Secret Committee of Congress

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Secret Committee of Congress

SECRET COMMITTEE OF CONGRESS. Congress created this standing committee (sometimes confused with the Committee of Secret Correspondence) on 18 September 1775 with responsibility for organizing the procurement of war supplies. Given wide powers, large sums of money, and authorization to keep its proceedings secret—it destroyed many of its records—the Secret Committee was effective largely because of its first chairman, Thomas Willing, who was succeeded in December 1775 by his business partner, Robert Morris. (On 30 January 1776, the latter was appointed also to the other secret committee.) Other original members were Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, Robert R. Livingston, John Alsop, John Dickinson, Thomas McKean, John Langdon, and Samuel Ward. The members of this committee tended to be men experienced in foreign trade, leading to some serious conflicts of interest. The biggest contracts went to the firm of Willing and Morris; to relatives and friends of Deane; and to firms connected with Alsop, Livingston, and Francis Lewis (who subsequently joined the committee). Criticism of the committee's activities increased as the war progressed, with the Adamses and Lees unsuccessfully demanding an investigation into war profiteering.

Authority of the Secret Committee soon was extended to include supplies other than guns and ammunition. In January 1776 it was asked to import medicines, surgical instruments, blankets, cotton goods, and various metals. Soon it controlled virtually all foreign trade. One of the most questionable operations of the committee started in January 1776, when Congress voted it forty thousand pounds for the importation of Indian gifts; contracting merchants were allowed a commission of 5 percent, and the government insured their vessels against British seizures. Three of the four contracting merchants were members of the Secret Committee: Morris, Alsop, and Lewis. The other was Philip Livingston, a cousin of another member of the committee. In April the Secret Committee was empowered to arm and man vessels in foreign countries for the work of Congress, thereby becoming involved in privateering.

The body launched itself boldly into the field of foreign affairs when, in conjunction with the Committee of Secret Correspondence, it sent Silas Deane to France. Affairs of the two secret committees became hopelessly scrambled early in 1777 when Franklin, Deane, and Arthur Lee began their duties as peace commissioners. The name of the Secret Committee was therefore changed in July 1777 to the Committee of Commerce, which later evolved into the Department of Commerce, and the Committee of Secret Correspondence became the Committee on Foreign Affairs on 17 April 1777.

SEE ALSO Alsop, John; Committee of Secret Correspondence; Deane, Silas; Dickinson, John; Franklin, Benjamin; Hortalez & Cie; Langdon, John; Lewis, Francis; Livingston, Philip; Livingston, Robert R.; McKean, Thomas; Morris, Robert (1734–1806); Privateers and Privateering; Ward, Samuel.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Horgan, Lucille E. Forged in War: The Continental Congress and the Origin of Military Supply and Acquisition Policy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Nuxoll, Elizabeth. Congress and the Munitions Merchants: The Secret Committee of Trade during the American Revolution, 1775–1777. New York: Garland, 1985.

                                revised by Michael Bellesiles