The problem of the origin of the Committees of Safety is rendered somewhat complex by the fact that we are not considering a political institution whose characteristics are clearly defined by constitutional limitation or by well understood customary law. On the contrary the foregoing narrative has shown that the Committee of one province might differ from the Committee of another, and both from the council of a third. Not only this but the Committees and Councils of the same province varied in character and finally the same Committee in a province might take on new powers in the course of its existence. This divergence of form, the offspring of a political necessity forced to shape the means at hand to ends as quickly, rather than as logically as possible, makes the finding of a common ancestry for the Committees more difficult. The matter may be simplified, however, by eliminating minor differences, and by choosing salient features thus obtaining something which may serve as the typical Committee of Safety whose origin we shall try to trace. Thus considered, the Committee or Council of Safety appears as a group of men chosen by a revolutionary legislature to act as its chief executive and to take its place during a recess or dissolution.

Two sets of questions arise in connection with the origin of the Committees

First. Where did the colonists get the idea of calling their revolutionary executive a Committee or Council of Safety ?


Second. Were these Committees copies of alike institution that had previously existed, or were they modifications and adaptations of colonial institutions, or were they new devices of the colonists to meet a new situation?

The presence of Committees of Safety in the Puritan Revolution in England and the similar political situation of England and America in 1642 and 1775 suggests a connection between the revolutionary expedients in government of the two. It was natural for the colonists to look to the mother country for precedent and example. The wide extent of England's influence over her dependencies needs no demonstration. The colonists replanted in the new world her laws and institutions. Their small assemblies were parliaments to them, and in their constant struggle with the royal governors in the eighteenth century they felt they were but imitating the contests of the Stuart parliaments, holding that in the person of their representatives they were entitled as freeborn Englishmen to the prerogatives to which the English parliament had attained. The proceedings of the assemblies followed a parliamentary model, and Professor Jameson has shown that the standing committees which were in use outside New England were directly imitated from the English system. When, therefore, a crisis like the American Revolution came, the colonists would look naturally to England for justification of principle and precedent for action. The writers of the time are quick to liken George III. and Charles I., to commend their cause by identifying it with that of Pym and Hampden. It is probable also that American statesmen would call to mind how Parliament in battle against her King, and deprived of an executive, met the problems set by a situation so similar to their own. A brief, study of the English Committees of Safety will show the likeness they bore to the American.

The summer of 1642 brought the final parting of King and Parliament. Charles set up his standard and both sides [160] prepared for war. To remove the discussion and formation of plans of action from the whole legislature where long debates would have checked progress, Parliament appointed committees to advise upon such matters and to make reports. To supply the need of executives, other committees were chosen to perform particular commissions, or to take charge of a certain department. Thus there were Committees for Quartering Soldiers, for Receiving and Answering Dispatches, for the Counties, for Superintending the Collection of Money and Plate, for the Affairs of Ireland, for the Navy and Customs, etc. July 4, 1642, at the suggestion of the Commons, the Lords appointed five men and the Commons ten to be a Committee to take into consideration whatever concerned "the Safety of the Kingdom, the Defense of the Parliament, and the Preservation and Peace of the Kingdom, and the means of opposing any hostile force." The Committee was to meet as often as it pleased. Its function, it is seen, was advisory in character, but unlike the former committees its commission embraced the oversight of the whole kingdom. Like a modern ministry it was to suggest whatever measures seemed best for the country in the crisis, though it was not necessarily the agent to carry out these measures. Unlike a ministry this Committee of Safety, as it came to be called, put forth no well defined policy but merely suggested means of meeting needs that rose from day to day. It reported on measures proper to be taken before the adjournment of Parliament, and the. number of committees that should be allowed to stand, with the power that its own Committee should have during the recess. It considered the means of raising soldiers and recommended officers including the Commander-in-chief. It advised Parliament on the means of getting war supplies. It also undertook the composition of important papers for the legislature, preparing at one time a Declaration for the Instruction of the people, and at another the heads of an [161] address to the King. It gave directions to local committees, and advised the disarming of the ill-affected. The activity of the Committee was not concerned merely with giving advice. At Parliament's order it performed important executive duties. It was not given general authority over any department, each act being done at the special bidding of Parliament, but the nature of the trusts it received raised it to tile position of chief executive of the realm. It bought arms and ammunition and distributed them. It raised and forwarded troops and saw that exposed points were protected. It corresponded with Lord Fairfax and in the temporary absence of the General took charge of the army. It was often ordered to issue warrants on the treasury to pay the soldiers or satisfy some other claim against the state. In spite of its importance, the Committee of Safety had no control over the other executive committees. Each Was dependent directly upon Parliament. The Committee of the Two Kingdoms chosen February 7, 1644, displaced the Committee of Safety.

