Partial repeal of the Townshend Acts.—The Townshend Acts had proved a complete failure. Exports from England to America had dropped from £2,378,000 in 1768 to £1,634,000 in 1769. The customs were yielding little revenue while the colonial military establishment had become extremely expensive. In addition the colonies had been brought close to rebellion. Lord North, who became Prime Minister on January 31, 1770, hoped to end the commotions in America which had been so i
Arbitrary attitude of the governors.—The public, however, was kept in a state of agitation by the arbitrary acts of the governors who reflected the royal will. In Georgia the governor vetoed the assembly's choice for speaker, provoking a controversy which ended in the dissolution of the assembly. In South Carolina the governor was in frequent quarrels with the assembly, first over the salaries of the judges, then regarding the veto of an appropriation but, and finally over convening the assembly at Beaufort instead of at Charleston. Virginia was irritated by the royal instructions which forbade the governor to assent to any law which would prohibit or obstruct the importation of slaves. In Maryland the governor by proclamation revived a law regulating fees which had expired by limitation, an action which was looked upon as an assertion of the right to levy taxes.
In Massachusetts the General Court, which was to have met at Boston in January, 1770, was called to meet at Cambridge on March 15. The assembly objected to the change of time and place and demanded a copy of Hutchinson's instructions, but he refused to comply. The assembly would do no business while thus constrained to hold its sessions away from Boston, and declared that the people and their representatives had a right to withstand the abusive exercise of the crown's prerogative. Under protest the assembly finally proceeded to business, but another difficulty immediately arose when the colonial troops were removed from Castle William which was then garrisoned by the regulars. In July, 1771, Hutchinson, who had recently been appointed governor, vetoed a bull which provided for the salaries of the crown officials, an action which called forth a protest from the assembly which held that royal instructions were thus given the force of law. The following year the assembly was informed that henceforth the salaries of the governor and judges would be paid by the crown.
The Gaspee affair.—In Rhode Island an event occurred in 1772 which had far-reaching influence. The numerous inlets and islands of Narragansett Bay made smuggling easy, and revenue vessels, though constantly on the alert, experienced great difficulty in detecting the illicit traders. The revenue boats St. Johns and Liberty were destroyed by men from Newport and the customs officials were annoyed by suits to recover vessels and cargoes which they had seized; Admiral Montagu accordingly ordered that seized vessels be sent to Boston. To Rhode Islanders Dudington, the commander of the Gaspee, was especially obnoxious. According to Trevelyan, "He stopped and searched vessels without adequate pretext, seized goods illegally, and fired at the market boats as they entered Newport harbour. He treated the farmers on the islands much as the Saracens in the Middle Ages treated the coast population of Italy, cutting down their trees for fuel, and taking their sheep when his crew ran short of meat." The injured parties made their voices heard, and the case was laid before the Admiral, who approved the conduct of his subordinate officer, and announced that, "as sure as any people from Newport attempted to rescue a vessel, he would hang them as pirates." On June 9 the Gaspee ran aground seven miles below Providence and during the night the vessel was boarded, Dudington was wounded, he and his crew were put on shore, and the vessel was burned. The act of violence aroused the British government and orders were sent to the governor of Rhode Island, the admiralty judge at Boston, and the chief justices of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York to act as a commission of inquiry. The commission held sessions in January and May, 1773, but failed to obtain any evidence.
Local committees of correspondence.—The arbitrary acts of the crown officials, the extension of the royal prerogative, and the Gaspee affair made possible the organization of the radical elements in the colonies. In Massachusetts opposition centered in Samuel Adams, "the man of the town meeting," who put forth pamphlet after pamphlet which struck at the encroachments upon colonial rights. "While he restated the old argument against the right of parliament to tax, he closely examined the foundations of the claim of the ministers to govern by royal instructions. He had grasped the idea that the king, lords, and commons, as well as the colonies, were subject to the authority and bound by the limitations of constitutional law." In the assembly, in the town meeting, through the press, on the street, among the sailors, fishermen, and ropemakers, he advocated the necessity of union. During the contest over the salaries of the crown officials, Adams seized the opportunity to put his ideas into tangible form. On November 2, 1772, in the Boston town meeting he moved that a committee of twenty-one be appointed to state the rights of the colonists, particularly of Massachusetts, and to communicate and publish the same to the Massachusetts towns and to the world as the sense of Boston "with the infringements and violations thereof that have been or ... may be, made; also requesting of each town a free communication of their sentiments on this subject." By January, 1773, more than eighty towns in Massachusetts had committees.
"The Boston committee of correspondence has been likened to a political party manager. It provided for regular meetings, consulted with similar bodies in the vicinity, stimulated the spread of committees in surrounding towns, kept up a correspondence with them, prepared political matter for the press, circulated it in newspapers and broadsides, matured political measures, created and guided public sentiment—in short, heated the popular temper to the boiling point of revolution and then drew from it the authority to act."
Standing committees of correspondence.—Aroused by the Gaspee inquiry, the Virginia burgesses on March 12, 1773, adopted resolutions which provided for a standing committee of correspondence and inquiry whose business was "to obtain the most early and authentic intelligence of all such acts and resolutions of the British Parliament, or proceedings of Administration, as may relate to or affect the British colonies in America, and to keep up and maintain a correspondence and communication with our sister colonies, respecting these important considerations; and the result of such their proceedings, from time to time, to lay before this House." The committee was also instructed to obtain information regarding "the principles and authority on which was constituted a court of inquiry, said to have been lately held in Rhode Island, with powers to transmit persons accused of offences committed in America to places beyond the seas to be tried." The speaker was instructed to transmit to the speakers of the different assemblies of the British colonies on the continent copies of the resolutions, that they might lay them before their assemblies and request them to appoint a person or persons to communicate from time to time with the committee of the burgesses.
The Virginia suggestion was first acted upon by the Rhode Island assembly, which on May 15 informed Virginia of the appointment of a committee of correspondence. Before the close of the month the assemblies of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts had appointed similar committees. The South Carolina assembly acted in July, Georgia in September, Maryland and Delaware in October, and North Carolina in December. The New York assembly appointed its committee on January 20, 1774, and New Jersey on February 8. The Pennsylvania assembly dissolved without taking action.
The committees did not prove to be active agents, because (1) "there was little or nothing for them to do;" (2) they "were chosen from members of the assembly, all of whom were desirous of going home when the assembly adjourned"; (3) "the assembly committees were extremely cautious about acting on their own authority." "However, the choice of such committees was not entirely without result. The popular assembly in each colony received preliminary testing. Constitutional questions were raised and discussed, and arguments disseminated.... More important still had been the demonstration that a body could be created which might continue to act in successful opposition to the crown when the royal governors dissolved or prorogued the assemblies."