Committees of Safety

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COMMITTEES OF SAFETY formed the bridge between the colonial political order, in which institutions ultimately derived authority from the Crown, and the American republican order, in which the fount of power was "the People." John Adams wrote in Thoughts on Government (1776) of the need to "glide insensibly" from the old order into the new. But these committees were profoundly revolutionary and deeply disruptive.

The committee movement went through three phases. In the first phase informal and locally created committees of correspondence exchanged information. The second saw committees of observation enforcing the Continental Association, which was the boycott of British commerce ordered by the First Continental Congress in September 1774. In the third phase committees of safety assumed full governmental powers while the institutions of the old order collapsed.

In Massachusetts the whole process was completed by the autumn of 1774. Rather than submit to the Massachusetts Government Act, towns resolved not to permit the Crown courts to open for business. The closures were without violence, but the townsmen who met the judges were armed and drawn up into militia companies. From then until the Commonwealth adopted a constitution in 1780, town-and county-level power was in the hands of committees chosen by town meetings. The massive turnout of militia to confront the retreating British regular soldiers after the firefights at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775 grew directly from committeemen's success in organizing townspeople for conflict.

Elsewhere development was slower. Although the association called for committees of inspection "in every city, county, and town," those committees appeared mostly in major ports like New York City and in lesser commercial centers like Albany. Non–New Englanders did not form governing committees until late April and early May 1775, when express riders brought the news of war in Massachusetts. Popular meetings elected the new committees, which were considerably larger and much more widespread than their predecessors. Both for that reason and because elections were frequent, the commit-tees brought many previous outsiders into the center of affairs. Once they formed committees of safety, rebellious Americans found themselves in a situation of "dual power," with two sets of institutions that were vying for power.

Initially the committeemen of Albany, New York, were hesitant to move into the city council chamber. But as the committeemen took on more and more govern-mental functions, the old mayoralty, common council, and courts faded. Writ large, the Albany story could be told in many places. When Congress called in May 1776 for the extinction of royal government, little actually remained. Committees were meeting both the ordinary tasks of regular government and the extraordinary tasks of revolution and war.

Supposedly the authority of the committees ended when new state constitutions took effect. In practice the transition to constitutional government took time. New York's constitution described the committees as "temporary expedients," but committees of safety still met months after the constitution was proclaimed. Commit-tees reappeared in the northern states in 1779 in response to an economic crisis brought about by drastic inflation. Gliding "insensibly" was not how the old order yielded to the new.


Bushman, Richard L. King and People in Provincial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Countryman, Edward. A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760–1790. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Holton, Woody. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Ryerson, Richard Alan. The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765–1776. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.


See alsoRevolution, American ; Revolutionary Committees .

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Committees of Safety

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