsfield Adopts the Worcester Covenant’ and ‘Berkshire County Convention Solemn League and Covenant’).

Despite the initial reaction, the Solemn League and Covenant gained the support the Patriot leaders were looking for. On June 20, an article in the Boston Gazette said, “The present aspect of affairs is highly favorable to the liberties of America. The whole continent seems inspired by one soul, and that soul a rigorous and determined one.”

Loyalist Opposition to the Solemn League and Covenant

While most Patriots eventually came to support the Solemn League and Covenant, Loyalists voiced their opposition.

On June 27, a Town Meeting was held at Faneuil Hall. As with many important Town Meetings, so many people showed up the meeting had to be moved to Old South Meeting House. During the meeting, which was led by Samuel Adams, a motion was made for all the letters of the Committees of Correspondence regarding the Solemn League and Covenant to be read out loud.

Old South Meeting House, Interior, Illustration, NYPL
This illustration depicts the interior of the Old South Meeting House. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

William Cooper, the clerk, was reading the letters when a Loyalist made a motion to stop reading the letters, censure the Boston Committee of Correspondence for its conduct, and “annihilate” the Committee:

“A Motion was made & passed, That all Letters received as well as the Answers returned, be laid before the Town and read —

After the Town Clerk had accordingly read a Number of Letters, a Motion was made that the said Vote be so far Reconsidered, as that the Reading of all other Letters previous to the Covenant sent into the Country by the Com̄ittee of Correspondence, & the Letters accompanying the same, be suspended for the present, & that the Town proceed to the Reading of said Letter & Covenant, & any other Letters that may be particularly called for —

The said Covenant & a Number of Letters having been read, a Motion was made, that some Censure be now passed By the Town on the Conduct of the Com̄ittee of Correspondence; and that said Committee be annihilated.”

At that point, Adams was removed as chairman and replaced by Thomas Cushing. The Loyalists who opposed the Solemn League and Covenant were allowed to speak. Once they were finished, the meeting adjourned, and agreed to reconvene the next day.

In his diary, John Rowe criticized the Boston Committee of Correspondence, saying: “The Debates very warm on both sides — I think are wrong. I mean the Committee are wrong in the matter. The Merchants have taken up against them, they have in my Opinion exceeded their Power & the Motion was put that they be dismissed.” 

On June 29 two protests against the Solemn League and Covenant were drawn up. One of them was signed by 128 people, while the other was signed by only eight.

Ultimately, the work of the Boston Committee of Correspondence was approved by the people, and the members were told to “…persevere with their usual activity and firmness, and continue steadfast in the way of well-doing.”

Thomas Gage Responds to the Solemn League and Covenant

On June 29, Governor Gage issued a proclamation that ordered the arrest of anyone who signed the Solemn League and Covenant, and anyone who was caught asking others to sign it.

Thomas Gage, Portrait, Copley
Thomas Gage. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Solemn League and Covenant Spreads to Other Colonies

While the Boston Committee had been absolved of coercion by Worcester, and its actions were approved by the people of Boston, there was still one significant problem with the Solemn League and Covenant. While towns, and even counties, agreed to the trade embargo, many of them altered the language of the Solemn League and Covenant.

Others, including the town of Braintree, also indicated they would abide by their version of the trade embargo, but would amend it, based on the actions of the First Continental Congress.

On June 30, the Massachusetts Spy reported on the Braintree agreement:

“At a town-meeting at Braintree on Monday last, where they unanimously agreed upon a covenant for non-consumption, and which was reported to the town by their committee of fifteen, chosen for that purpose, and in which, they recommended a fast to be on the 14th July next; and agreed not to purchase any goods of any kind whatever, of any pedlars or hawkers, and to put the laws in execution against them as they might have opportunity; and at the end of the covenant they had a clause to this purpose, saving to themselves the right of altering the covenant in such manner as they might think proper, after the result of the expected congress may be made public: In other respects it was much like the Worcester covenant, only the non-signers were only to be considered as practical enemies to their country: The town directed the same committee to prepare a fair copy, and circulate the same to be signed as soon as may be, and which is now circulating.”

Support for a Colonial Trade Embargo Spreads

Copies of the Solemn League and Covenant spread throughout the colonies. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Committee of Correspondence suggested a trade embargo might, “ effectual…and as the same Measures are adopted in our Sister Colonies, we recommend this as a likely means, under God, of recovering & securing to ourselves and Posterity our valuable Rights & Privileges & of preventing the horrors of civil War.”

