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Continental Congress

Continental Congress


First Continental Congress. The Continental Congress became the government of the United States out of necessity, not design. The forty-five delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in September 1774 were not sure why they were there. Some members, such as Joseph Galloway, John Jay, and John Dickinson, thought their task was to propose common policies to pressure England to rescind its unreasonable policies. Their ultimate goal was to resolve the crisis and reconcile the colonies with England; they did not see the Congress as the beginning of a new, independent government. Some delegates, such as Patrick Henry and Samuel and John Adams, did. The reconcilers carried the day, and the first Congress rejected the idea of independence but called for a boycott of British goods to take effect in December 1774. The Congress also empowered local Committees of Safety to enforce this boycott and to set prices for goods in communities.

Choosing Delegates. Each colony had chosen its delegates to Congress in different ways. In four colonies, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the assembly chose its delegates to Congress. The Massachusetts assembly made its choices behind locked doors; outside, Governor Gages secretary was proclaiming the legislature suspended. In Virginia, when the governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the assembly, it had reconvened in a nearby tavern to choose delegates; New York held a general election for delegates; and an open meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, chose that colonys delegation. In other colonies delegates were selected at provincial conventions that had not been called by the established authorities. This created a problem, made more acute by the colonistss grievances with England: the colonists were resisting what they regarded as unconstitutional British authority and objecting to British government policy that was contrary to their written charters. How, then, could the colonists have conventions or other meetings not authorized by charter or law to choose new governments or delegates to a Continental Congress? It was a difficult question, one the delegates did not have the leisure to consider though it restrained Congress from asserting more power.

Representation. Did the delegates represent the people of the colonies, or did they represent the colonies? Should the delegates vote according to their colonys relative population or according to its wealth? Or should each colony have one vote? As soon as Congress met, it had to grapple with these questions. At the Albany Conference each colony had one vote, and the roll was called from north to south, starting with New Hampshire. The Stamp Act Congress had followed this precedent. Congress continued the custom of voting geographically. But the problem of representation was less easy to solve. Virginia, the largest colony, believed it should have the most votes. Delegates from the smaller colonies believed each colony should have one vote. Samuel Chase of Maryland proposed a compromise: give each colony one vote except in cases involving money, then each would vote in proportion to its contributions to the cause. Ultimately the delegates agreed that each colony would have one vote. This was done both to appease the smaller colonies and because discovering a practical alternative was too difficult. Neither Virginia nor Massachusetts thought this solution either fair or reasonable.

Summer 1775. The Second Continental Congress met in May 1775. This time war had broken out in Massachusetts. British forces occupied Boston, and two governments attempted to govern the province. Moderates in Congress still resisted the ideas that the Congress was a government and that the colonies could become independent states. Congress voted to raise a Continental Army to defend the beleaguered citizens of Massachusetts and appointed George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, to be its commander. Congress also voted to print paper money to help pay for this army and to establish a post office and appoint commissioners to negotiate with Indians. John Dickinson drafted a conciliatory petition to the king, called the Olive Branch petition. The Congress considered the Prime Minister, Lord Norths, conciliatory proposal: Parliament would not tax the colonies, but the colonial assemblies would tax the colonists and forward the receipts to London. This proposal might have averted the crisis in 1765, but by 1775 the colonial mood had shifted. After Congress learned of the Battle of Bunker Hill, it rejected Norths proposal. At about the same time King George III rejected the Olive Branch petition and declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. In the fall, when South Carolina and New Hampshire requested instruction from Congress on what government was legitimate, Congress told each to have full and free representation of the people, and that the Representatives if they think it necessary, establish such a form of Government, as in their judgment will best produce the happiness of the people.

Plans for Union. All delegates understood the importance of unity: in 1754, when the colonies were threatened by France, Benjamin Franklin proposed a plan of union that would have the colonies unite under a general council, with a governor appointed by the king. In 1774 Joseph Galloway proposed a similar plan of union, but by this time delegates from Massachusetts were not willing to support any concessions to British power. Galloways plan was struck from the record, and he would remain loyal to the king while his colleagues in Congress drifted toward independence. In the summer of 1775 Franklin proposed another plan of union, with Congress serving as a governing body for the colonies. Silas Deane of Connecticut proposed a similar plan, but Congress was consumed with other problems and did not seriously consider either. Farsighted delegates such as Franklin, Deane, and John Adams realized that unity was essential, but at the moment they were also trying to convince delegates that independence was achievable.

