The essential drama of this pre-Revolutionary War stage was not about colonists inventing a bold new form of government, it was about countless journeys of self-discovery at all levels of society, about a slow and painful process during which colonists began to realize that they had evolved into something other than their European forebears. Before any patriot picked up a musket, before men and women were even called patriots, they had to discover what it meant to be American. Their tools of discovery were writing quills, ink and paper.
It was the magic of these years before the Revolution that first led me to write historical novels. The 18th century transformation that turned disparate, distant populations into unified freedom fighters was, and still is, unprecedented in human experience. We too often overlook the remarkable drama that began with tentative, uncertain efforts at collective consciousness raising and ended with a million colonists cheering their new American identity. These colonists were the orphans and outcasts of Europe who, in modern parlance, had suffered profound separation trauma when first landing on these shores, bent and battered by the religious, political and economic persecution that drove them to a strange, distant land. By hardscrabble experience they learned to stand straight and find a new, self-reliant existence. What was the catalyst that turned so many broken men and women of vastly different backgrounds into zealous rebels speaking with one voice? Was it their intense exposure to the wild freedom of nature, unlike anything experienced in Europe? Was it the confidence they built in fending for themselves, far from the help or influence of government? Was it a natural maturing of the very ideas many had been persecuted for in Europe? I am convinced it was all of these elements, in varying measure from person to person and colony to colony, and the foundation of our country, reduced to simplest and earliest terms, lay in the grassroots campaigns that grew out of them. There were no keyboards or internet to enable these campaigns. The political transformation that shook the world was launched by the dangerous practice of dipping feathered quills into pewter inkpots.
The spirited, determined souls who had built new lives in the colonies may have had little inclination to bow to British overlords, but they were not yet Americans. They identified themselves as Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, Marylanders, or Rhode Islanders, and seemed to have little in common with each other. They seldom spoke with each other and even less frequently did they trade with each other. The southern colonies had rigid socio-economic structures built around massive land holdings held by offshoots of the British aristocracy. The New England colonies were constructed around smaller farms and an active merchant class with a heavy influence of the somber, egalitarian Puritans who had first settled the region. In between were the old Dutch towns of NewYork and Pennsylvania, where large numbers of German Lutherans and English Quakers built quiet lives around their God and their land. Each colony was at the end of a long spoke of a wheel whose hub was Britain. Commerce and culture traveled along these spokes, institutionalized by acts of Parliament that prohibited shipments of certain goods to anywhere but Great Britain.
For a century and a half the attention of those in Charleston, Williamsburg, Philadelphia, New York and Boston had been focused on Britain, the monolithic supplier of manufactured goods, capital, technology and regulation. The dominant newspapers were imported from England, fashions were from England, the worldly talk in town squares was of London plays and intrigues in the royal court. Those colonists who were not preoccupied with growing their own sustenance were employed in producing tobacco, indigo, lumber, rice, and other materials for the British market. Anyone they dealt with outside their colony was likely to be in Britain.
All this began to change with the French and Indian War, which for the first time brought inhabitants of different colonies together on a large scale. Far more important than the realization that the colonists could fight as well as British troops was the discovery that they had more in common with each other than with their British counterparts. Although an early wartime effort by Benjamin Franklin and others to unite the colonies at the Albany Congress failed, during the years following that war the barriers between colonies rapidly eroded. War veterans of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, for example, began writing former battle companions from Pennsylvania and New York Initially it was largely remembrances of the war that were shared, but as Parliament piled on one act of colonial repression after another, the tone and content of many letters changed. The fiery words of French and Indian War veteran Isaac Barre repeated above brought passionate responses from the colonists in port cities who heard of them first, and more than a few lifted quills to repeat them to their correspondents elsewhere in the colonies. When merchants in Boston reported to frontier outposts Barre’s prediction that “the blood of these Sons of Lyberty [will] recoil within them,” restless colonists up and down the frontier began proudly adopting the Sons name for themselves.
It wasn’t the writing of the Declaration of Independence that sparked a new nation, it was the writing of thousands of such letters between kindred spirits in different colonies, confirming a common belief in what only later would be called their “inalienable rights.” When individual correspondents found like-minded colonists in their own community, letters started taking on a collective aspect. The single complaining “I” evolved into the plural “we” and references to committees began to appear, although at first many were ad hoc and temporary. Committees and their letter carriers became the messengers of freedom that enabled all that followed. Letters from Massachusetts merchants to Virginia planters, from frontier schoolmasters to city innkeepers expressing the same sentiments again and again from town to town, colony to colony, soon turned Barre’s fanciful mention of the Sons of Liberty into an organization that played a vital role in spreading the sentiments of protest. These letterwriters were raising the collective consciousness by sharing truths spoken from the heart—too rare an occasion in today’s instantly connected frenzy of words, and from shared truths bonds are born.
