Transatlantic legislative committees of correspondence had operated in the North American and Caribbean colonies since at least the 1690s. Colonial legislatures chose committees of correspondence from within their membership to communicate with the legislature’s agents in London. Legislatures hired these agents to represent their interests to the British government, most often in disputes with their own governor or with other colonies. In the mid-1760s, committees of correspondence, including Virginia’s, broke with tradition and instructed their agents to join forces. This method of intercolonial communication—legislatures indirectly cooperating through their agents abroad—worked spectacularly well during the winter of 1765–1766 to pressure Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. However, due to some interpersonal drama among the agents and political barriers erected by Parliament, this method became an ineffective mode of redress within a few years. Disillusioned, the House of Burgesses chose to abolish its transatlantic committee of correspondence and agency in March 1772.
In addition to communicating through agents in London, colonial legislatures occasionally wrote to each other directly via circular letters—one-off messages to multiple other assemblies. Colonial legislatures did not send circular letters lightly and only resorted to them when they needed to quickly discuss a matter that broadly affected colonists. It was a tactic to be used in response to threats, not as a part of the ordinary business of politics. The Revenue Act (1764), Stamp Act (1765), and Townshend Acts (1767) worried colonists so much that New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Massachusetts (twice) sent circular letters to open lines of communication and potentially coordinate protests. Massachusetts’s 1768 circular letter was so controversial that Secretary of State Lord Hillsborough told governors to punish the legislatures that dared to formally acknowledge it. Hillsborough’s draconian tactic backfired: several assemblies responded to Massachusetts’s letter out of indignation, emphatically declaring their right to communicate with their colleagues in other colonies. But colonial legislatures did not develop a system of regular communication among themselves.
While these legislative committees discussed politics at the provincial level, colonists in cities and towns began experimenting with their own formalized channels of intercolonial communication. The clandestine dissident organization the Sons of Liberty organized protests against the Stamp Act through a network of local committees of correspondence, and merchant committees in dozens of port cities used letters to debate economic sanctions in response to the Townshend Acts. These were ephemeral networks, however, that targeted specific acts of Parliament and were not intended to last beyond the repeal of the acts they protested.
The first attempt to create a permanent network of committees occurred in Massachusetts in 1772. At that time, rumors abounded that the Crown was going to implement administrative changes in Massachusetts that would violate its charter and weaken its House of Representatives. To rally opposition to these rumored changes—and to protect against any future encroachments on their rights—Samuel Adams and a coterie of radicals in the Boston town meeting organized a town committee of correspondence. They wrote a letter to every town in Massachusetts encouraging the creation of a local committee of correspondence. Their efforts were wildly successful, with the majority of towns forming committees. Though initially only active in Massachusetts, the founders of the Boston Committee of Correspondence widely publicized their network as a new blueprint for long-distance political organization.
During the 1760s and 1770s, a small number of influential politicians closely watched these developments in intercolonial communications and increasingly linked correspondence to colonial empowerment. These men—including Samuel Adams and Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee—worried that a nefarious group of imperial officials was plotting to revoke the rights of colonists throughout North America. They believed that this threat could only be combatted if colonists knew what was happening elsewhere and if they were motivated to act across colony lines. In their letters to each other, Adams, Lee, and others settled upon intercolonial committees of correspondence as an ideal way to create a community and enable colonists to protect through joint action. Now all they needed was an excuse to implement their loosely formed plans.
Founding of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence
In June 1772, Rhode Islanders set fire to a British customs ship, the HMS Gaspee, escalating a years-long dispute over the mother country’s enforcement of its anti-smuggling laws. The British government appointed a special commission to investigate and extradite the arsonists to England, which some colonists felt would violate their right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Virginians learned about the Gaspee commission in late 1772. The details were imprecise and unreliable, but what little they did know deeply concerned some burgesses. When Parliament had tried to put together a similar commission to punish Boston rioters in 1769, the House of Burgesses had petitioned the King, denouncing extradition as a violation of their rights. The Gaspee commission seemed to be a direct rebuke of their concerns and a violation of colonial rights.
These concerned burgesses received an opportunity to discuss the Gaspee commission when the royal governor, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Dabney Carr, Jefferson’s brother-in-law. They decided that the best way to combat the threat to their rights posed by the Gaspee commission was for Virginia to create a standing committee of correspondence. Such a group was unusual because it would communicate with other colonies’ committees both in times of peace and upheaval. The Lee brothers, Henry, Jefferson, and Carr believed that such a network of committees could build an intercolonial community and share reliable information that would empower colonists work together to protect their rights., called the General Assembly to meet in March 1773. Between official meetings of the House, a small group of young, radical burgesses met privately at the Raleigh Tavern to plan a response to the Gaspee commission. This group included Richard Henry Lee, his brother
The group at the Raleigh Tavern drafted a resolution for the Burgesses to create a standing committee of correspondence. The committee’s first task would be to gather information from other colonies and London on the constitutionality of the Gaspee commission. The resolution made clear that uncertainty regarding the Gaspee commission was the immediate justification for this new committee, but that the committees would circulate information about any and all acts of Parliament that affected the British colonies. After all, the resolution noted, “the affairs of this colony are frequently connected with those of … the neighboring colonies, which renders a communication of sentiments necessary.” Richard Henry Lee later said that he and his colleagues painstakingly worded this resolution to make it difficult for royal officials to accuse them of treason as they had the Massachusetts House in 1768. But for those reading between the lines, the resolution’s proposed communication network was an insurance policy against future Parliamentary encroachment.
