27 AHMP: Committees of Correspondence: A Powerful Model for Today’s Patriot
As you know, I believe that we must learn from the past and allow the people, documents, and events surrounding America’s Founding to guide us in our mission to restore our constitutional republic. This podcast is about a powerful vehicle that the Founders used to coordinate and effectuate change prior to the revolution. That vehicle was known as a committee of correspondence.
So what is a committee of correspondence? How did the colonists use these committees to interact with other colonists and the British authorities? Just how might the British Parliament’s actions in 1774 resemble those of the United States Government in recent years? I hope that my answers to the final question will be a good example of how the response of the colonists can give us a plan of action for the future.
But before we get to that let’s learn a bit about committees of correspondence together, shall we?
Initially, committees of correspondence were groups of colonists who came together to address or resolve a specific issue. They were primarily organized, and members were selected, as a result of town meetings. For example, a committee was organized in the colony of Massachusetts Bay to urge other colonies to send representatives to the Stamp Act Congress. After the issue was resolved the committee quickly disbanded. Remember that they functioned in a time in an environment where the guarantees of liberty were fleeting and often subject to the whims of the Crown, the Parliament, and even local authorities empowered by the British. Consequently, it was unwise for a group of citizens to coalesce and continually voice their grievances to local authorities. Had they done so, those colonists might have quickly found themselves on a boat bound for the Tower of London. There were, after all no protections from unreasonable search and seizure, warrants without probable cause, arrest without indictment, let alone the rights to confront one’s accusers or speak one’s mind freely!
However, as the British Parliament continued to impose increasingly restrictive regulations and hefty taxes on the Colonies, ongoing committees of correspondence were established to communicate with one another and plan coordinated responses. The first such standing committee of correspondence was established in 1772 in the town of Boston. When you hear progressive historians and analysists lament that the revolution was driven by a small band of radical whig activitists consider the following. The large group of colonists who were present at the town meeting in Boston on November 2, 1772 unanimously agreed, as proposed by Samuel Adams “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, as Christians, and as Subjects, to communicate and publish the same to the several Towns in this Province and to the World as the sense of this Town, with the Infringements and Violations thereof that have been, or from time to time may be made – Also requesting of each Town a free communication of their Sentiments on this Subject.”
So rather than simply choosing to cry out against injustice and tyranny on an individual basis, or to create a committee that was limited to address one specific issue and then disband, the town of Boston voted to have a committee of its most prestigious and actively engaged citizens, and that committee was to directly confront the provincial governor and coordinate with the people of other towns and other colonies on an ongoing basis. So what had been created, in effect, is something akin to one of the current tea party groups or conservative groups which monitor and responds to the actions of those on the left, our elected officials, or those unelected and unaccountable members of the regulatory or bureaucratic class. But again, remember that these men were living in a time where their liberties, if they indeed existed, were subject to the whims of those in power above them. Members of that first Boston Committee of Correspondence included Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren and James Otis. These were intelligent men and powerful orators of their day who might be compared to modern day patriots such as Mark Levin or Ted Cruz.
On March 12, 1773, an ongoing committee of correspondence was also established in Virginia with the specific purpose of obtaining “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.” Pennsylvania was the last colony to establish a committee of correspondence. It did so in May, 1774.
As time passed, the network of committees of correspondence continued to grow throughout the colonies. local committees were established in small towns and large cities. These groups served as an excellent vehicle of communication with other committees, as well as individuals who lived in rural areas. Membership in committees of correspondence at the township and local level swelled to more than 7000 men at one point. Massachusetts had more than 100 committees of correspondence within the colony itself. While there was no Internet, the combination of copious numbers of these committees, and a system of express riders that quickly delivered communications between them, enabled a level of coordination that allowed them to effectively deal with a variety of issues such as interacting with provincial governors and the formation of committees of safety which oversaw local militia.