Deepening these bonds were the risks shared by such correspondents. Writing letters to complain of London’s repressions was a dangerous proposition—those who did so risked being branded, and even hanged, as traitors. These early correspondents had no protection from the loyalists who opposed them. Although the Sons of Liberty gradually built clandestine networks to support the committees, these first writers spoke out with no such organizations to protect them, with no assurance of their own safety. When Patrick Henry initially gave public voice to the protests he recorded in his correspondence, he was immediately met with cries of “treason!” and “hang him!”
Correspondence to representatives in London like Benjamin Franklin was even more risky. The British Postal Service at the time operated secret offices where, in the name of protecting the king, letters were clandestinely opened and read by government agents—who not only devised clever methods to circumvent waxed seals on envelopes, but also employed expert artificers who were not above forging letters to frustrate the king’s detractors. Those who undertook this early correspondence knew well the danger; their words could have cost them their livelihoods, their freedom, or even their lives. As Carl Jung reminded us in another century, “there can be no consciousness raising without pain,” and these writers were well aware of the pain they potentially faced. Sitting by candlelight with quill and ink became an act of bravery, given strength not by arms but by steadfast conviction and an increasing sense that the New World was meant for a new destiny.
Whether sent through the mails, delivered by private clandestine means, or even offered in the public forum– like the published letters of the celebrated Humphry Ploughjogger, an early pseudonym of John Adams– these bold sentiments demonstrated that words are the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of liberty. The fact that the correspondents represented such a wide cross-section of colonial society only underscored the strength of that weapon. Committemen Patrick Henry and John Adams may have found inspiration from their legal and classical studies but those who wore frontier buckskin gave voice to instincts forged in the intense freedom of the wilderness. The bonds such correspondents built around shared values of liberty, freedom, tolerance and personal freedom became the foundation of the American character.
The power of these voices soon echoed across the land in more public fashion. Patrick Henry’s fierce opposition to the Stamp Tax, the reviled British tax on all documents, newspapers, journals, and even college diplomas, led him to write the Virginia Resolves, which forcefully articulated the colonists’ right to “all Liberties, Privileges and Immunities” of free citizens and the principle that taxation must be by consent of the governed. Although his efforts in his own colony were sharply censored by the British-appointed provincial government, which seriously contemplated throwing him in prison, the committees quietly circulated his impassioned statements beyond Virginia borders. Thus it was that the first public mention of the Resolves, which played a vital role in arousing public opinion against London, was not in Henry’s own colony, but in Maryland and Rhode Island newspapers. More letters flowed across colonial borders, officially and unofficially, and within months eight other colonies had adopted counterparts to the Resolves. Soon thereafter correspondents coordinated boycotts of British imports in several colonies, causing Franklin to write that the new pride of the colonists was “to wear their old cloathes (sic) over and over again.”
. Suddenly the colonies were speaking with each other and, to the outrage of officials in London, daring to suggest in their letters an inter-colony congress to take a unified stand against taxes levied without colonial consent. With much careful, sometimes secret, coordination, that Stamp Act Congress did take place in late 1765, reportedly causing the first, but certainly not the last, temper tantrum of King George against his upstart colonists. The committees and the Sons of Liberty pressed on, coordinating public demonstrations and even hanging tax collectors in effigy. The true power of the committees’ words was proven months later when the Stamp Tax was repealed.
While it may seem patently obvious, it is worth reminding ourselves in today’s contentious political environment that these correspondents, who became our first nation builders, focused on what they had in common. The colonies still had sharply contrasting characters, and if they had let their differences dominate their discourse we might have no America today. They did not succeed out of shared prejudices, they succeeded because of shared values of human dignity and personal freedom. Less obvious, but no less important, was a bond of tolerance; their lives in disparate colonies reflected marked differences in the details of their government, religion, and culture but the correspondents embraced and respected those differences, for they were what made personal freedom meaningful.
The committees embodied democracy in its rawest form, allowing common people to find empowerment in each other. By the outset of the Revolution, when more formal institutions replaced them, nearly every town and village in many colonies had its own committee. Massachusetts alone accounted for seven hundred committees. Correspondents throughout the colonies have been estimated at over seven thousand. Some of their names found their way into our history books as our founding fathers, but most did not; they were not seeking fame, they were simply finding their voices at the end of their own personal journeys of discovery. They had built new lives centered around self-reliance which, they came to realize, meant personal liberty. Once the committees began confirming the shared embrace of this personal liberty, it was no great leap to the cause of national liberty.
Never before in history had such a process taken place, and due to the proliferation of community printing presses and rise of a federal government, the need for the committees soon diminished. The committees were a phenomenon never before seen on the planet, made possible by the fervent, egalitarian spirit of the orphans, exiles, and abandoned peoples who constituted the largest population of the colonies. They did not die, but evolved into the grassroots networks that still keep our democracy vibrant today. Our nation has evolved considerably over the past two and half centuries but one of our strengths is that we continue to embrace such collective consciousness raising, as evidenced by today’s internet campaigns, still crossing literal and figurative borders to find shared truths.
The rise of the committees reflected a rapid growth spurt, a sudden maturing of our forebears as they discovered and embraced a new identity. The words they wrote came from their hearts, not political scripts. They didn’t need political parties to tell them what to say. They were Americans.