January 10, 2012 essays

Committees of Correspondence and the Road to American Independence

The story of the American Revolution’s prelude continues with the emergence of Committees of Correspondence among the colonists.

We have seen how Parliament repealed most of the Townshend duties in April 1770, retaining only a nominal tax on tea for the symbolic purpose of reaffirming parliamentary sovereignty, i.e., the right to tax Americans at its own discretion.

This partial repeal caused problems for the American nonimportation movement. Many merchants had agreed to continue their boycott until all the duties had been repealed, but some merchants now had second thoughts. When New Yorkers decided to limit their boycott to tea, the one item still taxed, a committee of Philadelphia merchants responded with indignation:

You have certainly weakened that union of the colonies on which their safety depends. We cannot forbear telling you, that however you may color your proceedings, we think you have in the day of trial deserted the cause of liberty and your country.

This protest accomplished nothing. New York merchants resumed trade with England, and they were followed by merchants in Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and other colonies. By October 1770, even Bostonians had given up the ghost. Trade with England flourished, as Americans replenished their depleted stocks. The great nonimportation movement was dead.

The two years following the breakdown of nonimportation have been called “the period of quiet,” “the period of calm,” “the period of American disunity,” and even “the period of conservative reaction.” Historians use these labels because there was no great issue around which radicals could rally opposition to Britain.

This is not to say that Americans had suddenly become obedient British subjects. Far from it; they continued to smuggle, and they continued to use violence against customs officials.

The most famous clash during the “period of quiet” occurred off the coast of Rhode Island, when a British naval schooner, the Gaspee, ran aground in June 1772. The Gaspee was commanded by Lieutenant William Dudingston, an arrogant man who had incurred the wrath of Rhode Islanders for his zealous seizure of merchant vessels.

When the people of Providence learned that Dudingston had grounded his schooner, they sought revenge. Led by John Brown, the town’s wealthiest merchant, a party boarded the Gaspee. A British sailor described the fight.

We fired our pistols, on which they boarded us upon the starboard bow, and fired a number of small arms. Immediately, Lieutenant Dudingston (her commander) cried out, “Good God, I am done for.” He was wounded in his groin and arm.

When they had got possession of the schooner, they used the people very ill, by pinioning them, and throwing them into their boats, and refused the Lieutenant and officers any necessaries but what they had on, and not even suffered the commanding officer to have his papers, and robbed his servant of several silver spoons, and throwed his linen and apparel overboard.

We were then sent ashore. I remained on the beach; and about half past three o’clock, saw the schooner on fire.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to probe the Gaspee incident. Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, stated the intentions of the British government:

The offense is an act of high treason, that is to say, levying war against the King. It is his Majesty’s intention that the persons concerned in the burning of the Gaspee schooner, and the other violences which attended that daring insult, should be brought to England to be tried.

If convicted of high treason, those who participated in the Gaspee affair might have faced a horrible execution. In Commentaries on the Laws of England, the English jurist Sir William Blackstone, while noting that the ultimate penalty was not always enforced to the letter, wrote:

The punishment of high treason in general is very solemn and terrible. 1. That the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not be carried or walk; though usually (by connivance, at length ripened by humanity into law) a sledge or hurdle is allowed, to preserve the offender from the extreme torment of being dragged on the ground or pavement. 2. That he be hanged by the neck, and then cut down alive. 3. That his entrails be taken out and burned while he is yet alive. 4. That his head be cut off. 5. That his body be divided into four parts. 6. That his head and quarters be at the king’s disposal.  

The identities of those Rhode Islanders who had stormed the Gaspee were a matter of public knowledge, but no witnesses could be found to testify against them so the British government dropped the case. Nevertheless, many Americans were alarmed by the threat to bypass colonial courts and hold trials in England instead. This threat would soon have serious repercussions.

In the summer of 1772, on orders from the home government, Governor Thomas Hutchinson announced that his salary would henceforth be paid by the British government rather than by the Massachusetts legislature. This put control of the colonial government more firmly in British hands. More bad news arrived later that summer. Judges were also to receive permanent salaries from the Crown. This was the controversy that radicals needed to reawaken American resistance. Samuel Adams described the outrage of many Bostonians:

The news was like thunder in the ears of all but a detestable and detested few. Even those who had been inclined to think favorably of the Governor and the judges were alarmed at it; and, indeed, what honest and sensible man or woman could contemplate it without horror. We all began to shudder at the prospect of the same tragical scenes being enacted in this country which are recorded in the English history, as having been acted when their judges were the mere creatures, dependents, and tools of the Crown. Such indignation was discovered and expressed by almost everyone at so daring an insult upon a free people, that it was difficult to keep our resentment within its proper bounds.

Sam Adams now had the controversy he needed to revive the flagging spirit of resistance. He wrote in the Boston Gazette:

Is it not high time for the people of this country explicitly to declare whether they will be freemen or slaves? Let every town assemble. Let associations and combinations be everywhere set to consult and recover our just rights.

