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Boston Committee of Correspondence Enters Massachusetts Politics

The Boston Committee of Correspondence Enters Massachusetts Politics

From Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts

The committees of correspondence were shadow governments organized by the Patriot leaders of the Thirteen Colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. They coordinated responses to Britain and shared their plans; by 1773 they had emerged as shadow governments, superseding the colonial legislature and royal officials. The committees of correspondence rallied opposition on common causes and established plans for collective action, and so the group of committees was the beginning of what later became a formal political union among the colonies. A total of about 7,000 to 8,000 Patriots served on these committees at the colonial and local levels, comprising most of the leadership in their communities — the Loyalists were excluded.

Richard D. Brown


Harvard University Press
1970

Excerpt from Chapter 4, p. 58ff.

The unanimous vote establishing the Boston Committee of Correspondence [on 3 November 1772] was a victory for the Boston Whigs. The governor’s friends had tried to discourage interest in the meeting, and had themselves deliberately stayed away. Thus they left the field free to their opponents, a move which had significant results. Had the administration’s supporters been present, division would have replaced unanimity in the town votes, and even more important, the membership of the committee might not have been so homogeneous in its opposition to the administration. In that event the work of the committee and indeed its entire career might have been very different. As it was, the committee would become a major vehicle of opposition to the royal administration and all it signified.

Governor Hutchinson, though at first scornful of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and its works, soon came to recognize the threat it created for his objectives in Massachusetts public life. His response was a lengthy public rebuttal of the ideas the committee represented. He challenged the province to decide whether it was prepared to recognize par1iamentary sovereignty and accept his leadership. As a result, he joined the Boston committee in stimulating and expanding the polarization of Massachusetts politics.

The men chosen to serve on the committee of correspondence were all members of the town political class, men with property or a profession that allowed them time for politics. 1 Although a few of the wealthiest men in Boston declined to serve on the committee, among them John Hancock and Thomas Cushing, its members were generally men of some means. Several were well-to-do merchants and capitalists with diverse investments, two were lawyers, three physicians, and the rest were involved in trade and manufactures with assets of less than £1,0002 All had previously served the town in various offices: one, Oliver Wendell, was currently serving as selectman; another, William Greenleaf, was an overseer of the poor. With one third of its members holding degrees from Harvard College, the committee of correspondence was an unusually distinguished town committee.

The social and economic statures of its members are a certain indication of the prestige accorded the committees.3 But the uniform political persuasion of the members was of much greater significance than their prestige or social background in shaping the committee’s course. For as devout Whigs they were prepared to recognize Samuel Adams, the Boston representative, as their leader; and Adams could rely on their fundamental devotion to liberty as he understood it, even though differences might arise. Moreover many of the members had previously worked together in opposition to the Stamp and Townshend Acts. Having taken active parts in promoting and enforcing nonimportation, they could all be confident of one another’s commitment to the cause of Massachusetts rights.

Equally significant, the membership of the committee linked it closely to the existing institutions of Boston politics, so closely that it was hardly separate. At least eight of the twenty-one members also belonged to the North End Caucus, a private political club which met regularly to discuss and to influence Boston affairs.4 Members also participated in several Boston Congregations, in both of Boston’s Masonic lodges, the five companies of several wards, as well as a variety of private club. Personal and professional connections attached them to virtually every circle in Boston, political or otherwise, excepting the governor’s circle. Consequently the Boston Committee of Correspondence was a town committee pax excellence, even though its ambitions were primarily directed toward the province at large.

Adams, and perhaps others, apparently intended that John Hancock, Thomas Cushing, and William Phillips, Boston’s other representatives, would serve on the committee. Their presence would have enhanced its stature considerably; and since Cushing and Hancock were well known and respected throughout the province, it could have made the committee more impressive and attractive to the lesser ports and idle country towns. Cushing, the speaker of the House, together with the remaining Boston representatives, might even have added a quasi-provincial aspect to the Boston committee which it lacked in their absence. Hancock, Cushing, and Phillips had each been nominated at the town meeting, but each had declined owing, they said, to private obligations. Tories argued that their refusal to serve was a tacit expression of their distaste for the project. The similar refusal by Selectmen John Scollay and Benjamin Austin lent color to their charge. They asked if it could be coincidence that five of the wealthiest, most eminent Whigs declined to serve on the committee of correspondence. Tories spread the word that the Boston Whigs were divided.5

