Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence

Image: Benjamin Franklin. New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection.
Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence
Why do you think the founding generation considered it so vital to establish relations with foreign governments? What might they have expected to achieve with these relationships?

In the early stages of the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress created the Committee of Secret Correspondence. The original committee members were Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Johnson. The committee’s primary role was to build international support for the American struggle for independence by corresponding with “our friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world.” The day after the committee was formed, its members wrote to Arthur Lee (1740–1792), a Virginian living in London at the time, that “our institution is with design to preserve secrecy and thereby secure our friends. … It is considered as of the utmost consequence to the cause of Liberty, that a [foreign] intercourse should be kept up.”

Less than two weeks later, the committee asked Lee to determine the “disposition of foreign powers towards us” and warned him again that “we need not hint that great circumspection and impenetrable secrecy are necessary” for this effort to succeed. Benjamin Franklin was one of the committee’s more active members, using his connections in France and Spain to lobby for support for the rebellious colonists. At the same time, the committee met in Philadelphia with a French intelligence agent, marking the beginning of a covert and eventually overt alliance with the French government that would prove to be critical to the success of the “Glorious Cause.”

—Stephen F. Knott

Resolved that a committee of five be appointed for the sole purpose of corresponding with our Friends in Great Britain, Ireland and other parts of the world, and that they lay their correspondence before Congress when directed. Resolved that Congress will make provision to defray all such expenses as may arise by carrying on such a correspondence and for the payment of such agents as they may send on this service. The members chosen Mr. Harrison,1 Dr. Franklin,2 Mr. Johnson,3 Mr. Dickinson,4 and Mr. Jay.5

  1. 1. Benjamin Harrison V (1726–1791), signer of the Declaration of Independence and future governor of Virginia. Harrison’s son and great-grandson would both be elected president of the United States.
  2. 2. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), inventor, diplomat, author, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, arguably the most notable American of his time.
  3. 3. Thomas Johnson (1732–1819) of Maryland, member of the Continental Congress, first postcolonial governor of Maryland, appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington.
  4. 4. John Dickinson (1732–1808), member of the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania and later Delaware. Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but went on to fight for independence. He attended the constitutional convention of 1787, where he signed that document and fought for its ratification.
  5. 5. John Jay (1745–1829), diplomat, president of the Continental Congress, first Chief Justice of the United States, coauthor of The Federalist Papers.
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