Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Kieran O’Keefe.
While the most famous scenes of the American Revolutionary War involve major battles or deliberations in Congress, the driving force behind the Revolution within small towns were committees of safety. As the war progressed and British authority dissipated, these committees became the effective government in most localities until the formal establishment of state governments. They had responsibilities such as regulating the economy, suppressing loyalists, procuring military supplies, raising revolutionary forces, and overseeing civil and criminal justice. Despite their ubiquity, it is rare to find the records of a committee completely intact. One such exception is the King’s District Committee of Albany County, New York, whose minutes survive in the Library of Congress.
The First Continental Congress created the committee system when it adopted the Continental Association in 1774. The Association called for the non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation of goods between the colonies and Great Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies. This boycott was to put economic pressure on Britain to repeal the punitive Coercive Acts, which punished Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party by closing the port of Boston and bringing the colony under tighter royal control with the aid of British redcoats. The Continental Association also stated that “a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association.” These committees were to ensure that all Americans adhered to the boycott stipulated in the Association. Committees began forming throughout the colonies in late 1774 and soon took on a greater role than originally designed, frequently seizing the reins of local government. The committees were unusually democratic. They generally consisted of about five men who were popularly elected, and many members were from the middling ranks of society with no prior political experience.