To aid the war effort and fill the void of civil government left when British colonial institutions collapsed, the Continental Congress recommended each colony establish a committee of safety to execute resolutions – especially when the legislature adjourned.1 Smaller than the cumbersomely large Provincial Congress, the New York Committee of Safety could act more efficiently. Occupying a somewhat vague position within both the civil government and military hierarchy, the short-term Committee worked with General George Washington to preserve order amidst the ongoing struggle. Commencing July 11, 1775, the Committee received ambiguous orders and tentatively assumed it responsibilities: responding to government letters, executing resolutions, obliging Continental Army officials “as far as…[the Committee] shall think proper,” directing the military when in New York, and administering finances.2 In fact, as civil bulwarks, the Committee and later the Council of Safety (the slight nomenclature alteration came after independence) even operated until early 1778 – well after New York ratified a constitution. These bodies helped stabilize the state until the formal government initiated. Originally conceived as executive bodies, the Committee and Council eventually received all the Convention’s powers.

Specifically designated as New York’s civil authority, the Committee needed to act efficiently - especially in regards to aiding Washington’s war effort. Regularly corresponding with the Provincial Congress and Committee of Safety, Washington notified officials of potential invasions to at risk areas so necessary defensive preparations could commence. Recognizing the Committee’s authority and, more importantly, the necessity of working with executive bodies, Washington even solicited the Committee’s aid procuring military supplies and recruits. Despite Washington’s desires and the Committee’s strives to meet demands, the executive institution was not always successful.3 Facing mounting obstacles, the Committee and its successor endeavored to meet Washington’s demands for weapons through a variety of means. Arguably one of the executive body’s more controversial methods called upon local boards to disarm both loyalists and inhabitants who refused the Association as well as impress materials for the military’s use.

When it came to directing the militia, Washington generally attempted not to usurp the Committee’s authority and the board, for the most part, reciprocated his respect by deferring to the general’s expertise. To secure New York, Washington labored alongside the executive body as it instructed him to protect and remove provisions from threatened areas.4 Together, Washington and the Committee struggled to rein in the, at times, rambunctious American army. In April 1776, given his impending arrival in New York, Washington requested the Committee regulate “taverns and tippling houses” so his troops would have less distractions and cause for “debauch[ery].”5 Similarly that winter, after receiving petitions, the Committee solicited Washington’s help to prevent American soldiers from pillaging and burning New Yorkers’ property in White Plains. Clearly afraid such actions not only unnecessarily stressed inhabitants but also swayed them from the cause, the Committee hoped the general would curb such behavior with strict punishments. Contending, “the presence of the army does not supersede the laws of the country,” the Committee sought to institute civil authority and terminate disorder in all forms.6

While laboring to deliver Washington military support, the Committee (and later the Council of Safety) also strived to institute public security by ordering suspicious persons apprehended and interrogated. Even early on in his relationship with the Committee, it became apparent both the general and the executive body recognized the importance of eradicating internal “Avarice” and dissension.7 In July 1775, Washington bemoaned that until domestic threats had been subverted, the American cause lay in peril.8 Urging New York to mobilize, the general offered his aid to defeat such an elusive enemy since he knew disaffection appeared in many forms. From actively aiding the British, to seditious speech, refusing continental currency, or even deserting, Washington implored the Committee to examine potential enemy behavior.9 Believing spies lived amongst the patriot community, he desired officials to display stricter prudence when issuing travel passes so as to limit subversives’ influence.

While the Committee strived to monitor alleged dissidents, Washington also captured accused enemies and sent them to the civil board.10 As the war progressed, he requested the Committee to assume a greater responsibility preventing discourse between civilians and British vessels to hinder the flow of supplies and intelligence.11 Warning the Committee that such communication and trade undermined the American cause as well as threatened New York itself, Washington advised the executive bodies to punish internal enemies who continued their relationship with British vessels. Desiring not to dictate to the board, Washington hoped by appealing to the executive body as New York’s civil authority, the Committee would endorse his suggestions in the name of the common good and compel others to follow as well. Heeding the general’s advice, the Committee of Safety soon seized momentum, issuing a resolution that if any residents interacted with the British, it would label them “as enemies to the rights and liberties” of America.12

As the war escalated, both the general and the Committee surmised the ever-increasing danger of alleged disaffected Americans remaining within the community. Therefore, Washington posited removing accused prisoners on parole to regions where they could be monitored and not harm the cause.13 Exceptionally satisfied with Washington’s attention to civil authority, the Committee quickly enhanced its agenda to discover internal disaffection.14 Fully endorsing the civil institutions’ leadership in this endeavor, Washington encouraged New York to examine prisoners and determine the most dangerous inhabitants for removal. Upon declaring independence, New York broadly interpreted Washington’s mandate to extensively monitor dissent within its own borders – summoning, apprehending, extending oaths, and confining the suspicious. From fall 1776 until 1781, the Committee and especially subsidiary boards such as the Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies commenced monitoring, paroling and deporting residents to neighboring states.

 

Joshua Canale, Ph.D.

Le Moyne College

 

Notes:

1. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford, vol. 2 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905), 189.

2. Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety and Council of Safety of the State of New York, 1775-1776-1777, vol. 1 (Albany: Thurlow Weed, 1842), 69-70.

3. JPCCS, vol. 1:249 and 420-427.

4. JPCCS, vol. 1:603.

5. JPCCS, vol. 1:408.

6. JPCCS, vol. 1:729 and 731-732.

7. New York Committee of Safety to Washington, September 9, 1775, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).

8. Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety and Council of Safety of the State of New York, 1775-1776-1777, vol. 2 (Albany: Thurlow Weed, 1842), 107-108.

9. JPCCS, vol. 1:152, 184, 492-493, and 799

10. JPCCS, vol. 1:431.

11. JPCCS, vol. 1:411-412.

12. JPCCS, vol. 1:412.

13. JPCCS, vol. 1:436 and 531.

14. New York Committee of Safety to Washington, April 18, 1776, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).

Bibliography: 

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. Edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford. Vol. 2. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905.

Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety and Council of Safety of the State of New York, 1775-1776-1777. 2 Volumes. Albany: Thurlow Weed, 1842.

The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition. Edited by Theodore J. Crackel.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.

Flick, Alexander C. Loyalism in New York during the American Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1901.

Mason, Bernard. The Road to Independence: The Revolutionary Movement in New York, 1773-1777. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press-Lexington, 1966.

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