New members of standing committees were often added to a committee after being nominated by current members. The process occurred because loyalists and representatives of the Crown would, no doubt, would have disrupted any type of open election. Those committees eventually began to behave much like unofficial governments. As boycotts were organized, committees monitored merchants and publicly decried those who continued to import products from Britain. Eventually, provincial conventions were formed. After that transition, members were elected rather than nominated.
Committees of correspondence and committees of safety were ultimately responsible for moving the Colonies toward seeking independence from Britain. For example, the Maryland Committee of Correspondence initiated plans that led to the First Continental Congress. A committee of correspondence was eventually created by the Continental Congresses, itself, to communicate with other governments. Many of the founding members of committees of correspondence which represented an entire colony read like a who’s who list of the men who would later sign their names on the Declaration of Independence.
What can we learn from studying how committees of correspondence functioned? How is that knowledge applicable to the circumstances that we find ourselves in today? Immediately the power of the collective should come to mind. It was a bold step in the 1770’s for men to come together in an effort to resist the increasingly tyrannical authority which reigned over them. Although we are aware that many of our liberties are threatened, or have been taken away, we continue to have the ability to associate and speak freely – even in these times in which political correctness acts like a muzzle that causes citizens to remain silent rather than speaking their minds – we do not have fear being dragged off into the night as might have happened to the members of those committees. I would encourage you to not allow the PC crowd to influence your power of political expression. I can tell you from personal experience that insulting tweets or posts from liberals are painless, even humorous in some instances. The ability to communicate with one another via social media, as well as to coordinate our response, gives us a powerful tool. When you respond to a commentator’s call to contact your congressman, or an email asking you to sign a petition, you are acting with others in a coordinated fashion. If you don’t believe that is a powerful tool, consider a recent USA today article which said “Less than 30 posts responding to a lawmaker’s Facebook or Twitter communication is enough to cause a congressional office to take heed of the public feedback, according to 80% of congressional staffers who took part in a survey by the non-partisan Congressional Management.” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/10/14/social-media-posts-constituents-grab-congresss-attention-report-says/73831114/)
Let’s now return to focus on the work of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, and its response to one of the most intolerable of all the acts issued by the British. This committee was clearly a driving force in the colonial resistance to the tyranny levied upon the American colonies by the British Government. One of the most famous documents associated with the committee was a circular letter issued in 1774. Before discussing the circular, allow me to read it to you in its entirety:
“We have just received the copy of an Act of the British Parliament passed in the present session whereby the town of Boston is treated in a manner the most ignominious, cruel, and unjust. The Parliament have taken upon them, from the representations of our governor and other persons inimical to and deeply prejudiced against the inhabitants, to try, condemn, and by an Act to punish them, unheard; which would have been in violation of natural justice even if they had an acknowledged jurisdiction. They have ordered our port to be entirely shut up, leaving us barely so much of the means of subsistence as to keep us from perishing with cold and hunger; and it is said that [a] fleet of British ships of war is to block up our harbour until we shall make restitution to the East India Company for the loss of their tea, which was destroyed therein the winter past, obedience is paid to the laws and authority of Great Britain, and the revenue is duly collected. This Act fills the inhabitants with indignation. The more thinking part of those who have hitherto been in favour of the measures of the British government look upon it as not to have been expected even from a barbarous state. This attack, though made immediately upon us, is doubtless designed for every other colony who will not surrender their sacred rights and liberties into the hands of an infamous ministry. Now therefore is the time when all should be united in opposition to this violation of the liberties of all. Their grand object is to divide the colonies. We are well informed that another bill is to be brought into Parliament to distinguish this from the other colonies by repealing some of the Acts which have been complained of and ease the American trade; but be assured, you will be called upon to surrender your rights if ever they should succeed in their attempts to suppress the spirit of liberty here. The single question then is, whether you consider Boston as now suffering in the common cause, and sensibly feel and resent the injury and affront offered to here If you do (and we cannot believe otherwise), may we not from your approbation of our former conduct in defense of American liberty, rely on your suspending your trade with Great Britain at least, which it is acknowledged, will be a great but necessary sacrifice to the cause of liberty and will effectually defeat the design of this act of revenge. If this should be done, you will please to consider it will be, though a voluntary suffering, greatly short of what we are called to endure under the immediate hand of tyranny.
