The Revolutionary Committees of Correspondence

Engines of National Unity

By Nancy Spannaus

March 11, 2023—Convinced that the ancient right of petition would not protect their liberties, the American colonies took a radical step toward independence in March of 1773: the formation of the Committees of Correspondence. It was from this innocuous-sounding network of communication established 250 years ago, that the disparate colonies moved to develop both alternative centers of state government and the framework for a unified nation.

The Revolutionary Committees of Correspondence
Franklin’s 1754 cartoon appeared frequently in later conflicts, such as the one over the Stamp Act.

The call for formation of the Committees came from the Virginia House of Burgesses (the lower house), which passed the following resolution on March 12:

Whereas the minds of his Majesty’s faithful subjects in this colony have been much disturbed by various rumors and reports of proceedings tending to deprive them of their ancient, legal, and constitutional Rights;

and whereas the affairs of this Colony are frequently connected with those of Great Britain, as well as of the neighboring colonies, which renders a communication of Sentiments necessary; in order, therefore, to remove the uneasiness and to quiet the minds of the people, as well as for other good purposes above mentioned, be it resolved, that a standing committee of  correspondence and inquiry be appointed, to consist of eleven persons, to-wit: the honorable Peyton Randolph, Esquire, Robert Carter Nicholas, Richard Bland, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton, Patrick Henry, Dudley Digges, Dabney Carr, Archibald Cary, and Thomas Jefferson, Esquires, any six of whom to be a committee, 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 those important considerations and the result of such their proceedings from time to time to lay before House.

Resolved, That it be an instruction to the said committee that they do without delay inform themselves particularly of the principles and authority on which was constituted a court of enquiry, said to have been lately held in Rhode Island, with powers to transport persons accused of offences committed in America to places beyond the seas to be tried.

Resolved, That the Speaker do transmit to the Speakers of the different Assemblies of the British Colonies on this Continent copies of the said Resolutions, and desire that they will lay them before their respective Assemblies and request them to appoint some person or persons of their respective bodies to communicate from time to time with the said committee.

Within a year, every colony had responded in the affirmative, starting a process that served as a basis for both a deepening and widening shift toward actual revolution. As the Virginia resolution emphasizes, the committees were to serve as sources of intelligence for the people. And while no explicit mention is made of common action, the train of ensuing events would inevitably lead to that as well.

The Long Path to Unity

Efforts to unify the English-speaking American colonies go back to at least 1754, when Benjamin Franklin put forward the Albany Plan of Union. That effort at unified government, although officially approved by seven colonies, went nowhere. The next significant joint effort came with the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, although that meeting was unable to bring together all the colonies due to British sabotage (this was notably the case in preventing Virginia from being represented at the Congress).

The Stamp Act Congress was stunningly successful in getting its immediate objective (repeal of the act), but the impulse for coordinated colonial action dissipated over the following years, despite new tax legislation such as the Townshend Acts, and tax enforcement action such as the unlimited general search warrants known as Writs of Assistance. The Stamp Act resistance had also spurred the establishment of the rather clandestine Sons of Liberty, among whose members were two of the leading actors in establishing the Committees of Correspondence, Massachusetts’ Samuel Adams and Virginia’s Patrick Henry.

The Revolutionary Committees of Correspondence
An artist’s depiction of the burning of the Gaspee, an event which played a major role in spurring the founding of the Committees of Correspondence

While Massachusetts continued to be a cauldron of conflict with the British government, matters heated up continentally in 1772. On June 9, a number of Rhode Islanders responded to what they considered illegal and oppressive customers enforcement measures by the Crown by burning the British customs schooner called the Gaspee. (No one was killed, as the sailors were removed from the vessel before the burning.) As no culprits were arrested and punished in the colony, the British determined to set up a Commission of Inquiry to root out the perpetrators and send them to England to be tried for treason!

As the news of this violation of British liberties spread, Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts was moving in a similar direction. To facilitate a crackdown on lawbreakers (especially tax evaders), he sought and received changes in who would pay the salaries of the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the judges. The decision to have the Crown pay the judges was the last to be announced, and it spurred Sam Adams into action.