Independence. The convincing arguments were made by Thomas Paines Common Sense in January and by Washingtons forcing the British out of Boston in March. In May, Congress called on all the colonies to form new governments: this was not independence but was, as delegate James Duane said, a Machine for fabricating Independence. Five days later Virginias new provincial congress, which had replaced the old House of Burgesses as the government, called on Congress to declare that the American colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. This resolution, which Congress received on 7 June and approved on 2 July, changed the necessity for union. The Albany Plan, and all subsequent plans for union, envisioned the colonies cooperating for specific external objectives: either to protect the frontier or to make common cause against British attacks. With independence, though, the union would be a government. The problem in constructing a union would be to make a government that would govern but would not interfere with each states power to govern itself.

Dickinsons Plan. Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to draw up a plan of confederation. John Dickinson took the lead in drawing up the plan of union, which he presented to the Congress on 12 July. South Carolinas Edward Rutledge complained to John Jay that Dickinsons plan has the Vice of all his Productions...; I mean the vice of Refining too much. Dickinsons plan created a confederation of states but left ambiguous how much power the states would retain. Debate centered on three issues: the division of powers between the states and the confederation, representation of states in Congress and and contributions of states to the union, and control of the western lands claimed by several states. After Dickinson left Congress, the debate continued on

his plan, and on 20 August a committee presented to Congress a somewhat amended plan of union, which Congress debated over the next year. Ultimately Congress decided to continue allowing each state one vote, making it clear that Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. Congress could not resolve the issue of land claims. On 15 November 1777 Congress approved the Articles of Confederation and submitted them to the states for approval.


Presidents, First Continental Congress:
Peyton Randolph, Virginia (elected 5 September 1774)

Henry Middleton, South Carolina (22 October 1774)
Presidents, Second Continental Congress:
Peyton Randolph, Virginia (10 May 1775)
John Hancock, Massachusetts (24 May 1775)
Henry Laurens, South Carolina (1 November 1777)
John Jay, New York (10 December 1778)
Samuel Huntington, Connecticut (28 September 1779)
Thomas McKean, Delaware (10 July 1781)

Congress under the Articles of Confederation:
John Hanson, Maryland (5 November 1781)
Elias Boudinot, New Jersey (4 November 1782)
Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania (3 November 1783)

Meeting Places of Congress:
5 September 1774, Philadelphia
10 May 1775, Philadelphia
20 December 1776, Baltimore
4 March 1777, Philadelphia
27 September 1777, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
30 September 1777, York, Pennsylvania
2 July 1778, Philadelphia
30 June 1783, Princeton, New Jersey
26 November 1783, Annapolis, Maryland

The Articles. The Articles of Confederation created a firm league of friendship.... For... common defence, the security of their liberties, and... mutual and general welfare while each state remained sovereign and independent. Under the articles, each state could send between two and seven delegates to Congress, but each state would only have one vote. The delegates would be paid by their respective states. Because the Congress was not elected directly by the people, it could not tax the people, nor could it draft people into military service. Instead Congress could determine how much each state should send to the common treasury and how many men each state should contribute to the Continental Army, and then Congress could request each state to honor its commitments. No state could engage in foreign affairs, or tax goods sent into or out of other states, nor could any states enter into treaties or agreements with one another. Congress would be given the power to decide issues between

states over land claims and other matters, as well as matters of foreign affairs and relations with Indians. Congress submitted the articles to the states for ratification, requesting that the states do so by 10 March 1778.

Awaiting Ratification. Only Virginia ratified by 10 March, but most of the states ratified by July 1778. New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland held out because the articles did not give the union control of the Western lands. New Jersey (20 November 1778) and Delaware (1 February 1779) would ratify, but Maryland held out until both New York and Virginia agreed to cede their land claims to the union in 1781. Until the articles took effect, Congress continued to act, coordinating the military and attempting to raise money to pay for the army. But inflation skyrocketed, and the currency issued in 1777 became virtually worthless. In April 1780 one Spanish dollar, the basic unit of value, was worth four hundred dollars in Continental currency.

