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Committee of Correspondence: The Revolution in Provincial Politics

The Revolution in Provincial 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 9, p. 212ff.

This revolutionary assumption of authority outside the bounds of the traditional structure began in Berkshire County, a region where previously there had been relatively little participation in the politics of opposition. In early July sixty “deputies of the several towns” met at Stockbridge “to consult and advise what was necessary and prudent to be done.” 2 Their unanimous resolutions combining a declaration of rights with a nonconsumption covenant and a pledge to maintain constitutional local government, set a pattern which other counties subsequently followed. One month later Worcester, the second county to convene, expanded the role of the county convention even further. Together these first two conventions demonstrated the breadth and depth of the provincial desire to repel invasions against the constitutional rights of Massachusetts.

The conventions, all of them, followed the model of town meetings from their organization and conduct to the substance of their proceedings. Moderators were elected, committees and subcommittees were chosen to report, and then, after deliberation, the conventions vote resolved. Unlike the towns, however, their resolves were merely advisory, not binding.

The Berkshire declaration of rights was characteristic of views held everywhere in the province. Particular emphasis was given to .the equality of colonists with Englishmen, equal rights including specifically the granting of property only by consent, the right to trial by a Jury of local peers, and the corporate rights of political bodies such as Boston and Massachusetts whose liberties could not be unilaterally abolished by Parliament. The Berkshire nonconsumption covenant, also entitled a “solemn league and covenant,” was similar to the Boston Committee of Correspondence covenant though it was to take effect later (October I) and expressly pledged that its signers would allow whatever future directions the general Continental Congress might give respecting a boycott. Unlike the Boston committee covenant, it included no pledge of an indefinite boycott until redress was granted. Yet as a nonconsumption agreement enforced with a secondary boycott against non-signers, it rested on the same radical principles as that of the Boston committee.3

Where it differed fundamentally from the committee covenant was in the broader area of local government. For the Boston committee had concerned itself primarily with nonconsumption, the secondary boycott, and to a lesser degree the encouragement of domestic industry. Town affairs and the issue of order had never been mentioned. In contrast the Berkshire covenant, after outlining nonconsumption, devoted equal consideration to the maintenance of order and unity among the inhabitants. Its signers pledged not only a boycott of British goods, they also promised to maintain internal peace and harmony. By the force of consent, the authority of the people would maintain order.

These pledges illustrate the common fear that tumults and disputes might accompany resistance to Britain in the present crisis. Signers were required to bind them to “observe the most strict obedience to all constitutional laws and authority.” Moreover they agreed to “at all time, exert ourselves to the utmost for the discouragement of all licentiousness and suppression of all mobs and riots.” All existing government m the county was to be maintained, the convention declared, by public self-restraint sworn in the covenant.4

The idea ideal sought by the convention for Berkshire was a general aspiration throughout the province, and it was embodied in the Berkshire oath that “we will all exert ourselves, as far as in us lies, in promoting love, peace, and unanimity among each other; and for that end we engage to avoid all unnecessary lawsuits.” Here it was expected that the same self-restraint that would prevent riotous behavior would also generate unity, a harmony that would eliminate all “unnecessary” conRict.5 The Boston committee, now immediately absorbed in imperial politics and inter-colonial union, had overlooked this problem of internal unity. But for the Berkshire convention it was a pressing issue of immense concern. The proposed solution, harmony by mutual consent, to be enforced by the sanction of public approval, was characteristic of county conventions oriented toward town affairs.6 In England the suggestion of government by popular self-restraint would have been seen as ludicrous, a prescription for anarchy; but in Berkshire County and elsewhere in Massachusetts it was generally assumed and expected that it could function effectively. In large measure government by a commotion of self-restraint and public sanction had been everyday practice for generations.

\n The closing resolves of the Berkshire convention, calling for donations to the town of Boston and for a day of fasting and prayer, reflected the profound sense of moral duty embodied in the resistance movement throughout the province. Donations to Boston did not merely represent solidarity and sustenance, but also charity -there was a moral obligation implicit in the call. The resolution for a fast day was more than a call on the Lord for insight and wisdom in the present calamity. It was also a symbol of Christian repentance and devotion which they and their ancestors had always invoked at critical times. That such a call should be routinely included in an otherwise radical series of political resolves was typical of the provincial outlook which intertwined traditional values and concepts with revolutionary action.

