The Committee of Correspondence: Moving Towards IndependenceBy Brian D. McKnight
In March of 1773, twenty-nine year old Dabney Carr rose from his seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses and proceeded to change the world. Carr grew to adulthood as young Thomas Jefferson's greatest friend and had spent many bright afternoons with young Thomas in the shade of the great oaks of the future Monticello. The lifelong attachment to each other and this small hill, culminated in their legendary promise to be interred in this hallowed ground.1
Carr addressed the House and suggested the establishment of a standing Committee of Correspondence and Inquiry. This committee would be tasked with contacting the legislatures of each colony so that they could join Virginia and offer concerted opposition toward British encroachments.2 With his gifts of youth, intellect, and ambition; Carr seemed to be destined for a stellar career in politics. Destined he was, not for power but for that comforting place on the side of the mountain. Within two months of Dabney Carr's shining moment in Williamsburg, the young man who had not yet seen his thirtieth year would die in Charlottesville. His dearest friend would keep their promise of years past and place Carr in the shade of the oaks.
Committees of Correspondence were not unknown to colonial legislatures. For many years, various colonies had used these committees to deal with important matters usually between the individual colony and the mother country.3 They tended to be temporary organizations which were dissolved shortly after their usefulness was exhausted until backcountry counterfeiting and Rhode Island's Gaspee Affair spurred Richard Henry Lee and his Raleigh Tavern associates to suggest the establishment of an intercolonial standing Committee of Correspondence.4
Situated on one of Williamsburg's busiest avenues, Duke of Gloucester Street, the Raleigh Tavern was used to seeing the important men of Virginia. It was the most elegant of Williamsburg's public establishments and as a result was frequented by a virtual who's who of colonial Virginia. During legislative sessions, burgesses were a common sight in the Apollo Room discussing the issues of the day's session and strategy for tomorrow's work.5 On the evening of March 4, 1773, one such group entered the tavern with serious business to consider. 6
Upon examination, the geographic line becomes clearly visible illustrating the difference in political ideology. Comprising this Raleigh Tavern group were men from the western counties of Hanover, Louisa, Albemarle, and Richmond. Also included was Westmoreland County on the northern periphery. All of these areas felt marginalized by the tidewater districts and its control over the apparatus of Virginia's government. When Jefferson remarked that the older members were not up to the task, he was speaking of these tidewater representatives whose financial positions would remain secure only in peacetime.7
This group selected a private room at the tavern and sat down to business. That evening the Committee of Correspondence and Inquiry was born.
This assembly agreed that Thomas Jefferson should stand before the House and offer the resolutions but Jefferson deferred suggesting that they allow young Dabney Carr the opportunity to deliver the address.8 He felt that "an opportunity should be given (Carr) of making known to the house his great worth and talents."9 10 As Carr read the proposal he gained confidence,
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, and
Whereas, the affairs of this colony are frequently connected with those of Great Britain, as well as the neighboring colonies, which renders a communication of sentiments necessary; in order therefore to remove the uneasiness, and to quiet the minds of the people, as well as for the other good purposes above mentioned; 11
Carr's first resolution asked that the House create a standing Committee of Correspondence and Inquiry which would be responsible for obtaining knowledge of all acts and proceedings of parliament or of the ministry which might relate to the American colonies and to maintain correspondence with the other colonies.12 This was done apparently without opposition and its eleven members chosen at that time.13 The second resolution required the appointed committee to inquire upon the authority of the British government concerning the transportation of colonist overseas to stand trial. The assembly also ordered Speaker Randolph to send copies of the resolutions to the legislatures of the other colonies asking that they appoint "some person or persons, of their respective bodies, to communicate, from time to time, with the said committee."14 Dabney Carr's legislative debut was hugely successful. All of his resolutions passed unthreatened.
On the following day, the new committee gathered for its inaugural meeting. All members were present and John Tazewell's appointment as clerk of the committee was the first business conducted. Tazewell, while not a burgess, was a frequent visitor to the House, a relative of the Randolph family, and an attorney by profession. His appointment was based less on these qualities than the simple fact that he lived in Williamsburg and would be readily available if needed.15
With committee members spread from nearly all corners of the colony, three members were chosen to serve as the Select Corresponding Committee which could act in the case of an emergency. Peyton Randolph, Robert Carter Nicholas and Dudley Digges were so chosen but the selection of these three men is somewhat puzzling. While Thomas Jefferson felt political moderation was the only way to make the committee effective, the three-man Select Committee was made up of a decidedly conservative group.