First, Adams petitioned Governor Hutchinson for a reversal of the policy, arguing that it would “compleat the system of slavery” initiated by the House of Commons. That system would involve giving power over colonial finances and the physical security of the colonists to the English authorities without their having to obtain consent of the colonists. As for the judges, it would mean going to trial with the judge having the same employer as the prosecutor! Having been brushed off by the governor, Adams determined to act. The result was a November 2 Boston Town Meeting, where Adams proposed the creation of a Committee of Correspondence. The proposal was accepted, and a committee of 21 was formed to implement the resolution.

Within two and a half weeks, the Committee presented its work, a draft letter to all 160 towns in Massachusetts. The letter began with a statement of the English liberties to which the colonists considered themselves entitled,[1] followed by an enumeration of how they were being violated by the Governor and Crown,[2] and a request for action – specifically,

A free Communication of your Sentiments to this Town of our common Danger is earnestly solicited and will be gratefully received. If you concur with us in Opinion that our Rights are properly stated, and that the several Acts of Parliament, and Measures of Administration pointed out by us are subversive of these Rights, you will doubtless think it of the utmost Importance that we stand firm as one Man to recover and support them; and to take such Measures by directing our Representatives, or otherwise, as your Wisdom and Fortitude shall dictate, to rescue from impending Ruin our happy and glorious Constitution.

The draft letter to the towns was approved by another Boston Town Meeting on November 20.

While this request may sound innocuous enough – just communicate your sentiments – its issuance was in fact revolutionary. Rather than petition an authority, the Governor or the Crown, the population of Boston was appealing to the people of other towns to “stand as one Man” against oppression. “We the people” were coming into being as the arbiters of government policy. And while the appeal was only explicitly directed to other residents of Massachusetts, there was every reason to suspect it might spread.

The Committees Concept Spreads

And spread it did. See how rapidly news of the Boston Committee’s document hit the newspapers. Over the next month, excerpts of the Committee’s extensive document spread to at least six of the colonies: The Boston Gazette, Nov. 23; New Hampshire Gazette, Nov. 27; New London Gazette, Nov. 27; Providence Gazette, Nov. 28; Pennsylvania Gazette, Dec. 2; Virginia Gazette, Dec. 17.[3]

Massachusetts Patriot Samuel Adams, author of the Massachusetts Committees of Correspondence.

One reflection of the reaction comes from Thomas Jefferson, as he recalled it in a letter written in 1816: “I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships. There was not an individual in their States whose body was not thrown with all its momentum into action.”

The continental impact of the Boston action was clearly the intention of its organizers, such as Samuel Adams, who himself had indicated that it should be communicated to the world.  By November 29, the Boston Committee put its Proceedings, including the full communication to the towns, into a 36-page pamphlet, which began to be circulated throughout Massachusetts. It was sent to individuals in other colonies as well. At least 600 copies are reported to have been printed.

The spread of the news of Massachusetts’ moves toward resistance, which intersected the reporting on the appointment of the Commission to track down and punish the burners of the Gaspee, created quite a stir. Among those who were alarmed were the Burgesses of Virginia, in particular Richard Henry Lee.

Lee was a leader in the House of Burgesses and had been a prominent actor in the resistance to the Stamp Act. He kept abreast of the growing conflict with Britain and apparently was particularly agitated over British policy toward the Gaspee affair, since on February 4, he wrote a letter to Sam Adams asking him to clarify the situation.

The Virginia Resolution

But Lee and a small group of other Burgesses did not wait for a response from Adams before taking action. When the House of Burgesses convened in early March 1773, the legislators were also in turmoil over British moves closer to home which they saw as encroaching on their own liberties, specifically, Governor Dunmore’s summary removal of individuals accused of counterfeiting from their local jurisdiction to the capital Williamsburg. Protests to the Governor, including a delegation led by Patrick Henry sent to discuss the matter, produced no positive result.

The Revolutionary Committees of Correspondence
A portrait of Richard Henry Lee at the National Portrait Gallery

So, on the evening of March 11, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and a cousin of Jefferson named Dabney Carr met at the local tavern to draft a resolution. That resolution not only picked up on the Massachusetts example but expanded upon it: It issued a call to all the colonies to establish Committees of Correspondence to share intelligence on the alarming developments underway.

The next day, March 12, the Resolution was presented by Dabney Carr and unanimously adopted. It was printed by March 18, and sent to other colonies forthwith. Meanwhile, a standing committee of 11, of which three Burgesses were designated to receive the correspondence, was established. Ironically, none of the individuals on the smaller committees were the initiators, largely because Lee, Henry, Jefferson et al. wanted to co-opt the more conservative members into the process.

