Committees of Correspondence

They were members not of one civilization, but three — New England, the South, and the Middle Colonies. They differed in religion, in past politics (Cavalier or Puritan), in form of government, and in economic interests. They even differed in their original demographics, which had shaped them in different ways. New England (like Oregon, later) had been settled by families, sometimes by transplanted communities; the South (like California, later) had been settled by wild young men seeking to make their fortunes. And, in social makeup as in geography, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were in the middle.

It took a lot of doing to turn thirteen colonies into one fledgling nation. History had left them a legacy of mutual suspicions and misunderstandings. But under the pressure of events, representatives of the colonies learned to share information with one another and then, gradually, to meet, understand each other as representatives of their respective regions, work together, make common plans, and carry out those plans. Learning to work together and to depend upon one another meant overcoming all those differences, a process that was fueled by certain commercial interests, and concrete resentment of a high-handed and distant government, and was bolstered by the political theory all these men had learned as young Englishmen.

But, one by one, England’s actions seemed to imperil the autonomous status the colonies had taken for granted for a century and a half, until the colonists began to think of themselves less as thirteen equally sovereign entities and more as one entity faced with a common peril. It was a long road. The first step, arguably, was the creation of committees of correspondence.

Samuel Adams was in at the beginning of the movement, as in so many things connected to the revolution, and so was Dr. Joseph Warren. Very early on, they recognized that if they were to gain popular support, they would have to influence the town meetings held throughout Massachusetts, which, of course were initially dominated by Loyalists. In November, 1772, they persuaded the Boston town meeting to create a standing Committee of Correspondence, in order to (among other things) prepare “a letter to be sent to all the towns of this province and to the world, giving the sense of this town.” Its first communication was a list of grievances against Britain, along with a request that their views be supported and that “a free communication of your sentiments to this town, of our common danger” be returned.

Among the grievances listed were

that Parliament had assumed power of legislation for the colonists without their consent;

that it had raised illegal revenues;

that tax collectors had been appointed by the Crown, rather than, as hitherto, by the province;

that the tax collectors were “entrusted with power too absolute and arbitrary,”

that the king was using tax revenue to pay provincial government officers, “making them dependent on him, in violation of the charter,”

etc.

In response, most Massachusetts towns joined in establishing a network of Committees of Correspondence throughout the colony.

The Virginians followed a few months later, in March, 1773, establishing an eleven-man permanent Committee of Correspondence, among whose members were Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. The cooperative spirit prevalent in colonial society was naturally receptive to the idea. Other colonies followed the lead of the two most populous and most influential colonies, and by the following year, such committees were functioning in all thirteen colonies, acting as a sort of non-electronic internet to keep each other informed.

It is estimated that in all between 7,000 and 8,000 men served as delegates at the local and colony level on the various committees. The committees gradually extended their power over many aspects of American public life, until they became shadow governments, superseding colonial legislatures and royal officials.

These committees enabled the leading statesmen of the various colonies to get to know one another virtually, prior to the call for the Continental Congress in 1774 that allowed many of them to meet in the physical. That First Continental Congress, as we have seen, called for the Second Continental Congress to convene in May, 1775, by which time the events at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, had moved things far beyond what anyone had anticipated. After that point, in 1774 and 1775, local committees supervised the elections of provincial conventions, which took over the actual operation of colonial government.

Meanwhile the Second Continental Congress became the coordinating body during the revolution, and morphed into something between a permanent alliance and a sort of super-government with the passage of the Article of Confederation.

The Committees of Correspondence were not the voice of the majority; but they were loud, vigorous, and coordinated. With time, and in response to the pressure of events, the committees moved from being a network of communication to being provisional governments. The French say, it’s the first step that counts. The Committees of Correspondence, in their collective impact, were that first step.

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