Sunday, October 23, 2005

Below is an article I wrote for my class on Atlantic Revolutions. It is about the roles played by the Committees of Safety established during the American Revolution. My take is that these committees, while tied into the revolution, were attached to a pre-revolutionary mindset that promoted things like property confiscation, price controls, and other measures not normally associated with the American Revolution. The purpose of the article is to respond to other historians who have presented the American Revolution as two revolutions, one of the people manipulated and thwarted by the conservative founding fathers who led the second, presented almost as a mere change in leadership. This theory I obviously do not agree with and I think this issue of committees presents an interesting way to explore this historiographical question.

Last Stand of Tradition: The Role of the Committee in the American Revolution


As the possibility of armed conflict seemed more and more likely in the summer and fall of 1774, American colonists began to form themselves into committees, largely for the purpose of communicating with their aggrieved compatriots. These committees of correspondence would evolve, along with the escalating situation, into much more expansive, powerful, and important bodies that would eventually usurp most political authority at the local level.[1] At their zenith of importance in the first years of the American Revolution, before most of the colonies adopted constitutions to establish themselves as independent states, these committees would exercise their considerable authority in two principal areas; loyalist control and market interference usually in the form of price controls. When new constitutions came into being in the former colonies, these committees either disappeared or were delimited in their powers, particularly their incursions into the marketplace. That the committees often acted in league with local mobs in respect to loyalist treatment and market price mechanisms ultimately assured their demise. The committee in the American Revolution represented the remaining vestiges of the traditional political order inherited from Europe, which the Revolution ended up overturning.

When the minutemen of Lexington met their British adversaries in the first skirmish of what would become the American Revolution, Massachusetts was already a state of numerous committees, including the primary Boston Committee of Correspondence, Safety, and Inspection. In the months before the Continental Congress made independence and revolution a formal certainty, the local jurisdictions throughout the colonies began the arduous task of revolutionary governance through the ubiquitous “Committee of Safety.”[2] The first task of these committees was to make sure those loyal to the British, the Tories, did not hamper the revolution. In some areas, like the counties around New York City, this was impossible due to overwhelming Tory majorities, but in most counties the numbers were more even or favoring the patriots. [3]

In Virginia, a young James Madison had been elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety at the close of 1774. Throughout 1775 the future author of the U.S. Bill of Rights reveled in squashing the free speech of Tories in rural Virginia. One of Madison’s biographers relates the tale of one Reverend John Wingate,

He [Madison] took part in the humbling of the Revered John Wingate, rector of St. Thomas Parish in Orange County, for his refusal to surrender to the committee some “seditious” pamphlets in his possession. They were, he said, his personal property and could not be taken from him legally. The committee nevertheless seized the “execrable” documents and burned them before the militia. Madison then gloated that the clergyman, “finding his protection to be not so much in the law as the favor of the people, is grown very supple and obsequious.”[4]

In another instance, Madison commented on a parson who had refused to preach on one of the fasting days declared by the Continental Congress, “I question, should this insolence not abate if he does not get ducked in a coat of Tar and surplice of feathers and then he may go in his new Canonicals and act under the lawful Authority of Gen. Gage if he pleases.”[5] Clearly, the revolutionary moment could easily inflame the passions of even the most reserved or legally aware of the founding fathers.

It is important to note that instances of committees or even mobs killing any suspected loyalists are very difficult to find.[6] In Albany County, where there existed a fairly even distribution of patriots and Tories,[7] historian Edward Countryman tells us that “People in the City of Albany were drinking the King’s health as late as 1779 and one evening in 1777, as Burgoyne’s army was approaching, 300 loyalists gathered in the town of Schenectady.”[8] With such hostility to the revolution it is no surprise that as early as May, 1776 the Albany Committee received a letter from the New York City Committee of Safety telling them “to disarm the more dangerous of such Persons as are disaffected to our Cause.”[9] Two days after this letter was received the committee was notified that Daniel Litts had “Cursed, the Committee, beat and abused Susannah Nagel, and spoken disrespectful of the Whigs” for which he disarmed and made to “enter into Bond in the penalty of forty pounds for his future good behaviour.”[10]

