Committees of Correspondence: Definition and History

American patriot Patrick Henry gives his famous 'Give me liberty, or give me death' speech in front of the Virginia Assembly, 1775.
American patriot Patrick Henry gives his famous 'Give me liberty, or give me death' speech in front of the Virginia Assembly, 1775. Interim Archives/Getty Images

The Committees of Correspondence were provisional governments formed by patriot leaders in the Thirteen American Colonies as a means of communicating with each other and their agents in Britain on the verge of the American Revolution. After first being established in Boston in 1764, Committees of Correspondence spread throughout the colonies, and by 1773, they served as “shadow governments,” seen by the people as having more power than the colonial legislatures and local British officials. The exchange of information between the committees built the patriots’ resolve and solidarity that encouraged the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Key Takeaways: Committees of Correspondence

  • Committees of Correspondence were quasi-governmental bodies formed in the thirteen American colonies between 1764 and 1776.
  • Created by Patriot leaders, the Committees of Correspondence created and distributed information and opinion about repressive British policies among themselves and their sympathetic agents in England.
  • By 1775, the Committees of Correspondence were functioning as “shadow governments,” often viewed as wielding more power than the colonial legislatures themselves.
  • The exchange of information between the Committees of Correspondence built a sense of solidarity among the American people, paving the way for the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War.

Historical Context

The Committees of Correspondence sprang up during the decade before the Revolution, when the American colonies' worsening relationship with Britain made it more important for the patriot colonists to share information and opinion. 

By the early 1770s, volumes of written observations and opinions about increasingly restrictive British control were being generated throughout the American colonies. While many of these letters, pamphlets, and newspaper editorials were extremely compelling, the American patriots lacked any modern means of sharing them throughout the colonies. To address this, the Committees of Correspondence were established to spread the power of the written word from colony to colony and from town to town.

Boston established the first Committee of Correspondence in 1764 to encourage opposition to repressive British customs enforcement and to the Currency Acts, which banned all 13 colonies from printing money and opening public banks. In 1765, New York formed a similar committee to advise the other colonies about its actions in resisting the Stamp Act, which required that printed materials in the colonies be produced only on paper manufactured in London and embossed with a British revenue stamp.

Committee Functions and Operations

1774: A gathering of minutemen - colonial militia of New England who were ready to fight the British at a moment's notice.
1774: A gathering of minutemen - colonial militia of New England who were ready to fight the British at a moment's notice. Currier & Ives/MPI/Getty Images

The most important role of a Committee of Correspondence was to formulate the colony’s interpretation of the effect of British policy and share it with the other colonies and sympathetic foreign governments, like France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In this way, the committees identified common causes and grievances to formulate plans for collective opposition and action. Eventually, the committees functioned as a single formal political union among the 13 colonies. In essence, the committees were planning the Revolution at a grassroots level.

In a February 13, 1818 letter to Hezekiah Nile, Founding Father and second President of the United States John Adams praised the effectiveness of the Committees of Correspondence, writing:

“The complete accomplishment of it in so short a time and by such simple means was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together: a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”

By the time America declared its independence in 1776, as many as 8,000 patriots served on colonial and local Committees of Correspondence. British loyalists were identified and excluded. When decisions were made to boycott British products, the committees published the names of colonial merchants who continued to import and sell British goods in defiance of the boycott.

Eventually, the committees began functioning as virtual shadow governments exercising growing control over many areas of American life. They created intelligence and espionage networks to ferret out elements disloyal to the patriot cause and removed British officials from positions of power. In 1774 and 1775, the committees oversaw the elections of delegates to provincial conventions, which came to control the colonial government itself. At a more personal level, the committees built feelings of patriotism, promoted the use of homemade products, and urged Americans to live simpler lives while shunning the luxuries and privileges offered by submission to British rule.

Notable Examples

While there were hundreds of colonial and local Committees of Correspondence, a few stood out because of their impact on the patriot movement and their especially notable members. 

Boston, Massachusetts

Artist's rendering of the Boston Tea Party, Boston, Massachusetts, December 16, 1773.
Artist's rendering of the Boston Tea Party, Boston, Massachusetts, December 16, 1773. MPI/Getty Images

Perhaps the most impactful Committee of Correspondence was formed in Boston by Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and 20 other patriot leaders in response to the Gaspée Affair, which had taken place off the coast of Rhode Island in June 1772. In the event considered one of the main triggers of the American Revolution, the British customs enforcement schooner Gaspée was attacked, boarded, and burned by a group of patriots.

Under Adams' leadership, the Boston committee became the prototype for similar patriot groups. In a letter to James Warren dated November 4, 1772, Samuel Adams explained that the purpose of the Boston Committee of Correspondence was to “Prepare a statement of the rights of the colonists, and of this province in particular, as men, as Christians, and as subjects; Prepare a declaration of the infringement of those rights; and Prepare a letter to be sent to all the towns of this province and to the world, giving the sense of this town.” Within months, more than 100 other Massachusetts towns had formed committees to respond to communications from Boston.

Virginia

On March 12, 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a resolution establishing a permanent legislative Committee of Correspondence, featuring patriot luminaries Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Harrison among its 11 members.

“Whereas, the minds of his Majesty's faithful subjects in this colony have been much disturbed by various rumours and reports of proceedings tending to deprive them of their ancient, legal, and constitutional rights,” stated the resolution, “therefore, to remove the uneasinesses and to quiet the minds of the people, as well as for the other good purposes above mentioned Be it resolved, that a standing committee of correspondence and inquiry be appointed to consist of eleven persons …”

Over the next eight months, eight other American colonies followed Virginia’s example by establishing their own Committees of Correspondence.

New York

On March 30, 1774, the British Parliament enacted the Boston Port Act—one of the Intolerable Acts—closing the port of Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. When word of the port’s closure reached New York, a flyer posted at the Coffee House on Wall Street called on New York area patriots to gather on May 16, 1774, at the Fraunces Tavern “in order to consult on measures proper to be pursued on the present critical and important situation.” At the meeting, the group voted to form a New York Committee of Correspondence. On May 23, members of the “Committee of Fifty” convened for the first time at the Coffee House, appointing eventual Continental Congress delegate Isaac Low as its permanent chairman.

In response to the events in Boston, the New York committee distributed a letter calling for the assembly of a “Congress of Deputies from the Colonies,” which would convene in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, as the First Continental Congress. On May 31, the committee sent letters to the supervisors of all other New York counties urging them to form similar Committees of Correspondence.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Committees of Correspondence.” National Library for the Study of George Washington.
  • John Adams, Letter to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, “The Works of John Adams, vol. 10.” Boston:Little, Brown and Co., 1856, ISBN: 9781108031660.
  • Brown, Richard D. (1970). “Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774.” Harvard University Press, ISBN-10: 0674767810.
  • Ketchum, Richard M. (2002). “Divided Loyalties, How the American Revolution came to New York.” Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 978-0-8050-6120-8.
  • “Virginia Resolutions Establishing A Committee of Correspondence; March 12, 1773.” Yale Law School: Avalon Project.