The Portsmouth Committee drew up its own version of the Solemn League and Covenant and sent it to the towns in New Hampshire.

The First Continental Congress and the Continental Association

The First Continental Congress met for the first time on September 5, 1774. At the end of the meetings, the delegates agreed to the Articles of Association. The Articles established the Continental Association, an organization that agreed to carry out a trade embargo with Britain and to use Committees of Inspection to enforce the rules.

The Massachusetts Solemn League and Covenant of 1774

This is a version of the text of the Solemn League and Covenant that was distributed to the towns by the Boston Committee of Correspondence in June 1774.

We the Subscribers, inhabitants of the town of ________ having taken having taken into our serious consideration the precarious state of the liberties on North-America, and more especially the present distressed condition of this insulted province, embarrassed as it is by several acts of the British parliament, tending to the entire subversion of our natural and charter rights; among which is the act for blocking up the harbour of Boston: and being fully sensible of our indispensable duty to lay hold on every means in our power to preserve and recover the much injured constitution of our country; and conscious at the same time of no alternative between the horrors of slavery; or the carnage and desolation of a civil war, but a suspension of all commercial intercourse with the island of Great Britain:

Do, in the presence of God, solemnly and in good faith, covenant and engage with each other, 1st, That from henceforth we will suspend all commercial intercourse with the said island of Great Britain, until the said act for blocking up the said harbour be repealed, and a full restoration of our charter rights be obtained.  And,

2dly, That there may be the less temptation to others to continue in the said, now dangerous commerce, we do in like manner solemnly covenant that we will not buy, purchase or consume, or suffer any person, by, for or under us to purchase or consume, in any manner whatever, any goods, wares or merchandize which shall arrive in America from Great Britain aforesaid, from and after the last day of August next ensuing.  And in order as much as in us lies to prevent our being interrupted and defeated in this only peaceable measure, entered into for the recovery and preservation of our rights, we agree to break off all trade, commerce and dealings whatever with all persons, who perfering their own private interest to the salvation of their now perishing country, shall still continue to import goods from Great Britain, or shall purchase of those who do import.

3dly, That such persons may not have it in their power to impose upon us by any pretence whatever, we further agree to purchase no article of merchandize from them, or any of them, who shall not have signed this, or a similar covenant, or will not produce an oath, certified by a magistrate to be by them taken to the following purpose: viz. 

I _________ of _________ in the county of __________ do solemnly swear that the goods I have now on hand, and propose for sale, have not, to the best of my knowledge, been imported from Great Britain, into any port of America since the last day of August, one thousand seven hundred and seventy four, and that I will not, contrary to the spirit of an agreement entering into through this province import or purchase of any person so importing any goods as aforesaid, until the port or harbour of Boston, shall be opened, and we are fully restored to the free use of our constitutional and charter rights.  And,

Lastly, we agree, that after this, or a similar covenant has been offered to any person and they refuse sign it, or produce the oath, abovesaid, we will consider them as contumacious importers, and withdraw all commercial connexions with them, so far as not to purchase of them, any article whatever, and publish their names to the world.

Witness our hands, June, 1774.

Solemn League and Covenant APUSH Definition and Review

The definition of the Solemn League and Covenant for APUSH is a declaration made by the people of Boston and Massachusetts in response to the Intolerable Acts imposed by the British Parliament following the Boston Tea Party. It agreement called for a united and nonviolent resistance to the Boston Port Act and urged colonists to boycott British goods. Although many cities, towns, and colonies agreed to some version of the Solemn League and Covenant, it was replaced by the Continental Association, which was established by the First Continental Congress.

Solemn League and Covenant APUSH Resources

Use these resources and videos to study the Solemn League and Covenant, First Continental Congress, and the Intolerable Acts for the AP US History Exam. 

Intolerable Acts

First Continental Congress

Continental Association

Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

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Citation Information

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  • Article Title Solemn League and Covenant — Boston's Response to the Intolerable Acts
  • Date June 5, 1774
  • Author
  • Keywords Solemn League and Covenant, Boston Committee of Correspondence, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, John Adams, Josiah Quincy Jr., Boston Port Act, Intolerable Acts, John Rowe, Thomas Gage, Worcester Covenant, First Continental Congress, Continental Association
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 10, 2024