In June of 1776 the Albany Committee decided that it had had enough of six Tories who were “notoriously disaffected to the measures pursued by the Friends to American Liberty.”[11] The committeemen wanted to be rid of them altogether, not by execution, but by being “removed under Guard to Hartford in Connecticut and that a Letter be wrote to his Honour Gov[ernor] Trumbull requesting him to dispose of them in his Colony as he shall think proper.”[12] This outlet for troublesome Tories was used again for a further twenty-six prisoners being held by the Albany Committee in the weeks immediately following the Declaration of Independence.[13]

In the ensuing months, the Albany Committee began to approve the confiscation of the property of these “disaffected” individuals to be used to pay for their maintenance while in jail or to support the committee’s activities.[14] Such actions occurred throughout 1777 until the Tory menace receded into the background and more pressing domestic issues arose. Even later controversies over merchants, prices, and hoarding were greatly colored by the experience of the early phases of committee governance and the fight against “disaffected” fellow Americans.

The committees were typically elected bodies and thus relied on zealous patriots not only for public support but, more importantly, to detect violations of Continental Congress boycotts, committee edicts, and to ferret out counter-revolutionary thought.[15] This relationship worked both ways however, as the committees would find out. The populace, once given such widespread powers, was reluctant to cede them back to the committees or even the newly constituted authorities once they came into existence. While this problem was displayed in the battle against Toryism, particularly its later phase of property confiscation, it was more apparent in the desire for market regulations and price control measures.

In his work, The American Revolution, Countryman lays out the basics of this public desire as it appeared throughout most of the northern colonies,

Merchants who played the market of held back goods and speculators who depreciated the currency became “monopolizers” and “hoarders.” Crowds, often made up largely of women, gathered and acted out the rituals of popular price setting that people of their time knew so well. Hearing that a trader had a supply of tea or salt, the crowd would visit him and offer a price its members thought just.[16]

Of course if the trader rejected this effort to set the price, he could expect his shop to be trashed with the only bright spot being that (usually) the crowd would leave behind the “just” price for the goods they took from him, but not the money needed to repair his place of business.[17] Caught up in the revolutionary fires of 1776-1777, most committees acquiesced or even encouraged this behavior as in the case of the Albany Committee, which was “fixing prices and jailing merchants for profiteering” in 1776 and “putting embargoes on needed supplies, setting prices, punishing hoarders, and regulating distribution” in 1777.[18] When moderation and rejection of these policies began to occur later in the revolution the committees “could find themselves targets [of the crowds] instead.”[19]

Before getting to the reaction and condemnation of revolutionary leaders against these market incursions is it important to get some idea of what these incursions were and how they exacerbated the very problems they were designed to eliminate. Writing from Loudoun County, Virginia, Nicholas Cresswell recorded in his journal,

Wednesday, January 8th, 1777. This is a most unhappy country. Every necessary of life is at an extravagant price, some of them indeed is not to be had for money. Poor people are almost naked. Congress or Committee of Safety or some of those infernal bodies have issued an Order that every one that is fortunate enough to be possessed of two coats is to give one to their naked soldiers. Grain now begins to bear a good price, owing to such great quantities being distilled and the small proportion that is in the ground. I am persuaded there will be a famine very soon as well as a War.[20]

Without the detailed and comprehensive economic statistics compiled on the American economy since the days of the Great Depression it is often difficult to reconstruct economic conditions in eighteenth century situations particularly confused revolutionary ones, but Cresswell does hint at some developments. For instance, he mentions that some of the necessaries of life could not be purchased with money, suggesting a great deal of inflation or expected inflation impacting the market in a very negative way. The fact that a small amount of grain was in the ground may be a reference to the existence of price ceilings discouraging further surplus production of grain.


