Revolutionary Committees

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REVOLUTIONARY COMMITTEES. From the beginnings of colonial protest in the aftermath of the Stamp Act, the American Revolution based its fundamental organization on committees. The most basic of these were the Committees of Correspondence, which originated in the need for colonies to keep each other informed of the progress in the boycott and protest of the Stamp Act. Later committees of correspondence formed an intelligence network among the leaders of the rebellion, keeping even the most remote communities abreast of what was happening in the capital or on the battlefields. The committees had a long historical pedigree, having been patterned on committees of security from the English civil war, the Revolution of 1688 in America, and the tax crises of the 1760s.

More crucial to the operation of the rebellion were the Committees of Safety, which generally were an extension of the assemblies elected by the colonies. Sometimes known as committees of recess, operating while assemblies were dismissed, the committees quickly began to act as an executive, handling some of the most crucial decisions of the colonies' resistance to Britain. The committees, the first organized by the Massachusetts legislature in November 1775, generally had the authority to draw money, to equip and raise militia, to grant militia commissions above the rank of captain, to set quotas of enlistment, to issue travel passes, and to solicit or demand supplies. In the southern colonies the committees also had the authority to deal with captured or escaped slaves. Sometimes the committees were responsible for identifying and trying Loyalists. In Vermont, which was not a colony, the committee of safety assumed the role of a de facto government that later became the nucleus of an independent state.

Other committees were formed ad hoc as needed to take care of problems, such as supply of the army and militias, overseeing the creation of a navy, and handling the dispatch of foreign documents and emissaries to Europe. Some informal groups, like Boston's Sons of Liberty, had the status if not the official standing of committees and served the political function of introducing the population of the colonies to revolution and its doctrines. The committees were frequently in contact with one another across colonial borders, and while not permanent bodies, they attracted some of the best leaders in the revolution, including Robert Morris, John Hancock, and Charles Carroll.

By 1781 the committees had solidified into executive departments staffed with professional bureaucrats under a department head. When the American colonies gained their independence, these committees were often adopted as cabinet offices, including the Department of State (the committee of foreign affairs), the Commerce Department (the secret committee), and the Board of War, which became the Department of War. These local organizations, which allowed management of the Revolution by more efficient groups than the legislatures as a whole, gradually transformed into the modern system of government departments under the authority of a single executive.


Brown, Richard D. Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Hunt, Agnes. The Provincial Committees of Safety of the American Revolution. New York: Haskell House, 1968. Originally published in 1904.

Margaret D.Sankey

See alsoCabinet .

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Revolutionary Committees

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Revolutionary Committees