Peyton Randolph has been unjustly labeled as a conservative throughout his lifetime of service to Virginia. This was certainly a true statement regarding the bulk of his career but as the rift between England and Virginia widened, Randolph slowly drew to the side of his home. By this time, although his transformation was not fully complete, Peyton Randolph was well on his way to becoming a "genteel revolutionary." Robert Carter Nicholas, much like his friend Peyton Randolph, too had devoted his life to Virginia and the Crown. His allegiances would remain with the Crown although it appears he grappled with his decision throughout the final two years of colonyhood. Dudley Digges was probably the most surprising selection to this Select Committee for he by many accounts was the most conservative of the triumvirate. Digges who appears to have been a man of great ability performed his duties as a legislator well but without fanfare allowing his to remain nearly anonymous in Virginia history.16
Robert Scribner suggests a very plausible answer to this perplexing question. He feels that these three men were placed at the forefront in order to make them appear more liberal than they actually were. If the British government saw Speaker Randolph and Treasurer Nicholas representing Virginia on such a committee, Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, would have little use for them in the future and their alienation would further the gap between crown and colony.17 This is a logical explanation; since the Select Committee was responsible for all outgoing correspondence, it was the names of Randolph, Nicholas, and Digges, not the ones of Henry and the Lees, that were signed on the controversial documents.
Although Jefferson and his like may have found a delicious irony in the appointment of Peyton Randolph to head the committee, when the committee's influence began to expand but whose name became known to all of the colonies? It is for this reason that Thomas Lynch of South Carolina, whom Peyton Randolph had never met prior to Philadelphia, stood and nominated the Speaker from Virginia to serve as President of the First Continental Congress. In fact, his name was known and trusted enough to allow him unanimous election in a convention filled with men of political ambition.
To illustrate the effects of the recent Pittsylvania Counterfeiting Plot and the Gaspee Affair in Rhode Island on Virginia, the affairs of the first meeting of the Committee of Correspondence dealt with these late problems. Copies of "An Act for making it Felony to forge the Paper Currency of the Other Colonies" were ordered sent to the other colonies by the Select Committee. The whole committee also instructed that a letter be drafted outlining the recent steps taken in Virginia regarding the formation of the Committee of Correspondence. This letter was presented to the committee and ordered to be distributed to all Speakers of colonial legislatures.18
While this committee was not an illegal assembly, its organization as a tool of protest certainly would have been frowned upon by British authorities but Governor Dunmore unknowingly had authorized its existence. Virginia's recent problem with counterfeit money had nearly crippled her economy. Dunmore, realizing the difficulties facing Royal Governors in other colonies ordered that the House of Burgesses come into contact with all of the legislatures of all other colonies to notify them of Virginia's past problem and to urge them to pass laws which would deal severely with people who perpetrated such a crime against the Crown. This order by the Governor paved the way for Randolph and his committee to maintain open contact with the other colonies.
This Committee of Correspondence was unique in that it reached outside of the boundaries of Virginia in the hopes of tying together the colonies as one larger and more powerful group. In the past, Committees of Correspondence had only operated as intracolonial and their effects were not felt outside of the legal boundaries of the colony. This committee and its intercolonial nature is the first hint of a united nation in America.
Governor Dunmore was aware of the formation of the Committee of Correspondence but when he learned of its extracurricular activities remains a mystery. He may have known during the legislative session but would have definitely learned of it on March 18, when the two Virginia Gazettes printed the resolves of the House of Burgesses along with the news of the formation of the Committee of Correspondence and its resolutions.19
The replies were scattered but they all came. On April 14, New York wrote the committee to notify it of her intention to put the question of a Committee of Correspondence to a vote. Rhode Island replied one month and one day later proudly notifying the Virginia committee of the creation of their own committee. The language used was like a glimpse into the future, "The House thoroughly convinced that a firm Union of the Colonies is absolutely necessary for the Preservation of their ancient, legal and constitutional Rights..." 20 All the colonies favored the establishment of the Committees of Correspondence and Inquiry and replied expediently with the exception of New Jersey who waited nearly a year to adopt the proposal.21 This unanimous approval was rooted in the fact that British America was now united against aggressors, never again would a colony stand alone against the empire of Britain as Rhode Island had done one year before.