In a letter written a month later to prominent Pennsylvania legislator John Dickinson, Richard Henry Lee said this measure should have been taken five years before, when he had first proposed it!

It took a full year for all the colonial legislatures to respond to the Virginia circular.  The first to agree to set up committees were from New England, starting with Rhode Island. Massachusetts came next. The Massachusetts response was particularly effusive. The Boston Committee, meeting on April 9, took the letter it received from Lee, along with the Virginia Resolution, and published them both in a broadside to be circulated throughout the colony. Of particular note is Lee’s statement that Virginia’s intent was

To bring our sister colonies into the strictest union with us, that we may RESENT IN ONE BODY any steps that may be taken by administration to deprive ANY ONE OF US of the least particle of our rights and liberties. (emphasis in original)

The order of responses by the other colonies was: Georgia, South Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, New York, and lastly, New Jersey (August, 1774).

A depiction of the Boston Tea Party, December 1773, organized by the Boston Committee of Correspondence.

By the conclusion of this process, of course, events had brought the confrontation with the British government to a new fever pitch. The trigger was the December 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party, organized by the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence. This was then followed by British reprisals against Boston with the Port Act of March 1774, and the consequent calling of the First Continental Congress in September of that year. The formation of a Continental Association at that event further accelerated continental unity, as the Committees of Correspondence became effectively transformed into Committees of Inspection (and Observation), charged with enforcement of the non-importation agreement ratified at that event. The same period saw the emergence of Committees of Safety, which concentrated on organizing local militias.

A Final Note

In retrospect, it is clear that Virginia’s call for Committees of Correspondence to coordinate among the colonies was a critical step toward the Revolution. Of particular importance in that process was the collaboration between leaders of Massachusetts and Virginia.

History books are full of stories of the cultural and political conflict between these two oldest colonies: Massachusetts, a colony of religious dissenters who tended to side with the Cromwell side in the English Civil War, and Virginia, a nation heavily populated by the devotees of the monarchy and Charles II. Virginians tended to look down on Massachusetts folk, pride themselves on genteel living, and cling to their slave system, even when attacking it in principle.  Massachusetts people, on the other side, tended to see themselves as morally superior, dedicated to more democratic rights and a simpler, non-ostentatious way of life.

A depiction of the First Continental Congress.

Virginia and Massachusetts were, respectively, the first and third most populous colonies in 1773-74; without either one of them, or their collaboration, united action would be impossible. Thus, it required the leadership of a number of continent-minded men like Sam Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, to define the issues that would create a sense of unity – and ultimately win a revolution and a nation.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Richard Henry Lee,[4] considered by many to have been the key initiator of the Virginia call for Committees of Correspondence, was also the delegate to the Second Continental Congress who put the resolution for declaring independence before that assembly. And his key collaborator was none other than a Massachusetts delegate, John Adams.

But it is crucial to remember that these Committees of Correspondence not only connected the leaders in various colonies, but also reached into local communities, providing information and spurring debate on the intensifying conflict with London among the general public. This process was crucial to accomplishing what John Adams famously asserted: “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People, and in the Union of the Colonies, both of which were Substantially effected before Hostilities commenced.”

Adams located that shift as beginning in 1761, and added:

The rise and progress of this Knowledge, the gradual Expansion and diffusion of the great change in minds of the People and the growing hopes of a Union of The Colonies and their dependence upon it as the future Rock of their Salvation: cannot be traced but by a diligent Perusal of the Pamphlets, Newspapers and Hand Bills of both Parties and the Proceedings of the Legislatures from 1761 to 1774 when the Union of the Colonies was formed.[5]

It is from this standpoint that we should today acknowledge the role of those momentous events 250 years ago.

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[1] For the full text, click here.

[2] Among the violations of the right to liberty and security which the document enumerates, is the 1750 Iron Act, which prohibited colonists from making finished iron works, requiring them to send raw material to England, and import finished goods.

[3] Warner, William B., Protocols of Liberty, Communication Innovation, and the American Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 68.

[4] For more on the fight for the Declaration of Independence, see https://americansystemnow.com/the-fight-behind-the-declaration/

[5] See Adams letter here.