Figure 1
(There would be a graph here demonstrating the effect of a price ceiling on a market with nifty arrows and such illustrating the creation of a shortage. Could not manage to get it onto the blog so you must imagine what it looks like. Got it? Yes, good. No, too bad)
[21]

Figure 1 shows exactly what occurs when price ceilings are imposed on the marketplace; they create a shortage, either through lack of production, or as was the case in the American Revolution, the practice of hoarding until the price could either be freed of the ceiling or until the ceiling rose sufficiently. Another reason for hoarding would be to reserve one’s product for the black market of free prices as opposed to the legal market of the price ceiling. In the debates in the Continental Congress over whether to offer support to New England price controls, Benjamin Rush pointed out that “The merchants, it is true, sold their rum, sugar, and molasses at the price limited by the committee, but they charged a heavy profit upon the barrel, or the paper which contained the rum or the sugar.” Unless the American revolutionaries were willing to place the whole price system under committee control which Dr. Witherspoon concisely dismissed in saying “If we limit one article, we must limit every thing, and this is impossible,” they could never hope to contain prices without also accepting the specter of mob enforcement.[22]

The inflation of the revolution along with price controls on various goods caused all sorts of odd and wildly varying price fluctuations. Benjamin Rush ranked the inflation caused by the Continental Congress and the individual colonies as the prime enemy, “The extortion we complain of arises only from the excessive quantity of our money.”[23] Those already producing under price controls looked in desperation to their committees to control the prices of every other good as was the case of the gunlock makers of Philadelphia, who petitioned their Committee of Safety in December of 1776. In their petition the gunlock makers said,

At the commencement they had materials to procure which were new and uncommon; hands to instruct who were strangers and unlearned, and even those to purchase at double their value; steel to provide, in which article their loss is manifest to their acquaintance. Still hoping that their perseverance would surmount every difficulty, they continued with labor and assiduity. Notwithstanding which, they now find it impossible to subsist, as their most painful endeavors bear no proportion to the present rate of things. Files are now double what they have been, and some treble; vices, double; steel, scarce any to be found good; thirty to forty shillings advance on one hundred bushels of coal; journeymen’s wages still rising; your Petitioners limited; and the enormous price of every other necessity too well known to trouble your Honors with a repetition.[24]

In response to inflation the New England states enacted legislation “that made paper legal tender in private and public transactions, set price ceilings for a host of domestic and imported goods and labor, and outlawed withholding from the market.”[25] It was these moves that sparked the debate in the Continental Congress where John Adams opposed the actions with comments which sound like a modern economist, “Perhaps I may here speak against the sense of my constituents, but I cannot help it. I much doubt the justice, policy and necessity of the resolution. The high price of many articles arises from their scarcity. If we regulate the price of imports we shall immediately put a stop to them forever.”[26]

Despite the best efforts of committees to placate traditional notions of fair pricing through price ceilings while also attempting to prevent the predictable hoarding response of producers, merchants continued to resist. We know this because the accounts of how those who continued to hoard or refuse to sell at set prices were dealt with are around to be read today. Countryman relates an interesting story from Boston where “a figure who called himself ‘Joyce, Jr.’ led crowds of up to five hundred people that carted monopolizers around town and enforced price controls.”[27] Resistance to these measures continued up until the leaders of the revolution turned their attention away from winning the military phase of it to securing what they thought the war had been fought for.

As early as the middle of 1777 the counter-attack against price controls was already well underway in Massachusetts and other New England states prompted largely by the alarm of men like Adams and Rush in the Continental Congress. Barbara Smith describes this counter-attack by starting with the Boston merchants who “rallied to carry the May town meeting against price controls.” The merchants pointed out that the laws operated “directly opposite to the Idea of Liberty” and began making explicit the connection between liberty and free trade. By the fall, the price controls were repealed in Massachusetts and New Hampshire with further portents against these measures brewing in other colonies.[28]

As alarming as the efforts to control prices were to those leading the revolution at the national level were, it was the willingness of local committees and eventually the state legislatures to print money backed with nothing as legal tender for debt payments which was their principle economic objection when the fight over the constitution became the focus in the late 1780s. The committees were largely reversed in their efforts to control prices, making their usefulness to those crowds which invoked their authority when demanding “just” prices negligible at best. The rhetoric of “monopolizers” and “hoarders” could never have been adopted by men like Washington,[29] Adams, or even Madison who by 1781 was in the Continental Congress complaining of the irresponsibility of the states and the Continental Congress itself in printing money.[30] Without the help of speculators like Robert Morris it is hard to fathom how Washington could have gotten much needed supplies that the Continental Congress could simply not pay for.

