Committees of safety (American Revolution)
In the American Revolution, committees of safety, also called committees of observation and committees of inspection, were local committees of Patriots that became a shadow government; they took control of the Thirteen Colonies away from royal officials, who became increasingly helpless.
Hundreds of committees of correspondence were formed following the First Continental Congress's declaration of the Continental Association, a boycott of British goods, in October 1774. Initially, the focus of the committees was on enforcing the Non-importation Agreements, which aimed to hinder the import of British manufactured goods. However, as the revolutionary crisis continued, the committees rapidly took on greater powers, filling the vacuum left by the colonial governments; the committees began to collect taxes and recruit soldiers. Kathleen Burk writes: "It is significant that the Committees believed that they derived their authority from the Continental Congress, not from the provincial assemblies or congresses."
T. H. Breen writes that "proliferation of local committees represented a development of paramount importance in the achievement of independence," because the committees were the first step in the creation of "a formal structure capable not only of policing the revolution on the ground but also of solidifying ties with other communities. The network of committees were also vital for reinforcing "a shared sense of purpose," speaking to "an imagined collectivity—a country of the mind" of Americans.
For ordinary people, they were community forums where personal loyalties were revealed, tested, and occasionally punished. ... Serving on committees of safety ... was certainly not an activity for the faint of heart. The members of these groups exposed ideological dissenters, usually people well-known in the communities in which they lived. Although the committees attempted as best they could to avoid physical violence, they administered revolutionary justice as they alone defined it. They worked out their own investigative procedures, interrogated people suspected of undermining the American cause, and meted out punishments they deemed appropriate to the crimes. By mid-1775 the committees increasingly busied themselves with identifying, denouncing, and shunning political offenders. By demanding that enemies receive "civil excommunication" – the chilling words of a North Carolina committee – these groups silenced critics without sparking the kind of bloodbath that has characterized so many other insurgencies throughout the world.
The strengthening of the committees of correspondence in the 1770s also marked the creation of what Gordon S. Wood terms "a new kind of popular politics in America." Wood writes that "the rhetoric of liberty now brought to the surface long-latent political tenancies. Ordinary people were no longer willing to trust only wealthy and learned gentlemen to represent them ... various artisan, religious, and ethnic groups now felt that their particular interests were so distinct that only people of their kind could speak for them. In 1774 radicals in Philadelphia demanded that seven artisans and six Germans be added to the revolutionary committee of the city."
The development of coalition and interest-group politics greatly alarmed both royal officials and more conservative Patriots. For example, William Henry Drayton, the prominent South Carolina planter who had studied at Oxford University, complained about the participation of cobblers and butchers, stating that "Nature never intended that such men should be profound politicians, or able statesmen. In 1775, the royal governor of Georgia "noted in astonishment that the committee in control of Savannah consisted of 'a Parcel of the Lowest People, chiefly carpenters, shoemakers, Blacksmiths etc with a Jew at their head."
Very few records of committees of safety survive. Committee activities are attested primarily through newspapers and published material.
By 1775, the committees had become counter-governments that gradually replaced royal authority and took control of local governments. They regulated the economy, politics, morality, and militia of their individual communities. In North Carolina in December 1776, they came under the control of a more powerful central authority, the Council of Safety.
- T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Macmillan, 2010), pp. 162, 186–89.
- Kathleen Burk, Old World, New World: Great Britain and America from the Beginning (Grove, 2007), pp. 144–45.
- Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History (Random House, 2002).
- The reference to "a Jew at their head" is to Mordecai Sheftall.
- Alan D. Watson, "The Committees of Safety and the Coming of the American Revolution in North Carolina, 1774–1776," North Carolina Historical Review, (1996) 73#2 pp 131–155