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The Gaspee attack began the consolidation
of the sundry colonies into a union of states.

Historians often credit the Gaspee Affair with consolidating the various American radical groups in the sundry colonies into a formidable union, leading to the Continental Congress. The first step in this consolidation was the Committees of Correspondence which were formed to exchange information and urge united action by the colonies.  No less a person than Thomas Jefferson  wrote how the Gaspee Affair lead to the formation of these committees.

Thomas Jefferson drafted notes for his own autobiography. Those handwritten notes still exist.  In those notes, Jefferson wrote how the English response to the Gaspee attack started the path of unity. Jefferson felt that he should, and she did, propose  that "a committee of correspondence in each colony would be the best instrument for intercommunication: and that their first measure would probably be to propose a meeting of deputies from every colony at some central place, who should be charged with the direction of the measures which should be taken by all." 

This autobiographical note clearly establishes a direct causation between the Gaspee attack and the colonies' subsequent Committees of Correspondence.  Those Committees eventually became the first Continental Congress.

 

A transcription of Jefferson's handwritten notes follows below. For ease of reading, spelling has been modernized in some instances.  Notes and emphasis have been added.


In May,2 1769, a meeting of the General Assembly was called by the Govr., Ld. Botetourt. I had then become a member; and to that meeting became known the joint resolutions & address of the Lords & Commons of 1768--9, on the proceedings in Massachusetts. Counter-resolutions, & an address to the King, by the H. of Burgesses were agreed to with little opposition, & a spirit manifestly displayed of considering the cause of Massachusetts as a common one. The Governor dissolved us: but we met the next day in the Apollo [room] of the Raleigh tavern, formed ourselves into a voluntary convention, drew up articles of association against the use of any merchandise imported from Gr. Britain, signed and recommended them to the people, repaired to our several counties, & were re elected without any other exception than of the very few who had declined assent to our proceedings.

Nothing of particular excitement occurring for a considerable time our countrymen seemed to fall into a state of insensibility to our situation. The duty on tea not yet repealed & the Declaratory act of a right in the British parl to bind us by their laws in all cases whatsoever, still suspended over us. But a court of inquiry held in R. Island in 1762 [sic, but the slip of Jefferson is dated to be for biography of events in 1772, so it is clear he is referring to the Gaspee inquiry] with a power to send persons to England to be tried for offences committed here was considered at our session of the spring of 1773. as demanding attention. Not thinking our old & leading members up to the point of forwardness & zeal which the times required, Mr. Henry, R. H. Lee, Francis L. Lee, Mr. Carr & myself agreed to meet in the evening in a private room of the Raleigh to consult on the state of things. There may have been a member or two more whom I do not recollect. We were all sensible that the most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all the other colonies to consider the British claims as a common cause to all, & to produce an unity of action: and for this purpose that a commee of correspondence in each colony would be the best instrument for intercommunication: and that their first measure would probably be to propose pose a meeting of deputies from every colony at some central place, who should be charged with the direction of the measures which should be taken by all. We therefore drew up the resolutions which may be seen in Wirt pa 87. The consulting members proposed to me to move them, but I urged that it should be done by Mr. Carr, my friend & brother in law, then a new member to whom I wished an opportunity should be given of making known to the house his great worth & talents. It was so agreed; he moved them, they were agreed to nem. con. and a commee of correspondence appointed of whom Peyton Randolph, the Speaker, was chairman. The Govr. (then Ld. Dunmore) dissolved us, but the commee met the next day, prepared a circular letter to the Speakers of the other colonies, inclosing to each a copy of the resolns and left it in charge with their chairman to forward them by expresses.

