When is a letter revolutionary? That’s the question at the heart of our new entry on the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, the first in EV’s new section on the American Revolution in Virginia.
It was 250 years ago this week, on March 12, 1773, that the House of Burgesses created a permanent committee to correspond with other colonial legislatures about perceived threats to their rights from the British government. And shortly thereafter, they wrote to the other colonial legislatures asking them to do the same.
This might sound less than revolutionary, but what the burgesses were proposing was the formation of a colonial union that would share intelligence and potentially act together to oppose the Crown. And in the days before the internet, or phones, or even telegraph lines, it was the humble letter that would connect this new network.
The immediate cause of the burgesses’ alarm was a rumor that the British government planned to extradite the Rhode Islanders who had set fire to the British customs ship HHS Gaspee in a long-running dispute over anti-smuggling laws, depriving them of their right to a trial by a jury of their peers. But budding revolutionaries like Richard Henry Lee and Samuel Adams already had been formulating plans to combat imperial overreach by building a colonial community linked by committees of correspondence.
Plans for the Virginia committee were finalized at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg by Richard Henry Lee, his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Dabney Carr, Jefferson’s brother-in-law, and unanimously adopted by the House of Burgesses. Within a year, eleven of the colonial legislatures had founded their own committees of correspondence (the exceptions were North Carolina and Pennsylvania).
For the first year the committees were relatively inconsequential. But when Parliament shut down Boston Harbor to punish Bostonians for the Boston Tea Party, it was this established intercolonial network that spread the news rapidly and rallied opposition.
The Virginia burgesses quickly declared solidarity with Bostonians and designated June 1, the day the Boston port was to be closed to commercial shipping, as a day of fasting. The reaction from the royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, was furious. He immediately disbanded the House of Burgesses, sending the disgruntled legislators to Raleigh Tavern to plot a continental congress—the paper colonial union incarnated and now ripe with revolutionary potential.
Welcome Katy Gehred
As EV begins work on our new section on the American Revolution in Virginia, we are delighted to welcome Katy Gehred as our new media editor. Katy was previously with the Papers of George Washington and the Center for Digital Editing at the University of Virginia, where she was a research editor responsible for identifying and obtaining media images for the online publication of the papers of Martha Washington. Katy also worked at Monticello, where she helped write the Hemings Family Tour, which shifts the focus from Thomas Jefferson to a family he enslaved.
Katy received an M.A. in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. in History from Bowling Green State University, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities from George Mason University. She also hosts a women’s history podcast and has written extensively about the Washington family.