The Raleigh Tavern group also proposed a list of men to sit on the Virginia Committee of Correspondence. Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson, Henry, and Carr all claimed seats for themselves. They strategically chose seven other burgesses who could lend the committee legitimacy and a veneer of conservatism, or at least moderation. The seven burgesses proposed were: Peyton Randolph, the speaker of the house; Robert Carter Nicholas, the treasurer; Archibald Cary, a wealthy and influential political moderate; and Benjamin Harrison, who was aligned with the men meeting at the Raleigh Tavern. In addition to their other credentials, Randolph, Nicholas, Brand, and Digges had all served on Virginia’s transatlantic committee of correspondence for several years in the 1760s. Thus, the young, radical burgesses at the Raleigh Tavern crafted a committee that would deemphasize the novelty of their idea to establish intercolonial communication in a time of relative calm., who had been a burgess for thirty-two years; Dudley Digges, another veteran burgess; Edmund Pendleton, a renowned lawyer;
Their strategy worked. On March 12, Carr officially introduced the group’s resolution in the House of Burgesses. The representatives accepted the resolution without revision and adopted it unanimously, creating the first legislative standing committee explicitly for intercolonial communication. The Virginia Committee of Correspondence would speak on behalf of the burgesses, writing and receiving letters even when the burgesses were not in session. The committee was not an autonomous body—it had to record and present its letters to the burgess for inspection whenever the House was in session—but it was a mechanism for sustained and open communication between the colonies.
The Virginia Committee of Correspondence met the following day to plan its next steps. The members identified who they wanted to contact in England and the colonies to learn more about the Gaspee commission. They also designated a select committee of correspondence composed of the three committeemen who lived closest to Williamsburg to write and receive letters when the full committee didn’t have a quorum.
On March 19, the Virginia Committee of Correspondence sent letters to twelve other colonial legislatures with the burgess’s resolution to create a “committee of correspondence and enquiry” and implored them to do the same. Within a year of Virginia’s proposal, eleven of the colonial legislatures had founded their own committees of correspondence (the exceptions were North Carolina and Pennsylvania). Responses to the Virginia committee were notably light on information about the Gaspee commission, but explicitly reciprocated the burgesses’ desire for a more united community of colonies. The Connecticut Committee of Correspondence declared, “The Union of the Colonies is of the last importance and we conceive a regular correspondence the most certain means to effect so salutary a design.” The creation of these committees indicates not only that the legislatures found value in unity, but that they expected they may need to work together to oppose Parliament in the near future.
These first letters between intercolonial committees of correspondence established that the colonies had united interests. What was not established was what exactly that meant and what the colonies’ responsibilities to each other were. Indeed, this problem would bedevil colonists for the next several years.
Organizing the Continental Congress
After this first flurry of correspondence, the intercolonial committees were subdued for a year. The Virginia committee’s official second meeting didn’t occur until May 1774 because it could not gather a quorum of six committeemen. This lapse was fairly typical of the committees; when legislatures were in session, it was easy to meet, discuss, and write letters, but when legislatures dissolved or adjourned, committees of correspondence were quiescent.
Parliament’s passage of the Boston Port Act on March 25, 1774, stirred the intercolonial committees to action. The law punished Bostonians for the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred in December 1773, by closing Boston Harbor to all commercial ships beginning June 1, 1774. The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts House’s Committee of Correspondence spread the word about their situation rapidly and relentlessly. As Bostonians’ cries for help and solidarity raced down the Eastern Seaboard, it catalyzed the creation of dozens of local committees of correspondence within weeks.
The House of Burgesses was in session when the Virginia Committee of Correspondence received the news from Boston. On May 24, the House of Burgesses declared solidarity with Bostonians and designated June 1, 1774, as a day of fasting in Virginia. Governor Dunmore immediately dissolved the House when he learned what they had done two days later. On May 27, eighty-nine burgesses who were still in town reconvened at the Raleigh Tavern and recommended that the Virginia Committee of Correspondence invite the other colonies to appoint delegates to a congress where they could decide on a joint response to the Boston Port Act. Technically this was an illegal, or at least extralegal, meeting of the burgesses, and they had no authority over the Virginia Committee of Correspondence. Nevertheless, the Virginia committee immediately penned a letter to the other colonial legislatures endorsing the recommendation of a continental congress.
Unbeknownst to the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, several other committees of correspondence were writing letters with the same suggestion. Over the next few weeks, dozens of letters passed between the intercolonial committees, confirming the need for a congress. After choosing a date and location—September 1 in Philadelphia—the next step was to determine who should be sent to the congress. One early idea was to simply send the legislatures’ committees of correspondence (the committees in New England particularly liked this idea). Another idea was to have the committees or the legislatures choose delegations, but this posed logistical and political difficulties. In the end, the majority of colonies called for special extralegal conventions to elect delegates.
The Virginia Committee of Correspondence organized Virginia’s convention. On May 31, well before plans for the Continental Congress were settled, the Virginia committee sent a letter to every county in the colony imploring them to select delegates for a special provincial convention. The Virginia Convention met in early August and chose seven delegates to represent them at the Continental Congress. Six of the seven delegates were members of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence—only George Washington was not.
With the departure of so many members of the House of Burgesses to Philadelphia, the Virginia Committee of Correspondence essentially ceased to exist in the fall of 1774. Permutations of it would reemerge through the Virginia Convention’s Committee of Correspondence, but the existence of a standing committee for intercolonial correspondence that had the imprimatur of the legislature had come to an end in Virginia.
By founding a network of committees of correspondence in a time of relative peace, the Virginia Committee of Correspondence and other colonial legislatures laid the framework for the creation of a colonial union in British America to resist imperial policies. The Virginia Committee of Correspondence’s greatest legacy was the pivotal role it played in facilitating that union, which ultimately had revolutionary potential.