During my research of Bucks County, Pennsylvania during the Revolution, I found the Minutes of the Committee of Safety 1774-1776 in the Pennsylvania Archives on Footnote/Fold 3. Low and behold, my ancestor James McNair is on the Committee from August 21,1775 through July 29, 1776 (the Minutes end here, so we don’t know how long he was actually on it or how long the Committee was active.) So what exactly were the Safety Committees? When were they formed and what did they do?
I know you all remember American History class and the boring list of all the “Acts” that drove us to the American Revolution. We were taught that the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act and the Tea Act (which led to the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773) all built on existing layers of frustration and culminating into revolution because the colonists didn’t want to have taxes without representation. The British had repeatedly taxed Americans with these Acts and yet they didn’t have anyone to represent them back in England to be their voice of dissension. Basically, they were a cash cow and not worthy of what other Englishmen had, which was a voice at Parliament to argue for their rights. Without getting into the English political structure and the fact that the average Englishman didn’t have representation either, there was at least the semblance of an elected official acting on their behalf.
Well, once again my ancestors make history personal and more nuanced. Taxes without representation is a simplification of the series events that influenced farmers and merchants to break from their King. The Safety Committees were actually a response to the British government’s punishment for the Boston Tea Party. In spring of 1774 the “Intolerable Acts” were passed which essentially put Boston under military dictatorship of General Gage. The Massachusetts Government Act revoked the Massachusetts charter that allowed the colony to elect its own officials (including judges) and forbid town meetings except on certain annual celebrations.
The Boston Port Act closed down the port until the tea was paid for, economically cutting off the Bostonians from all trade and receiving needed food and supplies. The King and his government thought that by a show power and indicating their full intention of putting down the insurrection, that Massachusetts would back down and become malleable. This was a gross miscalculation and really underscored the rift that had occurred in the two cultures understanding each other. Britain didn’t realize that by nullifying the Massachusetts Charter, that the other colonies would begin to see their own vulnerability. If it can happen to them, it could happen to us. These colonists were not uneducated peasants. They had a strong educated and independent middle class who could articulate their dissatisfaction. Britain never expected that this would result in the seperate colonies putting away their differences and uniting.
The first Bucks County Committee met on July 9, 1774 and sent representatives to a precursor meeting for the First Continental Congress. Here they resolved “ That it is the Duty of every American, when oppressed by measure either of Ministry, Parliament, or any other Power, to use every lawful endeavor to obtain relief, and to form and promote a plan of Union between the parent country and colonies in which the Claim of the parent county may be ascertained and the Liberties of the Colonies defined and secured, and no Cause of Contention in the future may arise to disturb that harmony so necessary for the interest and happiness of both, and that this will be best done in a a general Congress, to be composed of Delegates, to be appointed either by the respective colonys Assemblys [sic], or by the Members thereof in Convention.” Pennsylvania Archives, Series 2, Vol XV, pg 343
The First Continental Congress took place in Philadelphia in September with all the colonies sending delegates except Georgia. There were both conservative and more progressive points of view discussed during their two months of debate. They finally decided to boycott all goods from Britain, submit a list of grievances to King George and to meet the following spring if the King did not respond positively to their issues.
The Bucks County Safety Committee convenes after the Convention on November 27, 1774 and published the notice “As the late Continental Congress for the support of American Liberty have formed resolves, and entered into Associations in behalf of themselves and their respective Colonies they represented, and have recommended the the appointment of Committees in several towns and Counties attentively to observe the Conduct of all persons touching the same”. Pennsylvania Archives, Series 2, Vol XV, pg 343-344
Escalated tensions produced escalated responses. Military rule in Boston inspired the creation of locally elected governmental committees acting on behalf of a united “Congress”. This is not what King George or the Parliament had calculated would happen. The American colonists did not become compliant through punishment. They got creative and had strategized new ways to be heard.
More in the coming weeks on what the Committees did…good and bad.