The origination of these commees of correspondence between the colonies has been since claimed for Massachusetts, and Marshall II. 151, has given into this error, altho' the very note of his appendix to which he refers, shows that their establmt was confined to their own towns. This matter will be seen dearly stated in a letter of Samuel Adams Wells to me of Apr. 2, 1819, and my answer of May 12. I was corrected by the letter of Mr. Wells in the information I had given Mr. Wirt, as stated in his note, pa. 87, that the messengers of Massach. & Virga crossed each other on the way bearing similar propositions, for Mr. Wells shows that Mass. did not adopt the measure but on the receipt of our proposn delivered at their next session. Their message therefore which passed ours, must have related to something else, for I well remember P. Randolph's informing me of the crossing of our messengers.

[Notes and Emphasis Added.]

Source: This is a transcription from the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, which contains the  handwritten paper item cataloged as -  Thomas Jefferson, July 27, 1821, Autobiography Draft Fragment, January 6 through July 27.

Samuel Adams' writings also establishes the same a direct causation between the Gaspee attack and the colonies' subsequent Committees of Correspondence.  Adams claimed he originated the idea, not Jefferson.

As to the importance of the Gaspee Affair in the start of unified American actions, see the following description by Professor Lawrence S. Kaplan, Colonies Into Nation, pp 65-71 (Macmillan Company, New York, 1972)].

Patrolling the waters of Narragansett Bay, a notorious center of smuggling, the Gaspee had a reputation for excessive zeal in exposing violations of the Navigation laws. When it ran aground near Providence it was not surprising that it received unwanted attention from hostile Rhode Islanders who promptly set upon the vessel. The ship was burned, the commander wounded, and royal authority in the person of royal officers was grievously affronted. The outrageous assault was all the more galling because of the subsequent false arrest of the unfortunate British commander by civil authorities, and the inability of anyone to identify the American culprits behind the action. As everyone knew, they were leading men of business in Providence.

Essentially the incident was not different from a number of other clashes in the preceding decade; and essentially the British response was similar to earlier responses. In the first instance the colonial provoked by a British regulation and recognizing limitations in local British power strikes out at an exposed extension of authority. In the latter Britain promises punishment which she is unable to deliver. The major difference on this occasion [the American attack on the Gaspee and the British response] was in the aftermath of the affair. In the past the colonies had spoken vaguely of future concert against British policy, but never fulfilled their pledges. This time Samuel Adams and his network of colleagues in other colonies established a continental Committee of Correspondence with the objective of circulating information quickly about future British abuses and of addressing the world with a single American voice. The Gaspee affair revealed how much the events of the previous decade had radicalized the colonies. [Bold face emphasis supplied.]

Reaction to news of a royal commission interfering in the Rhode Island case was immediate. The commission became a court of the inquisition in the rhetoric of its opponents, who claimed that its purpose was to compel Americans to bow before alien and illegal jurisdictions, Anticipating the summoning of troops in January, 1773, in consequence of the investigation, the Boston Gazette conjured up slaughter worse than the Boston Massacre, and asked itself how long the patience of the colonies would Iast before an effective riposte was made. It came within two months as Virginia, spurred by Richard Henry Lee, took the initiative and appointed a standing committee of eleven to keep watch over the acts of Parliament and to correspond with the other colonies. The motion of the young Virginian found a response first in Boston and then within a year in all the colonies except Pennsylvania, which delayed the appointment of a committee until after the Boston Port Bill had passed in 1774.

While a Continental Congress would soon overshadow the Committees of Correspondence, they symbolized a spirit of union which had not been present in the previous crises. Here were permanent units different from the ad hoc basis of the Stamp Act Congress or from the unstructured reactions to the Circular Letter. New leaders emerged inside and outside the legislatures who could give currency to the language of conditional independence. Not only did the Boston Gazette deny Britain's right to make laws for the colonies but it warned that "if Britons continue their endeavors much longer to subject us to their government and taxation, we shall become a separate state." And the state would be strong enough to be a "guardian of the rights of mankind throughout the world," according to the Providence Gazette in 1773. Certainly it would be confident enough to dispatch its own ambassador to Parliament, if not to the Court of St. James.

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