Continental Congresses

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In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, the first intercolonial meeting since the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. Fifty-five elected delegates from twelve colonies (excepting Georgia, Florida, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) met to discuss the Coercive Acts passed by the North ministry in England early in the year. The delegates agreed to formulate a common response despite acknowledged differences of religious persuasion, territorial claims, professional training, sectional economic interests, and political beliefs, and alongside the proliferation of local and provincial committees springing up throughout the colonies. They established that each colony would have one vote, ensuring a basic equality among all the provinces and establishing a principle that would last until the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

first continental congress

A bold resolution brought by the Massachusetts delegates, the Suffolk Resolves, demanded colonial resistance to the Coercive Acts and preparations for military defense. But delegates from New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware did not yet wish for such far-reaching rejection of Parliament's authority over them, insisting that the First Continental Congress distinguish between colonial internal taxes and local courts, which Parliament had no right to forbid, and external trade, which many delegates agreed Parliament might still regulate. In an effort to stall any decisions that might lead to outright war in the empire, Pennsylvania's moderate Joseph Galloway proposed a Plan of Union, at the center of which would be a Grand Council that combined colonial and imperial authority for governing and taxing throughout the empire. Despite the heated disagreements that ensued, including Patrick Henry's expression of a new identity, "I am not a Virginian, but an American," a compromise document emerged. The Declaration of Rights condemned the legislation of Parliament since 1763 while still recognizing the king's sovereignty over them. In the declaration, the Continental Congress underscored that all colonists enjoyed certain rights, which were secured by "the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters" originally granted to the colonies, wording that previewed the Declaration of Independence. While Parliament had the right to regulate imperial commerce, efforts to destroy colonial systems of justice with new admiralty courts, to decree internal taxes, to close their assemblies, or to revoke crown charters were unmistakable signs of Parliament's utter corruption. Colonists had rehearsed these ideas many times in the preceding years, but in 1774 their unified voice in a delegated Congress added significant weight to the charges.

Without waiting for the king's reply, Congress initiated a non-importation agreement (the third major boycott of British goods since 1765) to begin on December 1, 1774. They further resolved that if repeal were not forthcoming in early 1775, a non-exportation movement would begin in September 1, 1775. A broad intercolonial Association Agreement also urged colonists to pledge themselves to non-consumption of English goods, to practice frugality, economy, and industry (all familiar terms to eighteenth-century ears) and to avoid unnecessary spending and entertainments until Parliament repealed post-1763 legislation. Committees of Inspection would enforce the boycott and keep order in local communities.

resistance and colonial identity

The Continental Congress's actions made important new steps toward shaping a unified political community and were widely popular to both colonists who hoped for reconciliation with the mother country, and to those (Richard Henry Lee and Sam Adams among them) who wished to press onward toward independence. A broad public discussion developed in pamphlets and newspapers that circulated across colonial boundaries. Daughters of Liberty and local "spinning schools" made homespun wool and produced substitutes for imported tea in myriad communities. Even after official non-importation ended, women from dozens of small towns pledged to continue wearing modest forms of dress, scale down funerals, and celebrate holidays less ornately. Moreover, during 1775 thousands of colonists helped forge a new intercolonial identity by supporting the Committees of Inspection and the Committees of Safety sanctioned by the Continental Congress. Alongside the provincial congresses forming as a dual authority to the crown's, the Continental Congress pressed colonists to declare their beliefs openly, punish those who wavered or disagreed, forge new links across the colonies, and use new terms such as nation, America, and states.

second continental congress: making war

Delegates to the Second Continental Congress began deliberations in May 1775, less than a month after the bloody events at Lexington and Concord. Delegates urged the Committees of Inspection and Committees of Correspondence to become more active and aroused the militia to begin taking over "loyalist nests." This time, Georgia sent delegates, but Canadians rebuffed Congress's overtures, and the multiethnic, multiracial population in East and West Florida remained under tight British control. Assemblies of Grenada, Jamaica, and Barbados opted to join the American independence movement, but crown forces on the islands overwhelmed the rebels. In the future, these islands would attract many fleeing loyalists.