The later Worcester convention differed from that of Berkshire primarily in the extended, detailed leadership it the county, culminating in advice on military preparation and the direction of a major political demonstration. Its resolves were similar to those of Berkshire and dozens of towns, containing both a pledge of allegiance to the King and an exposition of “American” rights, including the assertion “that we have, within ourselves, the exclusive right of originating each and every law respecting ourselves.” Though the convention did not draft a covenant, it recommended nonconsumption agreements as the best way to influence Britain, pointing out that in addition it would “greatly prevent extravagance, save our money, encourage our own manufactures, and reform our manners.7 From the provincial perspective, nonconsumption was the universal panacea -political, economic, and cultural.

The convention went on, however, to recommend even more immediate resistance, condemning al1 justices who publicly supported Governor Gage and urging every town to adopt measures which would thwart enforcement of the Massachusetts Government Acts. Ultimate power lay with the towns and in order to. mobilize the convention resolved to meet again, urging every town m the county to participate in its proceedings. It closed its first meeting by ordering its proceedings printed as handbills and distributed with a covering letter to all the towns and districts in Worcester.

When the convention met again at the end of August, more than 130 town delegates and members of local committees of correspondence attended, nearly three times the number present at the first meeting and a gathering equal in size to a meeting of the Massachusetts House. Their most immediate problem was to prevent submission to the newly organized “unconstitutional” courts of common pleas and general sessions. Their method was to block the scheduled sessions. The Convention. resolved. that this was the “indispensable duty” of Worcester inhabitants, so It urged every individual in the county to personally come to Worcester on September 6 when the courts were to meet. It intended that the people assembled would convince the justices not to sit and the Jurors and litigants to boycott the courts.8

\n At the same time the convention recognized that the “gloomy aspect of our public affairs has thrown this province into great convulsions, and the minds of the people are greatly “agitated” by the prospect of slavery. Therefore, “to regulate the movements of each town, and prevent any disorder which might otherwise happen,” the convention recommend that town officers be chosen and charged with this special responsibility. Townspeople were cautioned to “adhere strictly to the orders and directions of such officers. The convention itself in terms similar to those of the Berkshire covenant, recommended to all and pledged its members “to use the utmost influence in suppressing all riotous and disorderly proceedings in our respective towns.” In addition everyone was advised to pay his just debts and to avoid all disputes and litigation. By these resolutions the convention began the process of transforming the local committees of correspondence into omnibus committees responsible for the general political behavior of each town.9

To facilitate local activities and to avoid submission to the “unconstitutional” government acts, the towns were advised to hold their meetings as they had always done and, in effect to ignore both the “reform” acts and the governor’s proclamations. Moreover, so that courts and government could be properly restored, the convention urged towns to send delegates to the Provincial Congress which would be held at Concord in October. This “general convention” was expected to devise a way “to resume our original mode of government, whereby the most dignified servants were, as they ever ought to be, dependent on the people for their existence as such.” Until such a government was formed, towns were advised to withhold their taxes from the province treasury. The hope of the convention and the towns was that the current “state of nature” created by Parliament’s dissolution of the charter could be quickly replaced by a properly constituted government which would assure both liberty and order.10

Owing to a report that the governor was planning to send troops to secure the court sessions, the convention went on to recommend a plan for defense, voting that if an “invasion” threatened, the committees of correspondence should warn each other, and every town “properly armed and accoutered” should come to the defense of the invaded town.11 The convention simply assumed its competence to make such recommendations, never bothering to justify its transactions, even though the royal administration and all of England would regard their activities as the purest sedition. In Massachusetts people believed they were not acting contrary to “lawful authority” because in the absence of a constitutional government all authority rested in the people organized in towns.

The people of Worcester County dramatized these beliefs in a public demonstration on September 6 when, with the leadership of the convention, they closed the courts. They had arrived in the town of Worcester 6,000 strong, organized in town militia companies. Following the instructions of the convention, each of the companies elected a representative to meet the judges to tell them the courts must be closed. This done, all were to assemble on the Worcester Common, grouped by town. There, late in the afternoon, the people of Worcester performed a pageant of popular sovereignty -requiring the court officials to tread a path through the ranks of tile people while continuously reading aloud their pledge to ignore the government acts and suspend the courts. Here the governing assumptions of contemporary politics were explicitly acted out. Before the day ended and the people went home, the convention extended the nullification of English authority to include all militia officers, resolving that they should resign their commissions since they came home the governor. Instead the towns themselves should elect their militia officers.12 The assumption, and it was accurate, was that the same men who resigned from the governor’s service would normally be elected to the same position by their towns. As a result the shift in the base of militia authority rarely affected local leadership.