We desire your answer by the bearer; and after assuring you that, not in the least intimidated by this inhumane treatment, we are still determined to maintain to the utmost of our abilities the rights of America, we are, gentlemen, Your friends and fellow countrymen.”
While this document was referred to as a circular letter, its purpose was actually for it to be circulated throughout the colonies by express riders including Paul Revere. Revere carried this particular letter from Boston to New York and then on to Philadelphia. The letter, primarily penned by Samuel Adams, announced the closure of the Boston Port by the British until the East India Company had been reimbursed for the tea which was destroyed during the Boston Tea Party. Let’s think about that that for a minute, shall we? The British Parliament was motivated to take action because the British government was attempting to prop up a private company. Imagine that: a government with an economic interest in a privately held company. You might recall all of those companies who recently received tax payer funded bailouts from the United States Government. You know, small companies like General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Citigroup, and Bank of America? How often have you heard leftist explain in disceptively unnecessary complicated terms that there was no need to study US History because in plain English that’s just stuff connected to a to misogynistic slave-owning white guys who are long since dead and can’t possibly shed any light on what is happening today because they could not have predicted what our lives would be like. On and on the lament goes to let go of the past and focus on what is important today: maybe global warming for example. And yet perhaps the situation in our time is not all that different from 1773 after all. I have to say that in both the later portion of the colonial period, as well as today, there is a belief held by those in power that anyone who dares to challenge authority, be that an individual or a group such as a provincial assembly, the Congressional Republican Caucus, or basically any type of conservative group must be penalized so as to maintain control. While the sanctions imposed by the British upon the town of Boston were harsh, such punitive actions by a governmental body smack of recent behavior by the IRS, the NSA, and perhaps even the Justice Department don’t you agree? Adams cautioned readers of the circular letter that restrictions included in the act were just the beginning. While the Boston Port Act prevented delivery of even subsistence level provisions to the good citizens of Boston, rumors abounded that the Parliament planned to ease restrictions and regulations on more compliant colonies, Adams, however, wrote in this and other documents of his belief that the measures were ultimately intended to drive a wedge between those colonists who sought independence and those who did not want to incur the wrath of British officials. The tone of the letter was very much in keeping with the famous political cartoon attributed to Benjamin Franklin entitled “Join or Die.” I believe that his advice is timeless, and we should examine the actions of those in positions of authority to discern where they are trying to create wedges amongst different subsections of the American People.
The Parliament’s reaction to the Boston Tea Party should not have been a surprise to those who organized it or took part in the event. Nor should the steadfast response and resolve voiced in the letter issued by the Boston Committee of Correspondence been of surprise to the Parliament or any British official in vicinity of Boston. However, how the other colonies would react to the matter was, as they say, “up for grabs.” Would they stand with Boston and willingly suffer themselves? Might they hold themselves apart from Boston, and those colonists who had thrown the tea into the harbor? While the answer might not come as a surprise, the intensity of it just might.
As we witness today when disaster strikes our fellow countrymen across the nation, other towns in Massachusetts immediately came to the aid of those in Boston. The merchants of Marblehead extended free access to the wharfs and storerooms in their town to their kinsmen in Boston. Monetary donations, as well as food and supplies, poured into the Boston area to care for those who became unemployed due to the port closure. Work programs were also established to replace lost jobs. Donations came from as near as Salem and as far away as South Carolina. A break in the ranks to this unified response came when a group of merchants sought to repay the debt and open the harbor. If they had succeeded, it would have been an affront to the Boston Committee of Correspondence. However, their effort failed and perhaps more importantly the Boston Committee of Correspondence received a vote of confidence from their fellow Bostonians at a town meeting on June 27.
