Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fellow's Perspective: The significance of Revolutionary Committee Meetings

 In this installment of Fellow's Perspective, Dr. Ken Owen, who conducted research at the Library during the Spring of 2010, shares his finding on the meetings of Revolutionary committees. Most readers will be familiar with the stereotypical drudgery of committee work, something that has largely remained unchanged over the centuries. Beneath this veil of discussion, debate, and reams of notes, however, lay a social process that was vital to the formation and application of American revolutionary ideology, as Dr. Owen notes below. Dr. Owen received his DPhil from The Queen's College, University of Oxford, after completing his research at the Library and now teaches at the University of Sussex.


Committee meetings may not seem the most exhilarating events in the historical record. These meetings, though, were crucial in determining how Americans declared Independence and what governments they formed when they did. In the winter of 1773-4, individuals throughout the state of Pennsylvania met at county courthouses to elect committees charged with prosecuting resistance to the British Crown. These committees then began to seize political leadership in the state, eroding the authority of the colonial legislature and ultimately resulting in the adoption of the most radical constitution created by any of the newly-independent states.

These meetings were recorded faithfully and their proceedings published in newspapers throughout the winter. Though the substance of discussions (if, indeed, there was any deliberation) is not mentioned, the structures that they created tell us much about how ordinary citizens perceived questions of representation and self-government. The history of political activism in the Revolution is often confined to key incidents such as the Boston Tea Party or the mobilisation of militiamen. Yet ordinary Americans, not just elites, were also engaging in the nitty-gritty of political action.

My research as a David Library Fellow allowed me to take advantage of the newspaper holdings of the Library, both on microfilm and on CD-ROM. A comprehensive study of the county meetings reveals some important factors relating to Pennsylvania's push for independence. Firstly, they demonstrate that notions of governments 'deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed' were used to change the structure of colonial power well before the Declaration of Independence. These committees assumed the authority to instruct the Pennsylvania legislature how to act. After the First Continental Congress, they prosecuted a total boycott of all British goods.

Secondly, they demonstrate a keen commitment to representative principles - committees were carefully constructed with representatives from each main settlement in the county. (This principle would be reflected when a colony-wide conference of committees adopting voting practices to prevent Philadelphians controlling the proceedings of the conference). Sometimes, they acted hastily and violently. In some cases, only 20% of the committee needed to be present to make decisions. But they gained their authority to act through being representative of the people.

Ordinary Americans didn't necessarily write down their opinions as British actions pushed them further towards Independence. Yet we can tell much about the way that they thought not through what they said, but through what they did. Through studying the way they opposed the Intolerable Acts, we see widespread political engagement - and better understand the ways in which American versions of government developed.

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