Committees of Correspondence
Updated: May 15, 2022
"Be it resolved, that a standing Committee of Correspondence and inquiry be appointed to consist of eleven Persons...whose business it shall be to obtain the most early and Authentic intelligence of all such Acts and Resolutions of the British Parliament, or proceedings of Administration, as may relate to or affect the British Colonies in America, and to keep up and maintain a Correspondence and Communication with our Sister Colonies, respecting these important considerations."
Journal of the House of Burgess of Virginia, March 12, 1773
The death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide protests that seemed to happen spontaneously overnight. Much of this was due to the ability of activists to swiftly organize and distribute information on social media. Individuals were able to utilize social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to comment on and share information as well as connect easily with other like-minded people. People were informed of the issues of police brutality and systemic racism. Almost immediately, media campaigns were launched pressuring government entities and businesses. This was not an isolated case. One just has to look at the 2017 Women's March and the 2019 Egyptian protests to see the important role social media has as a driver of modern-day social movements.
Yet social media has only been around for a relatively short time. How were protest movements organized and sustained in the past? Actually not much has changed other than the speed at which a protest can evolve. Sociologists studying the sit-ins of the 1960's evaluated the importance of three main factors in the diffusion of protesting. These were the presence of an organization, the use of a social network, and the role of the news media. All of these were present in colonial America in the decade prior to the American Revolution. There were a number of organized groups working in opposition to British actions in the colonies. Most notable of these were the Sons of Liberty. Newspapers had a vital role in promoting agitation against British policies. The problem became how to create a co-ordinated colony-wide movement. The answer: the Committees of Correspondence.
The primary role of the committees of correspondence was one of communication. Men like Samuel Adams understood the importance of a well-informed populace. The committees distributed information, especially from urban areas to the colonial hinterland, regarding the pertinent issues and opened dialogues about proposed responses. Over time, the committees evolved into the means of rallying opposition for common causes and the planning of coordinated actions against unpopular British policies.
The concept of the committee of correspondence was not unknown in colonial America. Colonial legislatures often established a committee as a link between the colony and Britain. The Virginia House of Burgess created a long-existing committee in order to keep open the channel of communication between themselves and an appointed agent in London who looked after colonial interests. Most of these early committees were temporarily created to meet a particular issue. Once a crisis was resolved, the committees were disbanded. One of the first committees to form in direct opposition to British policies occurred in 1764. Boston set up a committee of correspondence whose goal was to formulate a response to the Currency Act (which regulated paper money issued in the colonies) and other reforms imposed on the customs service.
The following year, in 1765, both New York City and Boston set up committees to oppose the Stamp Act. The actions of these committees resulted in the gathering of the Stamp Act Congress. The congress was the first time that the colonies presented a unified front against Great Britain. The colonists would successfully force the repeal of the Stamp Act. Even though the committees were disbanded soon after the repeal, the Stamp Act crisis proved the success of collective organization against perceived oppression by the British government and demonstrated the power of the committees of correspondence. So much so, they would be called upon again to meet the worsening tensions between mother country and colony.
The next big crisis came in 1772. The governor of the Massachusetts colony declared that high government officials would now be paid by the British crown rather than through the appropriations approved by the colonial House of Representatives. These officials would no longer be held accountable to the people of the colony.
In response, Samuel Adams, writing under a pseudonym for the Boston Gazette, called for the establishment of new committees of correspondence in order to, as he put it, "Let Associations & Combinations be everywhere set up to consult and recover our just Rights". The Boston Committee of Correspondence was set up in November of 1772. Right from the beginning, it operated differently from previous committees. First, it was a standing committee. In other words, it was autonomous. It answered to no other authority, and it alone decided when it should disband. Second, it conducted its business in secret to prevent influence from outside forces. Lastly, it had the ability to break down into sub-committees to address multiple issues. These characteristics made it an agile agent in promoting the colonial cause. Out of their initial work, the committee produced a pamphlet to be distributed throughout the colony. It was entitled Votes and Proceedings of the Freeholders and Other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston.
This pamphlet changed the dynamic of the conversation regarding the relationship between Britain and the colonies. The first two parts, as was tradition, reconfirmed the rights of British subjects and outlined the grievances of the colony. But the third part, instead of appealing to a higher British authority such as Parliament or the Crown, the pamphlet appeals directly to Boston's fellow colonists. It is here that the committee exhorts the people of Massachusetts to come together and organize in opposition to a common threat. It asked for “free communication of your sentiments to this town, of our common danger”. Within months other towns and villages in the colony were establishing committees of correspondence, and so began a formal exchange of information and ideas that would lead to a cohesive response to the British Crown. The Votes and Proceedings pamphlet would be the model utilized to energize communities from New England down the Atlantic seaboard to the Carolinas. By March 1773, Virginia set up its own committee of correspondence following the example of Massachusetts. Virginia was soon followed by Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. By the spring of 1774, eleven colonies joined the network of correspondence.
One of the first tests of the committees' effectiveness came in the winter of 1773 during the tea crisis. Since 1767 there was a duty on tea and earlier in 1773, the Tea Act made smuggling more difficult. The East India Company planned on flooding the colonies with a surplus of tea. In November, three ships arrived in Boston. Colonists prevented the unloading of the ships, but officials demanded the duty be paid or the goods seized. Tensions mounted over the next two weeks that culminated with the famous Boston Tea Party on December 16th. The Boston Committee of Correspondence, led by Samuel Adams, was instrumental in organizing the "tea party". Samuel Adams had called upon the other towns to be in "readiness in the most resolute manner to assist this Town in their efforts for saving this oppressed country”.
News of the tea party spread through the vast network of committees to every part of the colonies. The British government responded by essentially shutting down the port of Boston. This galvanized the colonial opposition. In May 1774, leading New Yorkers gathered at Fraunces Tavern to discuss the latest affront to their rights. A committee was formed "to consult on measures proper to be pursued on the present critical and important situation." Similar happenings were occurring throughout the colonies. Two avenues of action emerged as committees communicated with one another. First, they organized non-importation agreements. Second, it was decided that it was "an absolute necessity of a general and firm union of sister colonies to preserve common liberties." Through the efforts of the Maryland Committee of Correspondence, there was a call for a congress to meet in Philadelphia. At the end of summer 1774, twelve colonies had selected delegates for the First Continental Congress.
The committees of correspondence were the social network by which news, intelligence, and propaganda were distributed across the American colonies. On the eve of the Revolution, the committees moved beyond this function. They facilitated the coordination of a unified resistance against Great Britain. They built a foundation for colonial unity and promoted the debating of ideas. Mercy Warren Otis ( 1728 - 1814) was a woman writer and political observer who was friends with Abigail Adams and Martha Washington. In her 1804 book History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, she wrote "Perhaps no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies, and the final acquisition of independence, as the establishment of committees of correspondence."
Indeed, the committees of correspondence acted as the social media of the 18th century.
The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763 - 1789: Robert Middlekauff
1776: David McCullough
The Radicalism of the American Revolution: Gordon S. Wood
Paul Revere's Ride: David Hackett Fischer