GENERAL VIEW OF THE CHARACTER AND
WORK OF THE COMMITTEES OF SAFETY.
In studying the Committees of Safety, the question arises how far they were an irresponsible executive able to act independently and to govern the people without check, or if responsibility existed, through what agency it was enforced. The Committees were usually given wide and indefinite authority; they were to carry on the government in the recess of the legislature, to act as a colonial executive and to take whatever steps they thought necessary for the public good. There could scarcely be a more elastic commission. It was permission to do as they pleased since no constitution set bounds to their activity, and whatever they determined upon, if not contrary to a resolution of the Provincial Congress was law. The "safety of the public" might plead again as it often had before to justify an arbitrary and despotic rule.
These circumstances seem to give the Committees of Safety unusual freedom as an executive. But there were other facts of their creation and organization that so far from allowing them an irresponsible position bound them to an even undesirable dependence upon the legislature. They were chosen by the Provincial Convention and at short intervals. Their brief term of service made it impossible to form or carry out any plans that did not meet with the approval of the legislature, or to make any attempt to cut themselves loose from that watchful and jealous body.  Their frequent dissolutions prevented them from becoming a permanent body with interests and ambitions apart from the legislature, and an ability to maintain an independence of it. The Congress possessed an absolute power over the life of the Committees. It could dissolve them at any time and strike them completely from the system of government. It could alter their power and confine it within as narrow a compass as it chose. No Committee was certain that the authority it enjoyed would be continued. Neither could it tell whether its own acts would be allowed to stand, since the legislature was able to suspend or abrogate any decree or order it issued.
There was at this time no written constitution to protect the executive from the omnipotence of the legislative power. The former had nothing on which to rely to justify an independence of action, no assured field of activity where it could conduct affairs in its own way. The merging of all departments and the placing of all authority in the state in the Provincial Congress made it alone the center of men's interests and ambition. The members of the Committee were first members of the legislature and their new office did not deprive them of their seats. Their ideas and desires therefore, would be in sympathy with the majority that had chosen them, and having helped to frame the laws they would seek merely to carry them out in accordance with the wishes of the rest of the legislature. For these reasons, the Committees of Safety were dominated by the Congress and showed throughout their existence a strong sense of their dependence upon it. That the latter so rarely criticised their actions, and so often dispensed with reading their minutes, is evidence that the Committees performed their duties in harmony with the wishes of the parent body.
Another important set of circumstances further limited the Committee's power. It was obliged to rely upon the local county and town committees to carry out its measures, for there were no state officials to whom it could give its orders and whom it could call to account for disobedience. Instead it was obliged to trust the good-will and fidelity of these semi-independent boards which it was impossible to coerce to obedience. These county committees were elected by the people, at the recommendation of the Provincial Congress. But the central government had no means of enforcing authority over them. They occupied in fact, much the position that the separate colonies held toward the Continental Congress. These county committees called variously, Committees of Safety, of Inquiry, and of Inspection, were tenacious of their local supremacy and stood as a complete barrier against any attempt at centralization which must precede any practical exercise of independence in a central executive. The local committees, as a whole, did in general co-operate with the Congress and Committee of Safety and made it possible for the revolutionary machinery of government, disconnected and unusable as it became at times to finally accomplish its ends. In the heat of common enthusiasm and patriotism the parts were welded for the time. If the Revolution had been merely the plan of a few leaders, it would have been impossible for it to have made headway, since voluntary co-operation was the source of whatever unity existed.
It is difficult to tell in what light the Committees of Safety were viewed by the people as a whole. The authority to arrest, try and punish all suspects gave the Committee arbitrary power over the people and property of each individual, and those Tories who fell into its hands, hated it as the agent of an irresponsible tyranny. Among the Whigs the presence of the Committee of Safety in the governmental system seems to have given rise to little comment. The reason for this is probably found in the dominance of the Provincial Congress throughout the transition period. The Committee was regarded only as the agent of the legislature. It did not have that independence of jurisdiction  and width of individual power which would have set it distinctly before the people as a body which touched their interests in a separate way or which ruled a separate field of political life. In accepting the Congress the people accepted its executive committees and seem to have merged them in approval or condemnation.
The chief concern of the Committee was with the war and the colony's defense. In some cases it was Commander-in-chief of the militia. The position was ill-suited to so large a body, composed usually of civilians, although in some of the northern states militia officers were allowed upon the board. It is hard to tell how capably it filled the position. Lee has a sneer for the timidity of New York's Committee, and is exasperated at the over-caution of Virginia's. "Their distribution of their troops is likewise a masterpiece" he writes. "I wonder they did not carry it still further and post one or two men by way of general security in every individual gentleman's house. The localities were often responsible for an injudicious scattering of the colony's forces by insisting that detachments should be sent them for protection. The Continental troops were outside the Committee's province, but their officers often consulted its members upon the best plan of campaign within the province and relied upon them to supply the troops with food and lodging.