Historians of the committees of the American Revolution are largely concerned with their rise in the early phase of the revolution and their subsequent downfall at the hands of merchants and revolutionary leaders. Barbara Smith writes, “By 1780, it had become clear that neither Congress nor the states would pursue price control policies; both, moreover, would discourage popular political forms. By 1780, the Revolution had changed.”[31] Countryman has echoed this sentiment in broader terms, writing, “It [the constitution] marked not only the end of the Revolution but also a reaction against it.”[32] In a way this idea is undercut by these historians own focus on continuity of tradition in respect to mob activity and price controlling. The Revolution was proclaimed for freedom and liberty, fought to secure the inalienable rights of man including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the moment of declaring independence the Continental Congress rejected the traditional notion of collective rights in favor of the enlightenment ideal of individual rights, implicitly at the very least.

After the first and most precarious years of revolution were over the Patriots began to realize that their ideals needed to be implemented in practice, regardless of traditional norms. In Providence, Rhode Island, the town meeting unequivocally condemned price ceilings and anti-withholding laws, saying these laws “render a Man’s House and Store liable to be opened and searched in a Manner most ignominious and unworthy of Freemen.”[33] In New York the provincial congress similarly condemned the traditional practice of taking tea from merchants who would not accept “just” prices. The congress pointed to what the revolution was about, “In a free country no man ought to be divested of his property, but by his own consent or the law of the land.”[34] One should not view the fall of committees and the fall of pre-revolutionary market relationships as the failure of an alternate American Revolution and the beginning of a conservative counter-revolution, but as the logical fulfillment of the revolution’s ideals as stated from its beginning.


[1] See Edward Countryman, The American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 107; Ralph Ketchum, James Madison (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 63; and Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 213.
[2] Ketchum, James Madison, 63.
[3] Edward Countryman, “Consolidating Power in Revolutionary America: The Case of New York, 1775-1783,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 6, No. 4, Interdisciplinary Studies of the American Revolution (Spring, 1976), 650-651.
[4] Ketchum, James Madison, 63.
[5] Madison quoted by Ketchum, James Madison, 63.
[6] Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, 214.
[7] Countryman, “Consolidating Power,” 651.
[8] Ibid, 652.
[9] Minutes of the Albany Committee of Correspondence, vol. 1, 8 May 1776, compiled by James Sullivan (Albany: The University of The State of New York, 1923), 399.
[10] Ibid, 10 May 1776, 403.
[11] Ibid, 13 June 1776, 445.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, 26 July 1776, 503.
[14] Ibid; 14 May 1777, 753; 15 May 1777, 756; 28 May 1777, 770; 13 June 1777, 793.
[15] Barbara Clark Smith, “Food Rioters and the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 51, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), 15.
[16] Countryman, The American Revolution, 138.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Countryman, “Consolidating Power,” 660-61.
[19] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 18.
[20] Nicholas Cresswell, Journal, January 5-17, 1777, The American Revolution, ed. John Rhodehamel (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 264.
[21] If the price were set above the market price (where the supply and demand curves meet) it would be a price floor and cause a market surplus. The question of how these regulations actually effect the market depends on how far above or below the market price the artificial price is placed.
[22] From the Diary of Dr. Benjamin Rush of debates on price controls in the Continental Congress on February 14, 1777, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 782-784.
[23] Ibid, 782-83.
[24] James Walsh and Samuel Kinder on behalf of the gunlock makers of Philadelphia to the Philadelphia Committee of Safety, December, 1776, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 777.
[25] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 19.
[26] From the Diary of Dr. Benjamin Rush of debates on price controls in the Continental Congress on February 14, 1777, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 784.
[27] Countryman, The American Revolution, 138. See also Smith, “Food Rioters,” where Joyce, Jr. is identified as a member of the Committee of Safety, John Winthrop.
[28] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 22.
[29] That being said, Washington could get riled up over the prospect of those who purposely tried to bleed the congress dry when selling vital war supplies or even necessaries to the public, commenting to Joseph Reed in 1778 that “No punishment in my opinion is too great for the Man who can build his greatness upon his Country’s ruin.” The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 804.
[30] James Madison to Philip Mazzei, July 7, 1781, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 795-96.
[31] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 25.
[32] Countryman, The American Revolution, 203.
[33] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 22.
[34] Ibid, 24.

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