Friday, April 19, 2019

The Last Colonial Governors in Revolutionary America

Over the course of 1774 and 1775, letters from distressed governors flooded General Thomas Gage’s headquarters in Boston. Colonial officials all across British North America were watching imperial government collapse around them and scrambling to maintain their power. They wrote to Gage – Commander in Chief of the British Army in North America and Governor of Massachusetts – looking for a solution. They wanted the money, men, ammunition, and information that only Gage could quickly provide.

In one exemplary call for aid, the governor of South Carolina insisted that the South was just as rebellious as New England. Governor William Campbell claimed that South Carolinians were equal to New Englanders in “the violence of their measures, & contempt of all Legal Authority.” Campbell felt impotent, writing how “absolutely [we are] under the command of [extralegal] Councils & Committees.”[1]  General Gage responded to Campbell’s letter with sympathy but not the hoped-for solution: “[I] am sorry to hear South Carolina is in such Confusion,” he wrote, “but Congresses and Committees seem to have the Rule of every Province.”[2]  In other words, you’re on your own.

General Thomas Gage (1721-1787)

I came to the William L. Clements Library – with the help of a Jacob M. Price Research Fellowship – to research the committees that so troubled these two men. To my delight, I found that the Clements Library has almost as many letters written by committeemen as they have letters written by colonial governors complaining about committees. The latter are surprisingly emotional and engaging. The Thomas Gage Papers at the Clements Library contains hundreds of letters from this period; after having read through most of them, I can tell you that the 1770s look very different when seen through the eyes of the last colonial governors.

The southern governors particularly resented having to fend for themselves against committees. Feeling abandoned by Gage, they turned to each other to shore up royal power in their region.[3]  This largely consisted of creating a communication network tying them to each other and to the military headquarters in Boston. The southern governors wanted to have timely and reliable information in the increasingly tense environment following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. They needed reports on battles and political skirmishes from Gage in order to combat damaging reports from rebel sources.[4]  They also needed an easy way to call for reinforcements if circumstances escalated and fighting broke out within their colonies. In light of this, the governors of Georgia and the Carolinas attempted to use a warship to ferry mail between the southern capitals and Boston.[5]

"A View of the Town of Boston with Several Ships of War in the Harbour," (1774).
Engraving by Paul Revere.
The southern governors chose the sea route because committeemen were notorious snoops. Committees in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and South Carolina regularly stopped and inspected mail sent between colonial officials. The governors were understandably terrified of their letters being intercepted and used against them by the committees. In addition to finding alternate ways to send their mail, a couple of governors suggested using cyphers to keep their correspondence secret.[6]  The Thomas Gage Papers show that governors started worrying about the security of mail routes as early as 1774 – well before war began!

Paranoia among colonial officials reached a high point in the summer and fall of 1775. Governors throughout the colonies spoke of a rebel plot to imprison and possibly execute all of the governors; this would apparently leave space for committees to rule the colonies without competition.[7]  Indeed, five governors were so afraid for their lives that they absconded to British warships waiting in their harbors.[8]  While it seems unlikely that rebel committees concocted an intercolonial plan to simultaneously seize the governors, committeemen were certainly not sad to see their governors go. By 1776, committeemen had made it impossible for governors to rule without Gage's soldiers and weapons; for the rest of the American Revolution, colonial governors could only maintain authority in areas where they had a strong military presence.

Treesh at work in the Avenir Foundation Reading Room, October 2018.

As I worked my way through Gage’s correspondence at the Clements Library, it was hard to not be overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. Between 1765 and 1776, Gage corresponded with governors in every British North American colony as well as the Superintendents of Indian Affairs for both the North and the South. The Gage Papers give researchers a rare wide-lens view of colonial governance in its last years. Taken as a whole, these letters show the emotional and political turmoil of the imperial crisis spreading throughout the continent. 

Collections like the Thomas Gage Papers force us to recognize the messiness and contingency of the 1760s and 1770s, a period that we often think of as a linear, steady progression toward American unity and revolution. With such a geographically-broad collection we can see that dynamic political change happened at varying rates throughout the colonies, but almost always in fits and starts. Little about the movement toward revolution was “linear” or “steady”. Governors fought back against the committees and congresses, and were at times able to stem the rising tide of rebellion, though not stop it altogether. The story of American politics from 1765 to 1776 is about the decline of governmental authority as much as it is about the growth of rebel legitimacy. The Thomas Gage Papers are an especially good source for observing both sides of the story; I know that my dissertation is richer for having studied them.

Catherine Treesh
Doctoral Candidate, Department of History, Yale University
Clements Library 2018 Price Fellow

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[1] A reference to the rebellious "committees of correspondence" and the colony-wide conventions that they generated - the first efforts to organize and carry out Patriot self-governance.  William Campbell to Thomas Gage, 1 July 1775, American Series, Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.

[2] Thomas Gage to William Campbell, 9 August 1775, American Series, Vol. 133, Thomas Gage Papers.

[3] The southern governors weren’t entirely wrong when they obliquely accused Gage of ignoring them. Gage was getting instructions from the Earl of Dartmouth to keep an eye on the South but to focus his attention and resources on New England, where the threat was deemed greatest. See Earl of Dartmouth to Thomas Gage, 15 April 1775, English Series, Vol. 28, Thomas Gage Papers.

[4] William Campbell to Thomas Gage, 1 July 1775, American Series Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers; Josiah Martin to Thomas Gage, 6 July 1775, American Series, Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers; Earl of Dunmore to Thomas Gage, 17 June 1775, American Series, Vol. 130, Thomas Gage Papers.

[5] William Campbell to Thomas Gage, 1 July 1775, American Series, Vol. 131, Thomas Gage Papers.

[6] Guy Carlton to Thomas Gage, 4 February 1775, American Series, Vol. 125, Thomas Gage Papers; Cadwallader Colden to Thomas Gage, 6 May 1775, American Series, Vol. 128, Thomas Gage Papers.

[7] William Franklin to Thomas Gage, 20 June 1775, American Series, Vol. 130, Thomas Gage Papers; Josiah Martin to Thomas Gage, 26 May 1775, American Series, Vol. 129, Thomas Gage Papers.

[8] The royal governors of New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. 

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