Yet even though several prominent Whigs did not serve on the committee, evidence supporting the Tory claim is at most circumstantial since the information regarding the judicial stipend was not official, some may have been reluctant to commit themselves; publicly and to embark on a project which, if it failed would leave Boston isolated. Cushing, moreover, had recently expressed his strong preference for opposing British measures through the colonial legislatures, since he doubted the popular will to resist.6 Thus it is possible that there was some division over tactics. Yet this possibility must be measured against the readiness of a score of Boston Whigs, many of them prominent, to serve on the committee. Furthermore, though Cushing had declined to serve as a regular member of the committee, Samuel Adams later reported privately that Cushing “frequently met with the Committee and appears to be hearty in forwarding the Measure.” Adams, who recognized too late the mistake of nominating Hancock, Cushing, and Phillips without prior knowledge of their intentions, himself believed they “were unaware of the evil Tendency of their Conduct,” and he did not believe it especially significant.7

Whatever their reasons, there is no doubt that their absence diminished the committee’s prestige. For even though some of its members were wealthy, their assets were measured in thousands not tens of thousands of pounds; none was in the first rank for wealth. James Otis and Samuel Adams were well known all over Massachusetts, and Josiah Quincy, Jr., had gained a reputation in the “massacre trials” of 1770, but the other members of the committee were virtually unknown outside of Boston. The absence of Hancock and Cushing especially deprived the committee of a dazzling array of Whig heroes committing their personal prestige to the project. At the same time the fact that they publicly declined to serve the committee furnished the governor’s party with “proofs” to disparage both the measure and the “divided” opposition party.8

References

  1. Boston Town Records, 1770-1777, Boston Record Commissioners, Report, XVIII (Boston, 1887), 93: James Otis Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, Benjamin Church, William Dennie, Willinm Greenleaf. Josepll Greenleaf, Thomas Young, William Powell, Nathaniel Appleton, Oliver Wendell, John Sweetser, Josiah Quincy, John Bradford, Richard Boynton, Willianl Mackay. Nathanial Barber, Caleb Davis. Alexander Hill, William Molineux, Robert Pierpoint. The issue of opposition to the meeting is touched on in Samuel Adams to Arthur Lee, Nov. 3, 1772 The
    Writings of Samuel Adams
    , ed. Harry A. Cushing (New York, 1904-1908), II, 342-345.
  2. Boston Tax Returns, 1771, Massachusetts Archives, CXXXII, 92-147.
  3. For the close correlation between socioeconomic status and political office holding in Boston see James A. Henretta, “Economic Development and Social Structure in Colonial Boston,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., XXII (1965), 75-92. .
  4. North End Caucus minutes. March 23, 1772, in Elbridge H. Goss,
    The Life of Colonel Paul Revere
    (Boston, 1891), 11, 635-637.
  5. “Q.E.D.,” Boston Weekly News-Letter, Nov. 12, 1772,3: 1-2.
  6. Thomas Cushing to Roger Shermnn, Jan. 2.1, 1772, Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 4th Sec., IV (1858), 358-359.
  7. Samuel Adams to James Warren, Dec. 9, 1772, Warren-Adams Letters
    Being Chiefly Correspondence among John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Warren
    , Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, LXXII-LXXIU (1917-1925), I, 14-15. Jobn C. Miller, in
    Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda
    (Boston, 1936), 264-265, accepted the Tory argument at face value and used the idea of Whig division to emphasize Samuel Adams individual role as founder of the committees of correspondence. He suggests that Adams was ready to “go jt alone.” But such behavior would not have been characteristic of his political leadership, and since there is substantial evidence. supporting the view that many Boston Whigs favored the plan, Miller’s hypothesis must be rejected. Robert E. Brown argues that a split had developed between Hancock and Samuel Adams during the spring of 1772, culminating in an attempt by Hancock to prevent the election of Adams to the House. Brown’s evidence is inconclusive, but the possibility cannot be dismissed.
    Middle-Class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts, 1691-1780
    (Ithaca 1955), 365-366).
  8. “Q.E.D.,” Boston Weekly Newsletter, Nov. 12, 1772, 3: 1-2. Thomas Hutchinson’s significant but erroneous recollection of divisions in this meeting may be found 111 additional to Thomas Hutchmson
    A History of Massachusetts Bay
    , ed. Catherine B. May (Worcester, 1949), 51. His recollection that Otis opposed the measure contradicted by various contemporary sources including his own letters.
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