...in 1773, the town of Bedford held its annual meeting. Along with the routine matters to be addressed, there was one unusual item of business. The Town Meeting was asked to decide if it agreed with Boston's "sentiments related to the state of the Colonists as to their Rights and Liberties." A pamphlet detailing these sentimentsa mixture of outrage, exaggeration, and alarmhad been sent to selectmen in every Massachusetts town. Britain was tightening its control on its American colonies, and the colonists believed that their rights as English citizens were threatened. The response to the Boston Pamphlet made it clear that, in Bedford and many other Massachusetts towns, people were prepared to resist British authority.
In November 1772 each of the 240 towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had received a copy of the Boston Pamphlet, spelling out the colonists' grievances with Parliament and asserting the rights they believed were theirs as freeborn Englishmen. It went on to request from the men of each town "a free communication of their Sentiments on this Subject."
Written and circulated by Boston's newly formed "Committee of Correspondence," the Pamphlet inspired other Massachusetts towns to establish their own Committees of Correspondence. Soon there was a network in place to share information and organize resistance to imperial control.
This was a truly radical step. The Boston Pamphlet was openly even extravagantly critical of the British government. "Thus our houses and even our bed chambers, are exposed to be ransacked, our boxes, chests, & trunks broke open, ravaged and plundered by wretches," its writers declared. Circulating such grievances was the first organized resistance to the British government's policies and an unprecedented assertion of colonial authority.
What had driven the Boston men to take such an extreme, and potentially treasonous, action? They were deeply alarmed by a series of changes imposed by the royal authorities. The Crown had taken control of the purse strings for both the executive and judicial officers of the colony, leaving the people with no recourse against corruption or arbitrary exercises of power.
Boston was known to be a hotbed of political radicalism. It was no surprise when the Boston Town Meeting protested. But it was unclear how men living in the countryside would respond. Did they share the alarm, indignation, and discontent of the Boston radicals?
Indeed they did. In the late winter and spring of 1773, at least 119 towns held meetings in response to Boston's letter; another 25 towns followed suit by the end of the summer. (The numbers may well have been even larger, since some the Boston committee's records may well have been lost.) Almost all of the responses indicated agreement with the charges laid out in the Boston Pamphlet.
At town meetings all across Massachusetts, men gathered to read, discuss, debate, and vote on the Pamphlet. Then, using their own words, they framed a written response. Each town articulated the views of its male citizens as to the rights and responsibilities of rulers and subjects.
The Pamphlet insured that the language of natural rights and social contracts spread throughout the colony. As one historian explains, by 1773 "the network of activists meant that revolutionary language was sounding in virtually every adult ear in Massachusetts."
The tiny Worcester County town of Hubbardston, for example, resolved: "We are of the opinion that the Rulers first Derive their Power from the Ruled by Certain Laws and Ruls [sic] agreed upon by Ruler and Ruled, and when a Ruler Breaks over Such Laws and Rules as agreed to by Ruler and Ruled and makes new ones that then the Ruled have a Right to Refuse Such new Laws and that the Ruled have a Right to Judge for themselves when Rulers Transgress." The men of Hubbardston concluded that the people had a right to resist "in the most firm, but the most peaceable manner."
Eighteen miles west of Boston, Bedford elected seven men to compose the Town Meeting's response to the Boston Pamphlet. The clerk recorded their carefully considered but clearly angry view that the Crown had violated their liberties. "The Inhabitants of the Provence [sic] are by the Royal Charter vested with full Power to raise money for the support of Government. . . the Crown Taking the Payment of our Governors out of our hands is a very Great Grievance. Also Rendering the Judges. . . Independent of the people and altogether Dependent on the Crown seems calculated to complete our Ruin and slavery. . . ." The report was accepted unanimously and a copy sent to Boston.
The neighboring town of Lexington formed a Committee of Correspondence on December 31, 1772. A few weeks later, it submitted its report to Town Meeting. It ended with this statement: "Whether successful or not, Succeeding Generations might know that we Understood our Rights and Liberties and were Neither afraid nor ashamed to assert and maintain them."
Dozens of other towns also formed standing committees of correspondence. The result was what one historian has called "the beginnings of a revolutionary infrastructure."
In the mid-1770s, the committees became increasingly active, holding meetings, printing and distributing political material, and encouraging other colonies to follow the Massachusetts example. The Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson condemned the committees as treasonous; they were, he wrote to London, "the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition."
Hutchinson was right to fear the Committees of Correspondence. Communication with resisters in other towns gave the Massachusetts Bay colonists confidence that they had the power to confront Parliament and the King. Very soon, they would do just that: the Massachusetts Committees of Correspondence became one link in a national chain.
The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord, by Ray Raphael (The New Press, 2002).
Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774, by Richard D. Brown (Norton, 1976).
Wilderness Town: The Story of Bedford, Mass., by Louise K. Brown. (n.p., 1968).