Political Divisions. With no political parties, divisions occurred based on personality and regional differences, the most notable being an attempt by some members of Congress, after Horatio Gatess brilliant victory at Saratoga and George Washingtons failure to prevent the British from capturing Philadelphia, to replace Washington with Gates. The controversy over Silas Deane also bitterly divided the Congress in 17791780. The problems of war prevented further political divisions though within the states there were controversies over paper money and raising troops.

Executive Government. When the articles came into effect in the spring of 1781, Congress was empowered to create executive boards to better manage affairs. Robert Morris was appointed minister for finance, and he immediately undertook to make sense of the countrys debts and currency problems, which were immense. The country owed approximately $42 million, and the continental currency was virtually worthless. Morris proposed two solutions. First, he suggested creating a national bank. But since Congress did not have the power to charter a bank, Morris persuaded Pennsylvanias legislature to charter the Bank of North America. Second, to help Congress raise revenue, Morris and the reformers in Congress, led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, proposed amending the Articles to allow Congress to levy a 5 percent tax on imports. To change the Articles required the unanimous consent of the states, and Rhode Islands refusal killed the plan. Morris tried to use his considerable political skill in reorganizing the finances, but failed, in part because the wars end in September 1781 removed from the minds of many the pressing necessity to take action.

Woes. Congresss lack of power became too apparent after the war. In 1783 Congress could not pay the soldiers who had helped to win independence. Pennsylvanias soldiers mutinied, marched on Philadelphia, and surrounded Congress. State authorities would not call the militia to disperse the soldiers, and Congress was forced to flee the city, taking refuge in Princeton, then deciding to build two permanent capitals, one on the Delaware River in New Jersey, the other near George-town, Maryland, on the Potomac. Americans made fun of the powerless, wandering Congress, not... stars of the first magnitude, but rather... inferior luminaries, or wandering comets, [who] again appear in their eccentric orb, assuming various directions and courses, sometimes regular and uniform, at other times, vain and retrograde. Another suggested putting Congress into a balloon, so the members could float along from one end of the continent to the other, ... and when occasion requires can suddenly pop down into any of the states they please. The Congress, called into existence to meet the crisis of British power, threatened to dissolve.


Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940);

Andrew C. McLaughlin, A Constitutional History of the United States (New York: Appleton-Century, 1936);

Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

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Continental Congress


CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, the central governing body of the American colonies prior to and during the American Revolution and also the first government of the United States until the establishment of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The Continental Congress followed in the steps of earlier, brief colony-wide gatherings to discuss shared issues of importance, as the Albany Congress of 1754 and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 had done. In Philadelphia, delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia did not participate) gathered from 5 September to 26 October 1774 to discuss possible responses to British actions that threatened their rights. In particular, they sought the repeal of Parliament's measures—commonly called the Coercive or Intolerable Acts—directed at Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The First Continental Congress

At the 1774 gathering, later known as the First Continental Congress, colonial representatives considered the best means by which to gain redress of their grievances. They called for a boycott on the purchase or consumption of British goods (a strategy that had worked well in the 1760s during protests against the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties) and a ban on the sale of colonial goods to England, which collectively became known as the Continental Association. Economic threats had been effective previously, and public sentiment strongly supported the Association at local levels. The delegates in Congress also prepared a petition to send to King George III of England, asking that the Coercive Acts be repealed, and arranged for a second congress to convene in May 1775 if Parliament did not withdraw the detested laws.

In October 1774 Congress also adopted a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" that outlined members' views on the correct constitutional relationship between mother country and colonies. In argument and style, the Declaration mimicked the greatest English charters of rights, Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689), claiming that settlers who originally emigrated from England "by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights" and that the "foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council"—a right colonists did not enjoy by direct representation in Parliament. The Declaration asserted the immemorial right of subjects to "assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the King" and claimed that "keeping a Standing army in these colonies, in times of peace…is against the law." Every representative rejected Parliament's claims of absolute legislative supremacy over the colonies, but on other points delegates forged compromises. The suggestion from Virginia's Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee that the colonies raise a militia for home defense in case England decided to retaliate was dropped from the Declaration. The positions outlined in Congress's petition to King George and the Declaration of Rights assumed that Britain would take the first step toward compromise by withdrawing the offensive laws, and many representatives appeared convinced at this time that some sort of reconciliation remained possible with England.

