Committees of Correspondence: the Founders’ forgotten blueprint for political organization

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“It was very easy to establish and form a local Committee of Correspondence. Any localized group of Patriots could form a committee and join the vast network of Committees of Correspondence and serve as the Patriot voice for their respective region.”

The Committees of Correspondence: The Voice of the Patriots, Boston Tea Party Museum

In our collective consciousness, events in the years leading up to July 4, 1776 are boiled down to just a few prominent events: colonists protested taxation without representation at the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere warned the British were coming, and the Continental Congress convened to debate independence. This oversimplification gives the impression that the patriotic movement in colonial North America was largely a series of spontaneous and isolated events. Instead, those high-profile occurrences have a common origin and were the byproducts of an ingenious political engine invented by Sam Adams.

In Adams’ Committees of Correspondence system, a group of pro-liberty residents of each town would call a meeting and elect a board of patriots to represent them, which would communicate directly with the boards of the other towns to educate the public on their rights and coordinate political activity to preserve those rights against government abuse.

With its flexible, bottom-up design, the Committees of Correspondence quickly spread throughout the colonies and naturally scaled up from town/county level boards to colony-level boards for intercolonial communication. Along the way, the individual boards were the driving forces behind the Boston Tea party, Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride, and the establishment of the Continental Congress. In addition to coordinating the patriotic movement, the Committees of Correspondence acted as Founding Father incubators, allowing up-and-coming statesmen like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Jay, and others to master their craft and rise through the patriotic ranks.

“The Boston Committee of Correspondence was charged with managing the ‘tea crisis’ and was the driving force of the December 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party.”

The Committees of Correspondence: The Voice of the Patriots, Boston Tea Party Museum

The Committees of Correspondence system is not obsolete. On the contrary, it could conceivably be more effective in the Age of Information. Its main drawback is merely that it is overlooked—a victim of its own success, overshadowed by the legendary Founding Fathers it helped develop and the historic events that flowed from it.

More on the Committees of Correspondence:
Reviving the Founders’ Patriot Network
Committees of Correspondence: a step-by-step guide for reviving the patriot network
Five things Thousand Oaks has in common with Revolutionary-era Boston

1772: Boston creates the model Committee of Correspondence

“[This system] is a kind of kit, or ‘plug-in’, that allowed any town or county or assembly to institute its own committee of correspondence and link its activity with Boston.”

The Invention of a Public Machine for Revolutionary Sentiment: The Boston Committee of Correspondence, William B. Warner, UCSB

Outraged over a change that would make colonial officials financially dependent on the crown, Sam Adams—the future “Father of the American Revolution”—encouraged a town meeting to discuss the issue. Pro-British Tories boycotted the November 2, 1772 meeting, in which Adams proposed that the assembled patriots elect a 21-member board with the mission of drafting a statement describing their rights and subsequent British violations, and to invite other Massachusetts towns to do the same. The board, called a Committee of Correspondence after a colonial tradition of forming temporary committees to deal with specific issues, immediately chose a chairman and a subcommittee to draft the proclamation and the invitation to the other towns. As a standing, autonomous committee it did not need permission from any other authority to exist, and it could more effectively coordinate with existing local activist groups.

“The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty worked in conjunction with one another; the majority, if not all, of the members of the Boston Committee of Correspondence were also members of the furtive Sons of Liberty.”

The Committees of Correspondence: The Voice of the Patriots, Boston Tea Party Museum

Expansion to other towns in Massachusetts

Within 6 months of writing a letter to each town in Massachusetts, the Boston Committee of Correspondence received replies from 118 newly formed Committees of Correspondence, representing about half of the towns in the province and linking them to the growing patriot network.

Committees met regularly and followed formal parliamentary rules. In addition to spreading news to the other committees, an important function was to either author original proclamations critical of British rule or adopt ones from other committees and then disseminate them within their respective spheres of influence. Throughout the network, members of each committee would move to consider adopting such proclamations, debate them, and then vote on passage. In this way, a proclamation passed in Boston could rapidly spread to the committees in other towns (or vice-versa), spreading patriotic fervor to all of Massachusetts and rallying support for cause of liberty.

“Among the natural Rights of the Colonists are these: First, a Right to Life; secondly, to Liberty; thirdly, to Property”

—Boston Committee of Correspondence proclamation

1773: Intercolonial Committees of Correspondence

Building on the idea, in March 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses proposed that the 13 colonies each elect a Committee of Correspondence to represent that entire colony to more widely spread the alarm over imperial overreaches. Over the next year, 11 of the 13 colonies would form Committees of Correspondence, with more springing up in various towns and counties.

“It is the beginning of republicanism.”

a warning about the Committees of Correspondence published by Tory politician Joseph Galloway

The Boston Committee of Correspondence, the members of which also members of the Sons of Liberty, was tasked with managing the crisis over the Tea Act. The Committee was the driving force behind the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, where the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, dumped 45 tons of tea into the Boston Harbor. Sam Adams immediately spread the news through the vast Committee of Correspondence network throughout the colonies, which consisted of riders, ships, newspapers, and pamphlets.

1774: A Committee of Correspondence to represent the entire continent

“When the First Continental Congress was held in September 1774, it represented the logical evolution of the intercolonial communication that had begun with the Committees of Correspondence.”

Committees of Correspondence, History.com editors

The Committees of Correspondence were adaptable enough to work at the town, county, colony, and finally, continental levels. The Maryland Committee of Correspondence proposed each colony send delegates to a continental committee representing all 13 colonies. This First Continental Congress was held in September 1774, and a majority of its delegates had served on their local Committees of Correspondence. Still lacking official authority, it passed a proclamation boycotting British goods. The boycotts were carried out by each location’s Committee of Correspondence, which would publicize the names of any merchants still trading with the British.

1775: Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

“[The Midnight Ride] was carefully planned. In fact the most famous Boston silversmith rode to Lexington just a week prior with a different assignment given to him by the Boston Correspondence Committee.”

Paul Revere Heritage Project

Four days after the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere arrived in Manhattan with news of the destruction of tea. Overall, he made 20 rides bringing information between different Committees of Correspondence. On April 18, 1775 he was sent by Joseph Warren, a fellow member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, to warn Lexington of the advance of British troops.

1776: Committees supervise the election of provincial governments

Thus warned by Paul Revere, the Lexington and Concord militias fought British troops, kicking off the Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress declared independence in July 1776, and although committees continued to help the war effort at the local level, the need for permanent legislatures led the committees to supervise the elections of provincial governments. The Committees of Correspondence disbanded, ready to be revived any time patriots need to organize themselves against the abuses of their own government.

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