The resemblance between the English Committee and the American Committees of Safety is marked. Both acted as the chief adviser of the legislature. Both were concerned in raising and distributing men and supplies, in order to put the territory under their supervision in a state of defense and maintain it there effectively. The general commission to act for the safety of the people as seemed best to them, that was characteristic of most of the American Committees, was lacking in the authority of the first English Committee of Safety, but was supplied in those of subsequent appointment, now to be considered.

June, 1647, Parliament faced a discontented and suspicious army, which it had created but could not control, an [162] army determined to force toleration from a Presbyterian Parliament unwilling to grant it, and ready to march on London if necessary. While busy with negotiation and intrigue to procure delay, Parliament prepared at the same time for its own defense. July 11, 1647, it chose a committee of twelve Lords and twenty-four Commons to join with a committee of the London militia, to care for the defense of City and Parliament and to suppress all insurrection and tumult. It might execute any plan which it thought necessary for the safety and defense of the kingdom, could raise horse and foot, and command the advice and aid of all other committees and officers. It was to report daily to Parliament, and to continue in power one month. The association of this Parliamentary Committee with the militia was a new feature but this naturally grew out of the peculiar situation of Parliament, dependent as it was for safety on the support of the militia of the city where it held its sessions. The Committee set to work with energy, seeking officers that were willing to enter Parliament's service and issuing enlistment orders for new troops. But owing to the failure of the City to co-operate, its efforts were in vain. The citizens feared the advancing enemy, and Parliament found not only that no reliance could be placed on them, but that they were making terms with Fairfax. Parliament of necessity therefore accepted the agreement by which the army consented to remain at Saint Albans, if the warlike preparations against it should cease. Parliament annulled the enlisting orders, discharged the troops already gathered, and brought the work of the Committee of Safety for the time to an end. A month later, when the threatening attitude of the army- again alarmed Parliament, the Committee [163] was revived to prepare for defense, only to yield as impotently as before to the advancing forces of Fairfax that entered the city on August 7th.

Twelve years-passed before a Committee of Safety was again used. When the Long Parliament was restored in 1659 it appointed, on May 7th, six of its own members and three military officers to be a Committee of Safety, to take "especial and effectual care of the Preservation of the Peace and Safety" of the Commonwealth. Their commission was to last for eight days, a time, it was thought, long enough to serve for the creation of a permanent Council of State. The Committee, as a whole, had charge of the army, and might remove and replace officers at will. It could at any time command the treasury. Those members that had seats in Parliament enjoyed the privilege of nominating candidates for the highest civil offices, including the new Council of State, and of settling their salaries. An enormous power of patronage was thus put in their hands. The Committee was continued from May 14 until May 23, as the Council of State, whose duties the Committee was active in framing, was not ready to sit until the latter date. It then yielded its place to the new executive.

The last Committee of Safety of the Revolutionary era was chosen October 26, 1659, by the General Council of the army that had overthrown the Parliament it had helped install a few months earlier, and had assumed control of the state. It consisted of twenty-three men, thirteen officers and ten civilians. This Committee was to be for the time the entire civil government, and might order what it pleased for the safety of the state. Ludlow says that the officers agreed [164] to respect the commands of the Committee as long as it did what the army prescribed. This stipulation, whether openly made or not, was in accordance with the army's desire that the civil government should represent its will alone. The Committee's power was not to be permanent. Within six weeks, if possible, it was to devise a suitable form of government to take its place. The life of the Committee was brief, though extending somewhat over the time allotted. It was disliked and distrusted by the people as the offspring of military violence. It could not gain the City, and, most important, it was unable to convince General Monk, who commanded the English forces in Scotland, of the legitimacy of its position. Deserted at length by the very soldiers of the army that created it, it gave way of necessity before the Rump Parliament that resumed its sittings on December 26.

The likeness of the English and American Committees of Safety in appointment and duties is apparent without further comment. The Committee of 1642 is like the Committees of Massachusetts or Virginia. Later ones find their parallel in the Councils of Safety of Vermont, in the last appointment of New York or the third and fourth appointments of Pennsylvania. It seems fair to say, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the Puritan Revolution gave the American colonists the name of their revolutionary executive and served as a partial precedent for the institution of similar committees. It may be objected that a too great interval separates the English and American Revolutions for the expedients of the one to pass to the service of the other. But the appearance of Committees of Safety in Boston and New York in 1689 shows that the institution was not forgotten in the interim. The news of the landing of the Prince of Orange, brought to Boston April 4, 1689, greatly stirred the common people. Hope of their old charter, distrust and hatred of Andros made them impatient to overthrow his gov[165]ernment. The prominent and influential citizens were more conservative. They resolved to remain quiet until the success of William was assured, but if the people rose of their own accord to guide the movement.

