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If social media had existed in the 1770s . . .
Actually, they did
In the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, many observers noted the role of social media in bringing together the men and women who stormed the building in protest of the results of the 2020 presidential election. People came from across the country in response to summons on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. Mobilizing such a mob in so short a space of time would have been impossible before the advent of these means of communication.
This was true enough, but in fact the idea behind the distributed messaging was older than the republic. In the run-up to the American Revolution, committees of correspondence let individuals and groups communicate with one another to coordinate their protests against British measures they deemed oppressive and illegitimate.
The concept originated in the 1760s in response to novel tax laws approved by Parliament. The 1765 Stamp Act provoked the greatest uproar, with crowds in Boston and other cities hanging effigies of the stamp collectors and sometimes assaulting the collectors themselves. It was crucial to the success of the protests that they be seen as broadly based and not merely the work of an urban few. Letters went out from the centers of protest to other cities and town urging solidarity against the infringement of American liberty. The campaign succeeded; the protesters prevented the collection of the tax, and Parliament was persuaded to repeal the Stamp Act within a year.
The committees resurfaced in the early 1770s. Boston’s was energized by a measure taking the salary of the Massachusetts governor out of the hands of the Massachusetts assembly. Far from applauding their freedom from responsibility for this salary, Samuel Adams and many who thought like him denounced the move as depriving the assembly of any control over the governor. In response Adams and twenty others formed a new committee of correspondence to relay their case to all the towns of Massachusetts.
Virginians were taking similar steps, alarmed by a British decision to transport to London for trial Americans charged with certain crimes. A mob of Rhode Islanders had burned the British customs schooner Gaspee, and the government feared that any local jury would refuse to convict the perpetrators. The government might have been correct, but the Virginians countered that trying the accused in London made a mockery of the English right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers. The Virginians formed a committee of correspondence to plead their case to the other colonies.
When these colonial actions were followed by the Boston Tea Party—the destruction of a large cargo of tea belonging to the British East India Company—the British government concluded that the committees of correspondence constituted a radical conspiracy against law and order. The government responded with the Coercive Acts of 1774—called the Intolerable Acts in America—which corroborated the argument of Adams and the others that the committees were more necessary than ever.
The committees mushroomed in number and membership. By the end of 1774 committees were active in eleven of the thirteen colonies, and they comprised several thousand members.
The committees helped organize the Continental Congress, which represented the culmination of the committees’ coordinating work. Meeting face to face, the delegates to the Congress did what the committees had done from a distance. The Congress petitioned Parliament for redress of the American grievances; when Parliament refused, the Congress declared independence and announced the creation of the United States of America.
The chief difference between then and now is the speed at which the coordinating took place. Getting from the Stamp Act protests to independence required more than a decade; organizing the January 6 revolt required less than a month. Letters were as slow as horses; social media are as swift as light.
Yet the propaganda principle was the same in both cases. “We cannot make events,” Sam Adams said. “Our business is wisely to improve them.” He added, in words as true today as ever: “Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason.”