The Second Continental Congress

Parliament did not remove the objectionable laws, and delegates from all thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia in May 1775 to consider their options. This gathering, known as the Second Continental Congress, faced greater difficulties, for reconciliation now seemed even more remote: armed conflict between British troops and American militiamen had occurred the preceding month at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Rebel troops now gathered outside of Boston, where the British army had retreated, and Congress moved to support the patriots, assumed authority over the provincial militiamen, and at the same time named George Washington commander in chief of continental military forces (15 June 1775). For the next six years Congress guided the course of the war, dispatched ambassadors to seek alliances and financial support, and functioned as the de facto national government. Just as the Committees of Correspondence and Safety or provincial assemblies had already done—assuming control of local and state government affairs with no charter or grant of authority at first, other than the people's tacit consent—Congress took over the day-to-day business of governing Americans on a national level, while representing American interests in international relations as well.

Governing was one thing; independence was another. Nearly a year passed after the events of Lexington and Concord and military conflict with Britain before Congress abandoned hope of reconciliation and moved toward independence. Congress's most well known actions occurred 2 July 1776, when Congress voted in favor of independence from Britain, and on 4 July 1776, when it formally adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

Military men would have voted for independence much sooner than Congress did. The rapport between Congress and its Continental Army and officers was never strong, in part because Congress—weakly funded and heavily dependent on French foreign aid—could not provide the army with sufficient material goods or munitions to prosecute the war effort fully. Soldiers and commanders alike thought that it was Congress's intent to "starve the army at pleasure" through denying it much needed supplies. The army's inability to stop the British from advancing forced Congress to relocate repeatedly, from Philadelphia (1775–1776) to Baltimore (1776–1777), then back to Philadelphia, Lancaster, and York Pennsylvania (all in 1777), and finally back to Philadelphia (1778–1781) before the war's end. Congress's peripatetic movement, combined with its repeated turnover in personnel, meant that its actions often seemed slow or ill-informed to outsiders. The prestige of Congress was never very high, and many politicians appointed to Congress stayed only briefly before returning to their home states and local political affairs.

The Articles of Confederation

After declaring independence, Congress next moved to create a permanent government structure that could coordinate the new states' national activities. Using a plan drafted by Congress member John Dickinson and his committee of thirteen, Congress adopted confederation as its preferred style of government. Given that state governments already existed and had local support, it is doubtful Congress could have successfully recommended the creation of a strong national government with sweeping powers. Yet even a weak confederated government was not welcomed wholeheartedly. Congress delayed and bickered over the plan from 1776 to 1777, attempting to reconcile competing views from large and small states on methods of representation, overlapping western land claims to undeveloped territory, and the means by which the new government would be funded. Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation resolved many of these issues by relying on past practices—as the Continental Congress had permitted each state a single vote, so too the new Articles Congress would allocate each state one vote. Indeed, the very structure of the Articles government drew its inspiration from the Continental Congress, having only a unicameral legislature and no executive or judiciary to conduct business, and continuing to depend on states to fund Congress through requisition requests, rather than direct taxation. It took nearly four years, from November 1777 to March 1781, for all thirteen states to ratify the proposed Articles of Confederation. Once ratified, Congress became the country's legitimate government until it was replaced by the U.S. Constitution.

Foreign Relations and Peacemaking

Shortly after war with Britain broke out, Congress dispatched diplomats to seek foreign aid. Although Russia, Spain, and the Netherlands offered no assistance, England's traditional enemy France gave help to the new nation. At first covertly, then openly after America's victory at the Battle of Saratoga, France extended the Continental Congress military support, a sweeping alliance, and the first recognition of America's independence by another nation. Congress sent its most experienced diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, to strengthen relations with France during this critical period. After the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, Congress instructed Franklin and the rest of its peacemaking delegation (including John Jay and John Adams) to coordinate all their efforts with the French when arranging peace with Britain. Franklin determined that it would be best to ignore Congress's directions, and secretly negotiated a preliminary peace with Britain that served America's interests first, gaining the new country large western land concessions from England. Like all governments in the eighteenth century, Congress often had to rely on the initiative of its soldiers and diplomats in the field—the slow movement of information in this age limited the direct authority that a government could wield over its agents.