\n The following day the convention asked for recantations from those justices of the peace who had sent an address to the governor pledging support and criticizing the actions of the people. Eleven of the fourteen justices complied, so the convention resolved that all of the justices of the peace that had held office as of June 30, excepting only Timothy Ruggles, John Murray, and James Putnam who continued to support Gage, should be obeyed until the Provincial Congress made other provisions. The convention recommended “to the people of this county, that they consider and .treat them as being in their said offices, and support and defend them the execution thereof, according to the laws of the province.13 Here the population ” sanction which lay behind legal authority was made explicit without the least hesitation, and with full confidence that the inhabitants would find it reasonable and submit.

The convention’s last meeting before the Provincial Congress convened was held on September 21 and 22. No new efforts were undertaken; rather, directions already begun were elaborated. A county committee of correspondence was chosen.14 In internal government the convention recommended that all disputes and litigation that could not be settled amicably should be submitted to arbitration; and if either party refused, “they ought to be considered as co-operating with the enemies of the counties.” Moreover, order to enforce the restraints on imports, the convention urged committees of correspondence or selectmen in the port towns to inspect all imports and publish information on imports and importers of contraband goods so that the boycott could be more effective.15 Here the convention’s recommendation tended once more to broaden the role of local committees of correspondence, altering them m the manner which the Continental Congress would reinforce and finally establish.

By this time the convention believed it had substantially passed through the critical challenge to order, and it devoted considerable attention to military preparation. At earlier meetings in the preceding weeks it had already recommended that the towns follow the Norfolk plan of training their militia, and that they do their best to acquire and master field artillery. Now they suggested a reform in the organization of regiments in the county, including an elective system for selection all officers.16 The same assumptions regarding the source of authority which ruled other aspects of political organization ruled the military. 218 Even the militia was to be organized according to the practices of town meetings and the principle of electing officials on a representative basis.

The Worcester convention, although it continued to meet fairly regularly well into 1775, like the other county conventions ceded its position of leadership to the Provincial Congress when it met in October 1774.17 Yet, during a brief but critical period when the fear of anarchy and tumult was widespread, conventions like those of Berkshire and Worcester had exercised substantial leadership in the province. Their power, entirely dependent on public approval an4 the support of the towns, had been sufficient to provide for a relative. uniformity of measures with virtually no conflict among towns and a minimum of division within the. This “government,” entirely based on representation and consent, with enforcement a matter of town volition, was not the anarchic confusion that any contemporary theorist would have predicted, because there were no substantial conflicts of interest to test the arrangement, and because it conformed entirely with public assumptions about the nature of government and authority. The old political and social leaders normally continued to rule because, excepting the few who sided with the royal government, the basis for their political strength, the agreement and respect of their neighbors, remained secure. The “federal” structure of town, county, and provincial government was satisfactory because at every level, from the town to the Provincial Congress, power was exercised by representative officials operating entirely with consent.

References

  1. N/A.
  2. Lincoln, ed., Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 652.
  3. Ibid., 652-653.
  4. Lincoln, ed., Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 653-654.
  5. Ibid., 654.
  6. In addition to Berkshire, the following counties are known to have passed
    similar resolutions: Cumberland, Hampshire, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester.
    Ibid, 659, 629, 625, 605, 627.
  7. Ibid. 630-631. The town of Worcester did draft a covenant on Aug. 22,
    1774 and this was known to the “Worcester Convention” described in Albert Mathews “The Solemn League and Covenant, 1774”. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions, XVIII (1915-1916), , 103-122. This covenant 15 found in William Lincoln, History of Worcester (Worcester, 1837), 92-93.
  8. Lincoln, ed., Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 632.
  9. Ibid., 632-633.
  10. Ibid., 633-634.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 635-638.
  13. Lincoln, ed., Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 639.
  14. Ibid., 642.
  15. Ibid., 643.
  16. Ibid., 639, 636, 643.
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