Powerful support for the people of Boston came from the other colonies as well. In Connecticut, the reaction was swift and underscored the building rage held by many colonists toward the British Government. As you listen to the following “Proceedings of Farmington, Connecticut on the Boston Port Act” which was published on May 19, 1774, remember that the people present at a very public protest had no right to associate freely or protest the actions of the British Parliament. Not only might their anger have persuaded them to participate, but I suspect they drew power from their collective numbers, as well as the possibility that many of them may have been carrying arms as well. It is unlikely that any British authorities or troops nearby would want to tangle with such a crowd: The article stated: “To pass through the fire at six o’clock this evening, in honour to the immortal goddess of Liberty, the late infamous Act of the British Parliament for farther distressing the American Colonies; the place of execution will be the public parade, where all Sons of Liberty are desired to attend. Accordingly, a very numerous and respectable body were assembled of near one thousand people, when a huge pole, just forty-five feet high was erected, and consecrated to the shrine of liberty; after which the Act of Parliament for blocking up the Boston harbour was read aloud; sentenced to the flames, and executed by the hands of the common hangman; then the following resolves were passed, nem. con.: 1st. That it is the greatest dignity, interest, and happiness of every American to be united with our parent state, while our liberties are duly secured, maintained, and supported by our rightful sovereign, whose person we greatly revere; whose government while duly administered, we are ready with our lives and properties to support: 2d. That the present ministry, being instigated by the devil, and led on by their wicked and corrupt hearts, have a design to take away our liberties and properties, and to enslave us forever. 3d. That the late Act which their malice hath caused to be passed in Parliament, for blocking up the port of Boston, is unjust, illegal, and oppressive; and that we, and every American, are sharers in the insults offered to the town of Boston. 4th. That those pimps and parasites who dared to advise their master to such detestable measures be held in utter abhorrence by us and every American, and their names loaded with the curses of all succeeding generations. 5th. That we scorn the chains of slavery; we despise every attempt to rivet them upon us; we are the sons of freedom, and resolved, that, till time shall be no more, that god-like virtue shall blazon our hemisphere.” Talk about speaking one’s mind freely! The descriptive and emotion laden words contained in those resolves should cause you to consider how sanitized our statements have become.
In Virginia, the House of Burgesses called for a fast on the first day that the port of Boston was scheduled to be closed. They also offered condolences to the citizens of Boston and passed a series of resistance-related resolutions. When the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the assembly because of its actions, they simply walked down the road and reassembled in the Apollo Room of the Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. It was there they declared that if Britain had attacked one colony, then all of the colonies should consider themselves under attack.
In Pennsylvania, the “Proceedings of the Inhabitants of Philadelphia” was published on June 18. It was resolved that “shutting up the port of Boston, is unconstitutional; oppressive to the inhabitants of that town; dangerous to-the liberties of the British colonies; and that, therefore, we consider our brethren at Boston as suffering in the common cause of America.” It called for financial aid for the citizens of Boston, as well as the formation of a congress with representatives from all of the colonies.
New York responded to the Circular Letter by forming a committee of 51 of its own colonists to consider its response to the situation. That committee joined in the call from Philadelphia for a congress of the colonies to convene. It was hoped that some type united response from all of the colonies could be developed at the meeting. Assemblies in Rhode Island and Connecticut also met in June. They selected delegates for what would become known as the Continental Congress. Ultimately, all the colonies, except Georgia, followed suit.
The plea for support found in the Circular Letter written by the Boston Committee of Correspondence ultimately led to the development of the Continental Association. The Continental Association was a systematic boycott of all imports from Great Britain created by the Continental Congress. While not intended to completely sever alliance from Britain, it was intended to force Britain to repeal measures set forth the Boston Port Act, as well as the other acts which colonists deemed to be “Intolerable.” The joining together of the colonies in the form of “The Association” sent a clear signal to Britain that Americans intended to take any measure necessary to retain their rights and individual liberties. We can learn many lessons from our forefathers. One powerful lesson is what we can accomplish, as Americans, if we stand together.