The Committees of Safety of neighboring colonies were in frequent correspondence. South Carolina warned and instructed Georgia. Virginia and Maryland concerted plans for common defense. Massachusetts advised New Hampshire. Troops were asked for and sent, ammunition and cannon were borrowed, the best method of making saltpetre was communicated, and the latest news of the progress of the British or of the probable destination of their fleet was forwarded. In this way the colonies kept in touch with each other, and the Committees of Safety replaced to some  extent the old Committees of Correspondence. They were too busy, however, to write except when some necessity urged, and no general correspondence on the state of affairs in the different provinces was carried on. Such matters were discussed in the letters that the Committees often sent to their delegates in the Continental Congress, telling them of their needs; asking their advice, and soliciting money and war stores, giving them usually also an account of how matters had progressed in their absence. In return they were provided by Congress as far as possible with what they wished, and the delegates wrote them of the deliberations and plans of the central body, of the situation of the country as a whole, the strength of the British, and the victories and losses of the Americans. So that Philadelphia became the point to which all news was sent and from which it was again distributed.
The requisites of a good executive are unity, secrecy and dispatch, and there is no time when these are more imperatively demanded than when the country is engaged in war. That a single magistrate is the most effective head of a government, and embodies those qualities to the highest degree is generally conceded. It was inevitable that the executive must suffer in efficiency when placed in the hands of a body like the Committee of Safety. It was hindered by its size. The Congress in its attempt to make the Committee representative of the whole province made the membership too large. Conservatives and radicals opposed each other at its sessions and prevented promptness of decision and quickness of execution. It was necessary to deliberate and compromise when action should have been taken at once. These facts gave rise to the charges of inaction and timidity which were sometimes made against the Committee, and were due rather to its organization and .structure, than to the character of the men composing it. Yet so deeply rooted was the jealousy of the colonial governor that it was impossible to expect the revolutionists to reinstate at once the single executive.
The people placed on the Committee the leaders of the province, those men who were most active in the revolutionary movement and were capable of administering affairs. Such men were John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Robert Morris, Charles Pinckney, Charles Carroll, John Dickinson, and Benjamin Franklin. These men gave their time and strength willingly to the cause and worked untiringly for the defense of their province. Often no pay was given them, often they were obliged to take depreciated paper. Their prominence lent them little present advantage and exposed them to a special danger if the war ended in defeat.
The success of the Revolution is to a much larger degree than is often realized the work of these Committees. They were in control at a critical time. In 1775 the feeling of opposition to England was widespread and a wish to appeal to arms was prevalent. But it was necessary to forge from this intangible emotion and desire some effective weapon of resistance. The Congresses might resolve to embody troops; it rested with the Committee to really bring an army into the field, to furnish it with ammunition, to give it food and clothing and deliver it into the hands of the officers. Without the concrete activity of the Committee of Safety the votes of the legislature would be without significance and the victories of Washington unknown. It was no easy task that the Committees undertook, as we have seen. They were obliged to overcome the inertia that attends the starting of any movement: to contend against incredulity, fear, and discouragement until they could make results justify their acts. The Committee placed opposition on an effective basis, and the state government merely continued the work it had begun.
In spite of its faults the committee system worked well. Granted that the legislature must be the supreme and only power in the central government of the province, the Committee of Safety was a serviceable means of getting the executive duties of that body performed. Like the modern English cabinet it represented the majority in the legislature, not by being reformed whenever it ceased to command their approval, but by its frequent elections which made it possible to leave out at those times men who had shown themselves to be no longer in harmony with the stronger party. The members of the Committee were members of the legislature and could know its wishes and the way in which it desired to have them fulfilled. From their seats in the house also, the members of the committee could explain and justify any of its measures. The Congress often reviewed their acts and the Committees were thus responsible to it for what they did. If the legislature had realized the meaning and possibilities of this system there might have been developed in the different states a form of government similar to that which England enjoys today. But the idea of the three departments of government acting separately and independently, and kept from encroachments on each other by an ingenious system of checks and balances had deep root in the minds of the Americans of the eighteenth century as the most perfect mode of government, however they might violate it in practice. The Committees of Safety were regarded merely as a temporary and abnormal expedient anti had proved themselves in no way the superior of a single executive. When the time came to frame the new constitutions it was natural that the three-fold division of departments should find place in all of them, and that a Governor should be placed at the head of each state.
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