While the results of their efforts were not yet in, the Select Committee took an additional step on behalf of the entire committee. On April 6, a letter on behalf of Randolph, Nicholas and Digges was composed and sent to English merchant John Norton requesting he make himself available as agent to the Committee of Correspondence. Norton had been a friend of Virginia and its leading men for years, having particularly close relationships with Treasurer Nicholas, who probably drafted the letter, and Benjamin Harrison, a member of the Committee of Correspondence.22
Even though John Norton had many friends in Virginia, his ties to the colony ran much deeper. Norton came to Virginia in the late 1730's and operated the colonial end of his uncle's business. For over twenty years he made a name for himself in the colony twice being elected to the House of Burgesses from York County and holding several local offices. Therefore when he returned to London in the early 1760's he returned as a man well connected with the colony.23
Norton wrote the triumvirate on July 6, and graciously accepted the role they had asked him to play. He had already been paying close attention to the issues dividing Britain and Virginia and wrote the Select Committee informing them of the most recent information:
Some of my friends in the India Direction tell me that they have thoughts of sending a quantity of tea to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Virginia and South Carolina, which Government seems to approve, but they suspect their motives are to make a cat's paw of the Company, and force them to establish the 3d per lb American duty.24
Alarmed at this possibility and astutely understanding the potential reaction of the colonies, Norton wrote that he ... advised the gentlemen not to think of sending their Tea till Government took off the duty, as they might be well assured it would not be received on any other terms, what their Resolution will be, time only will discover.25
He also obtained copies of various British documents including the Journals of the House of Commons which the trio had requested.26 John Norton played a major role in the re-establishment of Virginia's currency following the Counterfeiting Plot and seemingly performed his duties as colonial agent well but very little of his additional correspondence with the committee remains.
For the remainder of the year, the Committee of Correspondence quietly awaited reactions to their call for unity and cautiously watched for the tea Norton had warned them about. The months proved a welcomed respite from the rigors of the preceding session but the quiet evenings were to be disturbed by news from the north.
On the night of December 16, 1773, the quiet calm of late Autumn was broken in Boston. The Tea Party was on and tensions were to rise to levels never before seen. While Virginians remained steadfast in their opposition to perceived British tyranny, they were much disturbed by the violent reaction of Bostonians. In the years preceding the advent of colonial dissatisfaction, Virginians had been among the more content of the colonies, their revolutionary spirit had only come forth of late and her leaders were mainly of the old and somewhat loyal guard. The destruction of private property no matter whose it was stood in the face of the most sacred of Virginia beliefs. Without a doubt, the men of the Committee of Correspondence understood that Boston had taken a dangerous and giant step toward independence and had dragged the other colonies into the morass. Randolph knew England could not allow this act to go unpunished but how the mother country would respond was unknown.
As the House of Burgesses assembled in Williamsburg for the opening of the 1774 legislative session, rumors floated about of punitive legislation being considered on the floor of Parliament.27 Massachusetts had been one of the colonies to follow Virginia's lead in establishing a Committee of Correspondence but to the distress of the Virginia committee, she had not warned the other colonies of her intentions. The noncompliance of Massachusetts and the ever-present threat of colonial punishment made concentration on the burgeoning workload at hand difficult during the session of 1774.
Almost as an omen of things to come, the session began one day late on May 6th after less than fifty members appeared on the previous day. The docket was exceptionally full for the burgesses and the session of 1774 looked to go down as one of the busiest in recent memory.
Nothing of note was spoken of the incident in Boston during the early weeks of the assembly although it must have been weighing heavily on the minds of the delegates. Not until after news of the Boston Port Bill and its closing of the Port of Boston on the first day of June reached Williamsburg during the week of May 21, did the members of the House of Burgesses formally address the issue.28 Shortly into the session of May 24, the burgesses made their move.
This House, being deeply impressed with apprehension of the great dangers, to be derived to british America, from the hostile Invasion of the City of Boston, in our Sister Colony of Massachusetts bay, whose commerce and harbour are, on the first Day of June next, to be stopped by an Armed force, deem it highly necessary that the said first day of June be set apart, by the Members of this house, as a day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer, devoutly to implore the divine interposition, for averting the heavy Calamity which threatens destruction to our Civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War; to give us one heart and one Mind firmly to oppose, by all just and proper means, every injury to American Rights; and that the Minds of his Majesty and his Parliament, may be inspired from above with Wisdom, Moderation, and Justice, to remove from the loyal People of America all cause of danger, from a continued pursuit of Measures, pregnant with their ruin.29True to their word, Virginia stood in the face of England prepared to suffer the same punishments and indignities as their fellow men from Massachusetts. The day of fasting and prayer was scheduled to begin at "the hour of Ten in the forenoon, on the first day of June next", the same time that the Port of Boston was to be closed, with a march from the Capitol down Duke of Gloucester Street to Bruton Parish Church following Speaker Randolph and the ceremonial mace.30
Such overt disobedience within the House of Burgesses shocked Lord Dunmore. The Governor understood that the tense nature of the times would have some effect on his relationship with the legislators but he never expected public protest. Two days after the plan was laid, Dunmore commanded the House to meet with him in the Council Chamber at which time he delivered his order of dissolution.
