Committee of Secret Correspondence

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Committee of Secret Correspondence

COMMITTEE OF SECRET CORRESPONDENCE. In anticipation of foreign contacts, if not alliances, on 29 November 1775 the Continental Congress appointed a five-man Committee of Correspondence—soon renamed the Committee of Secret Correspondence—"for the sole purpose of Corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland and other parts of the world." The original members were John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Jay, and Thomas Johnson. James Lovell joined later, becoming an influential and hardworking member, and on 30 January 1776 Robert Morris, chairman of another panel called the Secret Committee, was made a member. The new committee marked the beginning of the United States diplomatic relations with other nations.

Arthur Lee was the committee's first correspondent in Europe, followed by Charles Frederic William Dumas, a student of international law residing in The Hague, Netherlands. After meetings with Achard de Bonvouloir, the committee decided on 3 March 1776 to send an agent to France, in the guise of a merchant, to investigate the possibilities of French aid and political support. Silas Deane was selected by the Continental Congress for the assignment. A diplomatic commission to France consisting of Franklin, Deane, and Arthur Lee was appointed by Congress in September 1776.

Since the functions of the two congressional committees soon become entangled, the Committee of Secret Correspondence was renamed the Committee on Foreign Affairs (17 April 1777), and the Secret Committee became the Committee of Commerce (5 July 1777). Thomas Paine became paid secretary of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in April 1777, and this body thereafter directed American diplomacy. In the furor surrounding the recall of Deane and the investigation of Hortalez & Cie, a company that funneled French aid to the United States, Paine made public use of confidential documents whose revelation embarrassed the French government, and on 8 January 1779 he resigned under pressure. As with most congressional committees, the work undertaken usually depended on the energy of a single member. By 1779 it was James Lovell who fulfilled this role for the Committee on Foreign Affairs, as he well knew, writing Arthur Lee to complain about his crushing administrative load: "there really is no such Thing as a Com'tee of foreign affairs existing—no Secretary or Clerk—further than that I persevere to be the one and the other."

The following year Congress appointed Lovell, James Duane, and William C. Houston to investigate the problems of the committee. Their report was made in the summer of 1780 but not considered by Congress until December, and on 6 January 1781 that body agreed to replace the Committee on Foreign Affairs with a secretary of foreign affairs. The first man to hold this office was Robert R. Livingston, who was elected on 10 August. Livingston resigned in June 1783, and the office remained vacant until John Jay returned from Europe in July 1784. Jay was succeeded on 22 March 1790 by Thomas Jefferson, who became the first secretary of state under the new Constitution.

SEE ALSO Bonvouloir; Deane, Silas; Dickinson, John; Duane, James; Franklin, Benjamin; Harrison, Benjamin; Hortalez & Cie; Jay, John; Lee, Arthur; Livingston, Robert R.; Lovell, James; Morris, Robert (1734–1806); Paine, Thomas.


Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

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Committee of Secret Correspondence

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Committee of Secret Correspondence