I move that a committee of correspondence be appointed, to consist of twenty-one persons, to state the rights of the Colonists and of this Province in particular, as men and Christians and as subjects; and to communicate and publish the same to the several towns and to the world as the sense of this town, with the infringement and violations thereof that have been, or from time to time may be, made.

On November 2, 1772, a town meeting approved this resolution, thereby establishing the Boston Committee of Correspondence. This was a bold step with tremendous significance. Rebuffed by their governor, Bostonians had formed an organization that operated independently of the legally established government.

Defenders of the Crown immediately recognized the revolutionary implications of the Boston Committee of Correspondence. One critic called it “the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent that ever issued from the eggs of sedition.” According to Governor Hutchinson, the Committee was composed of “deacons, atheists, and black-hearted fellows, whom one would not choose to meet in the dark.”  Some members of the Committee, Hutchinson suggested, secretly favored American independence. He was probably right.

The Boston Committee of Correspondence quickly prepared its first report. Known as the Boston Pamphlet, this report was one of the most important documents of the revolutionary era. It opened with a statement by Sam Adams:

Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: first, a right to life; secondly, a right to liberty; thirdly, to property; with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.

After presenting additional arguments supported with quotations from John Locke, Adams closed with these ominous words:

The Colonists have been branded with the odious names of traitors and rebels only for complaining of their grievances. How long such treatment will or ought to be borne, is submitted.

The second part of the Boston Pamphlet was written by Dr. Joseph Warren, who penned a list of colonial grievances, some of which would later appear in the Declaration of Independence. Among other things, Warren condemned the general warrants (also known as writs of assistance) that were used by customs officers. These general warrants, issued without probable cause and with no specification of the property to be searched, functioned as blank checks for government officials in search of contraband.

Our houses and even our bedchambers are exposed to be ransacked, our boxes, chests, and trunks broke open, ravaged, and plundered by wretches, whom no prudent man would venture to employ even as menial servants, whenever they are pleased to say they suspect there are in the house wares, etc., for which the duties have not been paid. Flagrant instances of the wanton exercise of this power, have frequently happened in this and other seaport towns. By this we are cut off from that domestic security which renders the lives of the most unhappy in some measure agreeable. Those officers may, under color of law and the cloak of a general warrant, break through the sacred rights of the Domicile, ransack men’s houses, destroy their securities, carry off their property, and with little danger to themselves commit the most horrid murders.

The Boston Pamphlet was approved at a town meeting and sent to other towns in Massachusetts. Its effect was electrifying. Some eighty towns followed Boston’s example and formed their own committees.

These developments worried Governor Hutchinson. He convened the Massachusetts Assembly and delivered a carefully reasoned speech on the sovereignty of Parliament:

I know no line that can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies. It is impossible that there should be two independent legislatures in one and the same state, for although there may be but one head, the king, yet two legislative bodies will make two governments as distinct as the Kingdoms of England and Scotland before the Union.

Hutchinson hoped to turn back the tide of rebellion with this either-or reasoning, but he miscalculated. According to John Adams, in a reply written on behalf of the Assembly, if no line could be drawn between subservience to Parliament and independence from Parliament, then the colonies were independent.

If there be no such line, the consequence is, Either that the colonies are vassals of the Parliament, or, that they are totally independent. As it cannot be supposed to have been the intentions of the parties in the compact, that we should be reduced to a state of vassalage, the conclusion is, that it was their sense, that we were thus independent.

This was a radical position, but it was not a complete declaration of American independence. John Adams denied that Americans were subservient to Parliament, but he affirmed their allegiance to the King. A few colonials, such as Benjamin Franklin, had defended this theory earlier, but it became increasingly popular after 1773. In the following year, for example, it became the foundation for Thomas Jefferson’s influential pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

With their Committees of Correspondence the people of Massachusetts had established organizations that could unify them in time of crisis. The next step was to form committees in every colony. Virginia took the lead in this endeavor.

After the Gaspee incident, as we have seen, the British government expressed its intention to move trials on some colonial matters to England. This encroachment on colonial rights alarmed Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and other members of the Virginia legislature. In March 1773, this legislature erected a permanent Committee of Correspondence and invited other colonies to follow suit. Within a year, all had agreed.

To appreciate the revolutionary significance of these committees, we need to understand that royally appointed governors could dissolve the provincial assemblies in most of the colonies, and that governors frequently exercised this power during crises to dampen anti-government protests. The Committees of Correspondence defied this power by establishing standing committees, i.e., committees that continued to function even when the provincial assemblies were not in session. Committees of Correspondence could thereby mobilize public opinion and coordinate resistance activities at will, without official sanction.

An intercolonial organization was now in place to deal with a future crisis that was not long in coming. It involved the unrepealed symbolic tax from the Townshend duties: the tax on tea.