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American Insurgents, American Patriots by T.H. Breen

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In 1774 a popular insurgency, led by “ordinary Americans” and organized into local committees of safety, was sweeping the 13 colonies. Basing their authority in the Articles of Association, an act passed by the First Continental Congress to enforce a boycott on British goods, these committees of safety helped propel revolution with their own notions of an American ideology and resistance. In American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, T.H. Breen traces the rise of these networks of everyday patriots who used social pressure at the local level to create a shared American sense of purpose. 

The following excerpt from this populist history, details the creation of a local committee of safety in Wilmington, North Carolina and the quick escalation of their revolutionary activities.


The proceedings of the Wilmington Committee of Safety began on the afternoon of November 23, 1774-the time was amazingly precise with the announcement of an election. The "Freeholders" of the town gathered at the courthouse to select persons "to carry more effectually into Execution the resolves of the late congress held at Philadelphia." It was not in the true sense a contest. The townsmen proposed nine names, and with almost no discussion, the nominees were "universally assented to." The members of the committee derived authority from an act of Congress. From that perspective, we can say that power flowed down from a central governing body.

At the same time, the committee owed its initial existence to the freeholders who chose the members and who presumably held them accountable for their decisions. After only a few months, it ordered a new election-this time expanding the franchise to include "all the inhabitants qualified to vote for members of the Assembly" -because it believed it was important that "the people may have an opportunity of confirming or annulling their former choice." What we witness in Wilmington more than a year before the Declaration of Independence is the creation of a rough republican structure in which the sources of power remained elusive. The voters might well have viewed the members of the committees as their representatives, but at the same time, the members of the committee had complete discretion in interpreting the meaning of the key articles of the Association, a document that functioned as a constitution for a nation before it was a nation.

During the early months of operation the Wilmington Committee of Safety hardly seemed to qualify as a genuine revolutionary body. It moved slowly, a little uncertain perhaps of its ability to back up its own claims to authority, and even when confronted with merchants who appeared to have violated the Association the members treated suspicious individuals with surprising generosity and compassion. Committeemen were feeling their way forward, testing the political waters, and avoiding confrontations that had the potential to spark organized opposition.

The local insurgency took a dramatic turn on the morning of March 6, 1775.

The crackdown began with the drafting of an oath of revolutionary allegiance termed the "Association." The wording of the statement merits close attention, for among other things, it assumed the existence of "our Country" long before the creation of an independent republic. And this country-at that moment no more than a shared vision or a projection of hope-demanded patriotic sacrifice.

At the same time, without betraying any sense of contradiction, the agreement spoke of a negotiated settlement with the Crown. It was as if the committee wanted to mask its own actions, which, of course, had made a settlement with king and Parliament highly unlikely.

We the Subscribers, in Testimony of our Sincere approbation of the proceedings of the late Continental Congress ... have hereunto set our hands & we do most solemnly engage by the most Sacred ties of Honor, Virtue & Love of our Country, that we will ourselves Strictly Observe every part of the Association recommended by the Continental Congress as the most probable means to bring about a Reconciliation between Great Britain & her Colonies & we will use every Method in Our power to endeavor to Influence others to the Observation [observance] of it by persuasion & such other Methods as Shall be consistent with the peace & Good Order & the Laws of this Province & we do hereby intend to Express our Utter detestation of all such as shall endeavor to defeat the purpose of the Said Congress & will Concur to hold forth such Characters to Public Contempt.

At three o'clock the same day, the committee reconvened­­. Those favoring firm opposition to imperial control were determined to put teeth into the loyalty oath. Membership on the committee had increased to twenty-five, more than doubling the size of the original group. The Wilmington committee had recently merged with the nearby New Hanover County committee. …This greatly expanded body resolved "that all Members of the Committee now present go in a body & wait on all Housekeepers in Town with the Association before mentioned & request their signing it, or declare their reasons for refusing, [so] that such Enemies to their Country may be set forth to public View & treated with the Contempt they merit."

This was an extraordinary decision. One can imagine the shock when local householders came to the doors of their homes and encountered twenty-five earnest men-the entire committee-demanding a signature on a document that pledged full and informed support for the Association. These must have been tense moments.

By March 7 a great majority of the people living in the region had been canvassed. The committee reported that it had encountered eleven men who had "refused or declined under various pretences to sign the Association of the Continental Congress." These "Enemies to their Country" received what we might call today psychological punishment. To be sure, they did not suffer incarceration or physical abuse, but in some ways the actual penalty may have been harder to bear. Stigmatized, shunned, made outcasts of the local community, they became nonpersons. Without explaining their interrogation procedures-after all the committee was now acting in a judicial capacity-the members announced to their constituents that "we will have no trade, Commerce, dealings or Intercourse whatsoever with the above mentioned persons or any others ... who shall hereafter violate the said Association or refuse to Subscribe thereto; but will hold them as unworthy of the rights of freemen & as Inimical to the Liberties of their country & we recommend it to the people of this Colony in particular & to the Americans in General, to pursue the Same Conduct." 

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