Peace brought an end to Congress's wartime problems, but created others. Discord between the sovereign states and the inherent weakness of the Articles structure now revealed Congress's difficult position in the confederacy. Without a direct source of revenues, it could not readily repay the nation's foreign debt, and without a permanent militia it could not protect itself from domestic disturbances when men like Daniel Shays launched armed protests. All major decisions, according to the Articles, required unanimity among the thirteen states, slowing any progress the new government might make. Finally, in 1787, another group of politicians met in Philadelphia to consider how to revise the Articles of Confederation. Their proposed plan framed a stronger national government, in which Congress would be only one of three branches. Once ratified in 1789, the Constitution replaced the old Continental Congress with a bicameral legislature of nearly the same name.


Continental Congress. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774– 1789. Edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford et al. 34 vols. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968.

Continental Congress. Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774– 1789. 204 microform reels. Washington: National Archives and Records Service, 1959–.

Henderson, H. James. Party Politics in the Continental Congress. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Rakove, Jack. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Sally E.Hadden

See alsoAssemblies, Colonial ; Coercive Acts ; Committees of Safety ; Confederation ; Intolerable Acts ; Provincial Congresses ; andvol. 9:Address of the Continental Congress to Inhabitants of Canada ; Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress ; Declaration of Independence .

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Continental Congress


The first national legislative assembly in the United States, existing from 1774 to 1789.

During its fifteen-year existence, the Continental Congress served as the chief legislative and executive body of the federal government. Although hobbled by provisions such as an inability to raise funds directly through taxation, it nevertheless created a viable, if sometimes ineffective, national union during the earliest years of the United States. The Continental Congress passed the declaration of independence and other lasting measures, and it set important precedents for the government instituted under the Constitution in 1789. Some of the most important figures of early American history were members of the Continental Congress, including john adams, Samuel Adams, samuel chase, benjamin franklin, alexander hamilton, patrick henry, john jay, thomas jefferson, james madison, and george washington.

The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia between September 5 and October 26, 1774. Although it was officially called simply the Congress, contemporaries referred to it as the Continental Congress in order to distinguish it from the various state congresses. Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia did not participate) assembled in an attempt to unite the colonies and restore rights and liberties that had been curtailed by Great Britain. The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights, agreements regarding common policies toward Britain, and a resolution that it would meet again the following year if its grievances were not settled.

When Britain rebuffed their demands, the colonists assembled the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775, again in Philadelphia. Fighting between Britain and Massachusetts at the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already occurred, and the Continental Congress voted to back Massachusetts. It appointed George Washington as commander in chief of colonial armed forces. With this decision, Congress undertook a vital role directing the Revolutionary War.

As the war continued, colonial opinion began to move toward permanent separation from Great Britain. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which announced the formation of the United States of America as a new nation. In succeeding months, the Congress drafted the articles of confederation, the new country's first constitution. The Congress approved the Articles on November 15, 1777, but the states did not ratify them until 1781.

The Articles contained provisions for a national legislature designated simply Congress. Although some historians have called this subsequent body the Congress of the Confederation, most group it with its predecessor and call it the Continental Congress. In this Congress, each state had from two to seven delegates but only one vote. Delegates were to serve no more than "three years in any term of six years" (art. V).

During the struggle to approve and then ratify the Articles, the advocates of states' rights greatly weakened its provisions for a strong federal, or national, government. As a result, the Articles did not allow the federal government to raise its own funds directly through taxation. Instead, the central government could only requisition money from the states. The Articles also required a unanimous vote of Congress to approve any amendments, a feature that made it difficult to adapt their provisions to the changing needs of the nation. In addition, Congress as it was constituted under the Articles proved ill suited to tasks that the Constitution later assigned to the executive branch, including the conduct of diplomatic, military, and commercial affairs. For example, Congress fared poorly in negotiating with Britain and France, in paying war debts, and in putting down armed revolts such as shays's rebellion.

The problems of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation led to plans for a new federal constitution. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, leading members of the Continental Congress joined with other politicians and lawmakers to create a framework for a new national government, including a new Congress. Following ratification of the Constitution by the states in 1789, the Continental Congress handed over its legislative powers to the Congress that continues in form to the present day.