I have in my hand a Paper published by Order of your House, conceived in such Terms as reflect highly upon his Majesty and the Parliament of Great Britain; which makes it necessary for me to dissolve you; and you are dissolved accordingly.31This order delivered on May 26th to the whole House is surrounded in mystery.
Dunmore's reaction was swift and completely unexpected if we are to believe the accounts of George Washington. On that day, the legislative session was not scheduled to begin until 11:00 A.M. Washington had accepted Dunmore's offer to spend the night at the Governor's palace and to ride out to his farm early the next morning. Returning from the Governor's farm by the appointed meeting time, Washington strode into the Capitol with apparently no inkling of the assembly's pending dissolution.32 Washington's surprise is further evidenced in a letter he wrote to George William Fairfax on June 10, 1774. He stated, this Dissolution was as sudden as unexpected for there were other resolves of amuch more spirited nature ready to be offerd to the House wch. would have been unanimously adopted respecting the Boston Port Bill as it is call'd but were withheld till the Important business of the Country could be gone through. As the case stands the assembly sat In 22 day's for nothing-not a Bill being [passed].33While Washington was doubtlessly troubled by the dissolution of the House, his distress over the lack of work accomplished by the legislature is hardly convincing since he arrived in Williamsburg nearly two weeks after the session convened. 34
As swift as Dunmore's dissolution had been, eighty-nine of the dissolved burgesses gathered the next day in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern. Together they unanimously formed a "patriotick Assembly" and announced "that an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America." They then called for all colonies "to meet in general congress, at such place annually as shall be thought most convenient; there to deliberate on those general measures which the united interests of America may from time to time require."35 In these words lay the foundation of the Continental Congress and the first to sign was former conservative, now revolutionary, Speaker Peyton Randolph.
While this call for a general congress takes center stage in American history, another, equally important measure came out of Raleigh Tavern that evening. The late burgesses adopted a measure asking that Americans refuse to accept any East India Company commodities with the exception of saltpeter and spices.36 This was financially devastating to the already ill East India Company. The resolution ended with an uncharacteristic open threat of further action, "A tender regard for the interest of our fellow subjects, the merchants, and manufactures of Great Britain, prevents us from going farther at this time..." 37
As the day of fasting neared, the capitol remained in a buzz. Members of the late House of Burgesses went about their clandestine business and on the evening of May 27, even found time to attend a "Ball and Entertainment at the Capitol" given "to welcome Lady DUNMORE and the rest of our Governour's Family to Virginia." 38 This social commitment was attended by many members of the former House out of their obligation as gentlemen to do so but we can stand sure that their mood was less festive than had been at past parties.
Even though the House of Burgesses was shelved, Speaker Randolph and seven other members of the Committee of Correspondence met on May 28th and sent the Virginia Resolves of the previous day to all of the other colonies.39 The unity that the Committee of Correspondence had hoped for began to shine through when on the day after the mailing of the Virginia Resolves, letters arrived in Williamsburg from Boston requesting many of the same actions that Virginia had approved.
Letters from Boston, Philadelphia, and Annapolis, all port cities, requested "a Union of Measures" be entered into by the colonies that would ban all trade with Great Britain until the Port of Boston is reopened. This suggestion was a slight extension of the Virginia Resolves, and Peyton Randolph gathered together the twenty-five former burgesses who remained in Williamsburg and presented to them the request. By a unanimous vote, the burgesses agreed to extend the ban on trade but to hold their position otherwise until they could gather the entire former House on the first day of August.40
Reverend Thomas Price stood in the pulpit of Bruton Parish Church looking out across a congregation of the most important men in the colony. Although he served as the chaplain of the house of Burgesses, he was the second choice of the body to "preach a Sermon, suitable to the Occasion." 41 Price spoke of the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom and sent his audience to their homes understanding the magnitude of that day.42
With the dissolution of the House of Burgesses and the affairs of colonial America in a state of flux, none of the burgesses knew if they would return to Williamsburg and their station within the government. They did know however, that the innocence of their age was now lost and their lives could never return to the way they were just eighteen months before.
The Governor followed the protests of May and June 1774 with an order that new elections be held on July 8, 1774 to replace the former burgesses. England was now properly vilified and most of the former representatives found little opposition in their reelections. Dunmore expected to see the replacement of some of the more radical members but was probably shocked at the nearly wholesale return of the late members of the House of Burgesses. All but four who served in the 1774 session returned for the telling session of 1775.43
- Elizabeth Dabney Coleman, The Carrs of Albemarle" (M.A. Thesis, University of Virginia, 1944), 3-4.
- Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, vol. 1, Jefferson the Virginian, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), 170-171.
- Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 72.
- Virginius Dabney, Virginia: The New Dominion (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1971), 119. While Dabney Carr is on record as suggesting the establishment of the Committee of Correspondence before the entire House of Burgesses, Dumas Malone and Virginius Dabney both agree that the idea was originally Richard Henry Lee's with Malone suggesting that Jefferson gave Carr the task to introduce him and his rhetorical skills to the body.
- Colonial Williamsburg: Official Guidebook and Map (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1970), 14-16.
- Robert L. Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, vol. 1, Forming Thunderclouds and the First Convention, 1763-1774, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1973), 90.
- This position is supported by Marc Egnal, "The Origins of the Revolution in Virginia: A Reinterpretation," William and Mary Quarterly 37 (April 1980): 401-409.
- Carr had been elected to the House of Burgesses in 1772 and was attending only his second session of the body.
- John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1773-1776. (Richmond, VA: Library Board of the State of Virginia, 1905), xii.
- Robert L. Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, vol. 2, The Committees and the Second Convention, 1773-1775, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1975), 18.
- Kennedy, Ibid., 28.
- This committee was not the tool of radicals that one might think would come from such a private meeting. Jefferson understood that political moderation was the only way to make the committee effective. Elected to Chair the committee was Peyton Randolph. Conservative members were Treasurer Robert Carter Nicholas, Richard Bland, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton, and Dudley Digges. Rounding out the committee selections were the more radical young representatives; Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Archibald Cary, and Dabney Carr.
- Kennedy, Ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1773-1776. 28.
- Scribner, Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 11-14.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 43 Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), 18 Mar 1773. and Virginia Gazette (Rind's), 18 Mar 1773.
- Scribner, Ibid., 48.
- Scribner, Ibid., 47-64.
- Francis Norton Mason, John Norton and Sons: Merchants of London and Virginia, (Newton Abbot, UK: David & Charles, 1968), 336-337.
- Ibid., xiii-xv.
- John Norton to Peyton Randolph, Robert Carter Nicholas and Dudley Digges, July 6, 1773, in Mason's John Norton and Sons, 336-337.
- John J. Reardon, Peyton Randolph, 1721-1775: One Who Presided, (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1982), 43.
- Thomas Jefferson claims in his memoirs that this resolution was conceived by a group headed by himself, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry on the night of 23 May 1773.
- Scribner, Ibid., 124.
- Ibid., 132.
- Donald Jackson, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 3. 1771-1775, 1780-1781, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 251.
- George Washington to George William Fairfax, 10 Jun 1774, in John Rhodehamel, ed., George Washington: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 149-150.
- Jackson, Ibid., 250.
- Kennedy, Ibid., xiv.
- Kennedy, Ibid., xiv.
- Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), 26 May 1774. The reader may notice that the date of the newspaper report precedes the date of the celebration. The newspaper printed this announcement of intended ceremonies which did in fact take place on May 27, 1774. Among those in attendance was George Washington as verified in Jackson, Ibid., 251.
- Gerald S. Cowden, "The Randolphs of Turkey Island: A Prosopography of theFirst Three Generations, 1650-1806" (Ph. D. diss., College of William and Mary, 1977), 630.
- Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), 2 June 1774.
- Kennedy, Ibid., 124.
- Jackson, Ibid., 254-255, and Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), 2 June 1774.
- Kennedy, Ibid., 163-164.
Works CitedColeman, Elizabeth Dabney. "The Carrs of Albemarle." M.A. thesis, University of Virginia, 1944.
Colonial Williamsburg: Official Guidebook and Map, Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1970.
Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1763-1785. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.
Cowden, Gerald S., "The Randolphs of Turkey Island: A Prosopography of the First Three Generations, 1650 - 1806." Ph. D. diss., College of William and Mary, 1977.
Dabney, Virginius. Virginia: The New Dominion. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1971.
Egnal, Marc. "The Origins of the Revolution in Virginia: A Reinterpretation." William and Mary Quarterly 37 (April 1980): 401-429.
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________. Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1770-1772. Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library, 1906.
Mahan, Terrance L., "Virginia Reaction to British Policy, 1763-1776." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1960.
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________, ed., The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.
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Rhodehamel, John., ed., George Washington: Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1997.
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________. Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. 2, The Committees and the Second Convention, 1773-1775. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1975.