How did Committees of Correspondence Work?
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere probably would not have occurred if not for the Boston Committee of Correspondence of which Revere was the member. The Midnight Ride was certainly a courageous act of patriotism but it was more than just a spare of the moment. It was carefully planned. In fact the most famous Boston silversmith rode to Lexington just a week prior with a different assignment given to him by the Boston Correspondence Committee.
To better understand their role in American history, let’s take a quick look at how the Committees came about. In the years leading to the American Revolution, the British Parliament started passing increasingly draconian laws aimed at restricting the autonomy and freedoms of colonists. As a result patriots in towns and villages across New England were coming to realization that they needed to coordinate their response. The idea was that such coordinated actions could have much greater impact than powerful but isolated protests. But who could coordinate such actions in the absence of the central government? In Boston, the Sons of Liberty secret society was quite capable of organizing big protest like the Boston Tea Party or provoking confrontations like the Boston Massacre. But when it came to matters such as colony-wide boycott of British goods, Boston needed the support of every town and village to make the boycott work.
At the beginning the Committees of Correspondence were organized temporarily to address a burning issue, but gradually they became permanent. The first permanent committee was established in Boston in 1764 in the opposition to the Currency Act.
The other function of the Committees was to disseminate information between pro-independence colonists. Without radio and newspapers a network of local and state committees had to be created to share information and intelligence. At their peak the committees counted 7000 to 8000 patriots as members.
The Committees quickly grew in importance and soon in addition to disseminating information and coordinating protests, the patriots started focusing on more strategic initiatives, such how to self-govern and how to present common views to foreign governments.
When British military presence in Boston grew, the members of the Boston Correspondence Committees took charge of collecting intelligence on the military and the authorities. One of such intelligence groups consisted of craftsmen and artisans who called themselves Mechanics. This group was organized and lead by Paul Revere. Dr. Joseph Warren who orchestrated the Midnight Ride was also a member of the Boston Correspondence Committee. From the nightly foot patrols organized by Revere’s mechanics patriots had the suspicion about the planned move to Concord. But it was on April 18, 1775 when Dr. Warren received the definite confirmation from one of his informants. The word was that the British regulars will march to concord on that night. This set in motion the alert that Correspondence Committee planned to carry out which later became known as Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride.
United by the powerful desire for independence and strong resentment of the British rule in the colonies, the committees operated with cohesiveness and efficiency. It also helped that many members were career politicians from the local governments.
The members of the Committee were not elected but selected by other members instead. This of course was undemocratic, but it was hardly possible to conduct even secret elections under the watchful eye of the British authorities. This changed just before the start of the Revolutionary War when in early 1775 the Committees were replaced by the elected Provincial conventions.