April 18, the, rising took place; the people took arms and imprisoned the chief officers of the government. True to their agreement the prominent citizens, including many of the magistrates under the old charter, met at the Council House to act on the situation and Andros was compelled to surrender the government to them. They associated with them twenty-two of the other prominent citizens, and took the name of the Committee for the Safety of the People and Conservation of the Peace. Their situation was similar to the Committee of Safety chosen by the army in October, 1659. In both cases the previous government had been overthrown and the agents of the change took this means of ruling the state until a better organized government was possible. It may have been in direct imitation of the last English Committee that the Massachusetts men took their title, but that Committee had been thoroughly discredited before its extinction and was less liable therefore to be copied. It is more probable that the name was taken as a generic term furnished by the period for a revolutionary body of administrators. Chalmers says that the "famous name of a Council of Safety" was adopted in Massachusetts showing that the English Committees were well remembered.

The Massachusett's Committee of Safety took entire charge of the government, with the understanding that it was to be a temporary expedient. Mr. Bradstreet was chosen President and Waite Winthrop Commander-in-chief. The Committee issued orders from time to time for the regulation of the people, and undertook, probably under popular pressure, the disbanding of the troops that were engaged in [166] the unpopular task of guarding the Maine frontiers. But its authority was weak, and there was need of a more settled government. May 22, a Convention of the different towns in the Province voted to resume the old charter and the rule of the Committee ended.

The Revolution in New York took its origin from that of Boston. The news of the Massachusetts rising reached New York on April 26, exciting the people with the dangerous example of the successful overthrow of authority. The government in New York wrote the "Gentlemen in Power" in Massachusetts, asking the release of Andros. The Committee of Safety refused, replying with a justification of its action, and an explanation of its mode of government. The Dutch were devoted to the Prince of Orange and were angry that Governor Nicholson delayed to acknowledge him in New York. Absurd rumors were afloat that the Catholics would burn the city, and that Nicholson had threatened to set the fire and massacre the inhabitants. A popular rising took place on the last of May, 16o9, headed by Leisler, a German militia captain. The fort was taken and Leisler proclaimed that he held it for William and Mary until called on by them for its surrender. Nicholson abandoned resistance and sailed for England to make complaint. Leisler, in the meantime, to give his usurpation legal color, called a Convention from the neighboring towns. Eight towns beside New York were represented. In imitation of the Boston leaders these delegates, sixteen in number, styled themselves a Committee of Safety. Although it was the nominal government from June to December, the Committee was in reality merely the obedient exponent of Leisler's will. He was made by it Commander of the fort and later [167] commissioned Commander-in-chief of the Province. December 10, he took the title of Lieutenant-Governor, and the day following chose his Council from his adherents, who had been members of the Council of Safety, and that body disappeared. As in the case of Boston the rising in New York brought the Puritan Revolution to mind. A contemporary wrote of the members of the new Committee of Safety that they were the greatest Oliverians in the government. some openly declaring there had been no legal king in England since Cromwell's days. Colonel Bayard, one of Nicholson's Council, declared the new Committee of Safety to be a power and authority "never suffered or exercised in any of the reigns of their Majesties most glorious ancestors, unless in time of rebellion.

The name appears once more before the Revolution, in Vermont, in 1770. In 1764 the New Hampshire Grants, as Vermont was then called, passed from New Hampshire to New York, and the inhabitants were ordered by the latter Colony to take out new- patents for their land. On their showing no disposition to obey, their land was regranted to patentees from New York. In 1770, suits for ejectment were brought by New York against settlers under grants from New Hampshire, and the Supreme Court at Albany refused as evidence the royal orders and instructions to the Governor of New Hampshire to grant land in that region, or the actual grants made to settle there. These settlers, finding it impossible to obtain a recognition of their land titles, met in convention and resolved to resist the encroachments of New York by force. They therefore formed themselves into a military association with Ethan Allen as commander. Committees of Safety were appointed by the chief towns, whose special duty was to resist any intrusion of New York claimants on their lands. They Committees met from time to [168] time in convention, when some danger threatened, to consult upon and adopt measures for common defense. Persons found transgressing the resolutions of this body were brought before the individual Committees, tried and punished. These Committees of Safety were in active operation at the opening of the Revolution, and probably raised the first troops that the New Hampshire Grants furnished for the war.