Military preparedness began from April 1775 to June 1775, a full year before delegates seriously considered the Declaration of Independence. Yet although Congress resolved that "we must put ourselves in an armed condition" by creating a Continental Army, Thomas Jefferson noted the general public's distrust of standing armies, especially since the French and Indian War, and asserted that Congress had no authority to create a pan-colonial military force. But other delegates insisted that since the resistance movement "engaged a continent," it required a trained and centrally commanded force. Militiamen served short terms of enlistment; their loyalty often stemmed from serving under officers of their choosing and from their locales; and they had little comprehension of sustained warfare and their propensity to return home between battles would seriously harm the rebel cause. In June 1775, the Continental Congress voted unanimously to raise a Continental Army and place the forty-three-year-old George Washington in charge. A few days later, Congress gave Washington a staff of major generals and voted to issue $2 million in congressional paper currency to fund the troops.

reconciliation or war

Despite such mobilization, on July 5, 1775 John Dickinson of Pennsylvania had presented the Olive Branch Petition to Congress, a document delegates voted to send to George III affirming colonial loyalty to the monarch, asking that British army hostilities cease, and proposing a joint discussion of differences. But Dickinson himself helped Thomas Jefferson draft a Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms the day after Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to the king. In early August, a few congressional delegates began negotiations with Indians in the mid-Atlantic region, especially the Iroquois, to win either their support or promise of neutrality. Congress also appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster general in charge of coordinating intercolonial communication.

George III refused to read the Olive Branch Petition, giving Congress little choice but to entrench itself deeper in war. In the fall of 1775, the small Continental Army marched into Canada to grab territory and win over the citizenry where the British were weak, only to lose hundreds of soldiers in desperate maneuvers and waves of smallpox. Southern patriots engaged with loyalists, and in Virginia the former Governor Dunmore organized slave regiments to defend crown interests. Southern patriot merchants began honoring the conditions of Congress's Association Agreement, which stipulated a halt to all trade with Britain. But the Second Continental Congress hesitated, still, to declare independence. They continued, in their majority, to support British control of their trade and refused to countenance open foreign trade at American ports or seek foreign financial support, hoping their petitions and commercial boycott would bring reconciliation. Congress had created an army, a commander, a military staff, and an intercolonial currency; but it had no authority to coerce colonies or citizens to support their measures, nor had it yet defined long-range political goals of all "confederated colonies in congress."

But by late Fall 1775, the king's closest advisors declared the colonies to be in open rebellion, the British navy blockaded major colonial ports, Parliament had passed restraining acts against trade from most of the colonies during the year, and recruitment officers sent out a general call for foreign (mainly German) mercenaries. On December 22, 1775 Parliament assented to a Prohibitory Act that declared all American vessels and goods would be forfeit to English admiralty officials, a measure that legalized blanket seizures.


In February 1776 the Second Continental Congress began to openly debate independence, although even then, the important mid-Atlantic provinces opposed it. On April 6, 1776, Congress threw open American ports to all nations except Britain and its loyal colonies. Economic independence was, in effect, declared. Through May and June, individual colonial assemblies instructed delegates sitting in Philadelphia to support a call for political independence. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee presented a resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." One after another the colonies (many of them already in the process of becoming new states) assented to the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

congress and the revolutionary war

Congress faced numerous difficulties during the war. The Army was never as large as Congress (and Washington) wished it to be, and always dependent on the sacrifice of citizens in the several states as well as a contracting system that was deeply flawed. Foreign aid came with a high price tag. Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1776, and submitted them to the states in November 1777, in order to clarify the relationship of Congress to the emerging state governments and citizens as a whole. However, only the principle of dispersing power and retaining one-state-one-vote were established in the heated debates for months to come. How the war would be funded and how new western lands would become a part of Congressional powers remained thorny points of debate from early 1777 to 1781. The Articles carried no provisions to tax citizens or states, or to coerce compliance with its needs for central rule and national defense, and repeated efforts to establish an import duty on foreign goods met constant disapproval in the revolutionary states. Only at the end of the war did the new states approve the Articles. In the next years, Congress would be saddled with a tremendous debt to citizens, states, and foreign governments. However, before its business was superceded by the national government, Congress bequeathed the Northwest Ordinance, adopted on July 13, 1787, which stipulated principles and practical means to organize a national domain which would contain new states.


From 1774 through 1787, the Continental Congresses were the central delegated authority of first the colonies and then the new states. The first congress was a forum for protesting British policies and for intercolonial cooperation. The second congress conducted the war for Independence and wrote the Articles of Confederation, which was approved by delegates of the infant states at the close of the war and stipulated the extent and limitations of central government authority. Until the Constitutional Convention convened in May 1787, the second Continental Congress continued to exercise limited central authority over citizens and to negotiate certain international and Indian relations.


Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton, 1974.

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

Countryman, Edward. The American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Ferguson, E. J. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Greene, Jack, ed. The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits. New York: New York University Press, 1978; reprinted 1987.

Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940; reprinted 1959.

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

Cathy Matson

See also:Articles of Confederation; Commonwealth Men; Declaration of Independence; Constitution: Creating a Republic; Stamp Act Congress; States and Nation Building, 1775–1783.

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Continental Congresses

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