Although the Continental Congress had weaknesses, it nevertheless passed crucial legislation and set vital precedents for the framing of the Constitution. Its legislative legacy includes the establishment of the Northwest Territory, provisions for the sale and oversight of western land, and many other laws adopted by the later Congress. According to Edmund C. Burnett, a leading historian on the subject, the

Continental Congress … developed and formulated many of those fundamental principles

of government that have become our national heritage. Indeed it is not too much to say that [a] great part of the materials built into the structure of the Constitution itself were wrought in the forge of the Continental Congress.

further readings

Burnett, Edmund C. 1941. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan.

Davis, Derek H. 2000. Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent. New York: Oxford Univ. Press

McCormick, Richard P. 1997. "Ambiguous Authority: The Ordinances of the Confederation Congress, 1781-1789." American Journal of Legal History 41 (October): 411–39.


Congress of the United States; Constitution of the United States; "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms" (Appendix, Primary Document); Northwest Ordinance.

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Continental Congress

Continental Congress, 1774–89, federal legislature of the Thirteen Colonies and later of the United States in the American Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation (see Confederation, Articles of).

First Continental Congress

Indignation against England's colonial policy reached fever pitch in the colonies after the passage (1774) of the Intolerable Acts, and the Sons of Liberty and the committees of correspondence promoted the idea of an intercolonial assembly similar to the one held (1765) at the time of the Stamp Act.

The First Continental Congress (Sept. 5–Oct. 26, 1774) was made up of delegates from all the colonies except Georgia. It met in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia, and Peyton Randolph was chosen to preside. The meeting's general purpose was to express colonial grievances against British policy, and only a few radical members considered the possibility of breaking with England. The plan of Joseph Galloway for reconciling Great Britain and the colonies under a new imperial scheme was introduced but rejected.

The session's most important act was the creation of the Continental Association, which forbade importation and use of British goods and proposed prohibition of colonial exports. Several petitions of grievances, written principally by John Dickinson, were sent to the king, and the meeting was adjourned until May 10, 1775.

The Second Continental Congress

Smoke from the battles of Lexington and Concord (Apr. 19, 1775) had scarcely cleared when the Second Continental Congress met on the appointed day in Philadelphia. Armed conflict strengthened the radical element, but only gradually did the delegates swing toward independence. A Continental army was created to oppose the British and, through the agency of John Adams, George Washington was appointed (June 15, 1775) commander in chief. The reconciliation plan offered (1775) by Lord North's government was tabled. A diplomatic representative, Silas Deane, was sent (Mar., 1776) to France. American ports were opened in defiance of the Navigation Acts. Finally, the momentous step was taken: Congress on July 2, 1776, voted to declare independence, and on July 4th adopted the Declaration of Independence.

The Congress, a young and unsteady organization, had little money and limited means for obtaining more. Nevertheless, it struggled to press the conduct of the war while moving, under force of military circumstances, from place to place; it met at Philadelphia (1775–76), Baltimore (1776–77), Philadelphia again (1777), Lancaster, Pa. (1777), York, Pa. (1777–78), and Philadelphia once more (after 1778). There was friction between Congress and the military leaders, and the soldiers, contemptuous (sometimes justly) of the politicians, constantly agitated for their pay and their rights. The Congress, jealous of its powers, frequently hindered Washington in his strategy.

The Postwar Continental Congress

After the war ended and the Articles of Confederation took force, the quality of Congressional membership declined, since state offices were more desirable; and the Congress itself eventually dissolved. The Congress of the postwar period has, however, been underrated by many. Though shackled by the weaknesses of the federal structure, which sharply curtailed its power and particularly its ability to raise funds, the Congress can be credited with some accomplishments—notably the Ordinance of 1787, which set up the Northwest Territory; resolution of the Wyoming Valley territorial dispute; and adoption of the decimal system of currency.


See Journals of the Continental Congress (34 vol., 1904–37); Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (ed. by E. C. Burnett, 6 vol., 1921–33; repr. 1963); E. C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (1941, repr. 1964); L. Montross, The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (1950, repr. 1970).

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Continental Congress

Continental Congress (1774–89) Federal legislature of the American colonies during the American Revolution and the period of Confederation. Its first meeting (Philadelphia, September 1774) resulted in unified opposition to British rule and agreed on a boycott of trade with Britain. The Congress reconvened in May 1775, and appointed George Washington commander of the army. In July 1776, the Second Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and drafted the Articles of Confederation. Adoption of the US Constitution (1787) made the Congress redundant, although it met until 1789.

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