Besides English precedent the provinces had at their service experience of their own from colonial days. Here, as ever, one may safely say that the Anglo Saxon did not create an institution out of hand but adapted familiar materials in its construction.

The colonists outside New England had long been familiar with the system of standing committees, such as the Committee of Elections, of Public Claims, of Religion, of justice, etc. They were chosen by the Assembly and were responsible to it. In New England the system does not appear except in the case of the Grand Committees or Councils of War of Connecticut. They were appointed at intervals from 1673, included the Governor, Deputy-Governor and Assistants, and some of the Deputies. These were vested during the recess of the Assembly with power to raise, equip and direct the troops, and came to have nearly the same powers as the Assembly itself. Besides these committees, there were in all the colonies special commissions, appointed by the Assembly, for executive duties that constantly hemmed in the Governor's prerogative, so that Governor Glen of South Carolina wrote, in 1748, "Almost all places of profit or trust are disposed of by the General Assembly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The executive part of the government is lodged in different sets of commissioners . . . . . .[169]. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The above officers, and most of the commissioners are named by the General Assembly and responsible to them alone." These commissioners in time of war, took charge of the money voted by the Assembly and often exercised considerable control in raising and supplying troops, appointing and removing officers. The Maryland Assembly declared in 1757 that its troops were to be under the command of no one but agents appointed by itself while the Assemblies of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, at the same time sent their agents directly to the front to better direct the forces. In the Seven Years' War the Rhode Island Legislature chose a Council of War with general direction of military affairs. In 1757 the Board of Trade wrote of Massachusetts that almost every act of executive and legislative power, whether political, judicial or military was ordered and directed by votes of the General Court, in most cases originating in the House of Representatives. A similar statement was made by the same Board about New York in 1752. It will thus be seen that the Assemblies were no novices in performing executive duties, and that the Committees of Safety merely carried on for the Provincial Congresses work that these committees and commissions had already made familiar.

In the years just previous to the Revolution, the discontent of the colonists found expression in the appointment of town, county and provincial Committees of Correspondence. These provincial Committees of Correspondence were in session during the adjournment of the legislature, and kept tip the colonial agitation in a manner none too pleasing to the royal Governor. The provincial Committees were not as [170] active as the local Committees of Correspondence but they corresponded with those of other provinces, and were the first channel of communication of the Continental Congress with the colonies, a place taken later by the Committees of Safety. When war became more imminent, these Committees disappear as the growing multiplicity of business led to a division of duties among several bodies, of which the Committee of Safety came to be the most important. Such was the origin of the Committee of Safety from the earlier provincial committee system.

Another source was the colonial Governor and Council, Executive power was nominally in the hands of this body, however much it was restricted in reality by the Assembly. It also represented the government in the recess of the legislature. In the absence of Governor and Deputy-Governor, the Council performed these functions alone. The colonists. in forming their revolutionary executive were undoubtedly influenced by these facts, and for this reason the name Council of Safety appears often, instead of Committee, it being held that like the former Councils it was merely taking the place of the Governor during his unavoidable absence. One further point remains to be considered. Were the Committees of Safety spontaneous creations of each province, or were those of later appointment framed at the recommendation of and in imitation of those chosen earlier, or were they,. finally, influenced by any suggestion of the Continental Congress? We are left without direct answer to this question. The commissions given the Committees are similar in character, and it is possible that such leading colonies as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, whose Committees were appointed earlier, may have exercised some influence over their neighbors. William Drayton, a prominent member of-South Carolina's Committee of Safety, makes the statement that that Colony originated the Councils of Safety. If by this he [171] means that South Carolina was the first colony to have a body of that character, or that she devised a system copied by the rest, lie would seem to be mistaken. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut each had such an executive before South Carolina, and there is no evidence that those of the more northern colonies were framed with any reference to that Province. In fact, the slowness and difficulty of communication of the times render the opposite more probable. If, however, Drayton implies only that South Carolina was the first to use the term "Council of Safety," this is true, and if he means further that South Carolina's influence may have suggested the expedient to the neighboring provinces, this also is very probable, considering the influence that South Carolina exerted over these provinces throughout the war.

On July 18, 1775, the Continental Congress recommended to those colonies still without them, the appointment of Committees of Safety to direct and superintend all matters necessary for the security and defense of their respective: colonies, in the recess of their Assemblies and Conventions. Five colonies were at that time without them, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. In all these colonies Committees were soon appointed, so that the central government had its share in suggesting their formation and in giving uniformity of title.

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