Title

Writing Union into Resistance: How Committees of Correspondence Forged a Continental Community

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

First Advisor

Freeman, Joanne

Abstract

Committees of correspondence, made famous by Samuel Adams and his cohort in Boston during the American Revolution, actually operated in the large majority of Britain’s Atlantic colonies in the eighteenth century. Before 1764, colonists used these committees to make their political opinions known to lobbyists in England; after 1764, colonists largely used committees to discuss politics amongst themselves. Colonial assemblies, private groups of political radicals or merchants, and local town meetings all chose committees of correspondence – groups of 3-15 men who met regularly – to share their political opinions and organize protests over the following decade. In “Writing Union into Resistance,” I ask why colonists began using these committees in new ways and how colonists’ choice to organize through committees affected imperial politics. I argue that the recurrent committees created a continental community. Networking through letters, committees of correspondence invoked the ideas of “union” and the “common cause” to define and embody a new community within the British Empire. Historians have not often studied all of these committees together, in part because few colonists explicitly acknowledged the connections between the committees that worked to protest different policies. Those who did schemed to improve intercolonial organization with each new crisis, hoping to build a self-conscious political community. I use Network Theory and Speech Act Theory to analyze the influence of those few colonists, and to evaluate the strength and shape of committee networks. Doing so sheds light on the British Atlantic debates over representation, community, and political organization. By analyzing all committees of correspondence in conversation with each other, I show that there were cumulative effects to colonists repeatedly using committees, even if they did so without a political agenda. “Writing Union into Resistance” also builds on studies of the press and of politicization in the American Revolution to look at how rhetoric and information circulated throughout the colonies. It adds structure to the common historiographic story that newspapers politicized colonists and readied them for revolution. Committees of correspondence worked closely with the newspaper press, and by 1774 had imposed order on the creation and dissemination of most types of political information. My dissertation thus illuminates the relationship between politicization and mobilization: how the institutional context within which people receive information affects the actions that they are willing to take. Through their fierce political advocacy and control of information channels, committeemen organized protesting colonists around common goals and a common community. Networks of committees forced colonists to frame and understand their local actions and problems in terms of a broader community. All of this work by committees of correspondence was necessary, but not sufficient, for revolution: only after committees established this communications infrastructure and continental community could colonial protest grow into revolution.

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