Provincial Congresses

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PROVINCIAL CONGRESSES. Between 1775 and 1776, the term "provincial congress" (in some colonies "provincial convention") was used to describe the primary revolutionary body managing the transition of power from traditional colonial legislative assemblies to independent state legislatures. Inasmuch as the traditional assemblies had been perceived as the "people's house," from the early seventeenth century on, it was natural that the popularly elected provincial congresses saw themselves as transitory representatives meeting in lieu of legally considered lower houses of the colonial legislatures. In sum, the Americans were inventing government as they went along. In most emerging states the provincial congresses were curious blends of revolutionary agencies and traditional conservators of representative self-government characteristic of colonial America. The provincial congresses took legitimacy from the recognition accorded them by the First and Second Continental Congresses, themselves the embodiment of revolutionary transitional government based on American understanding of traditional English liberties.

Within this overarching context, the colonial provincial congresses differed widely in form and in the perception of their roles as revolutionary bodies. In most colonies, beginning in 1774, the shift in terminology from the now-familiar committee of correspondence to "provincial congress" marked a linguistic acceptance of the dawning reality that the goal was independence, not merely the reform of colonial relations with the mother country. Benjamin Franklin articulated this when he wrote in 1773 "it is natural to suppose … that if the oppressions continue, a congress may grow out of that correspondence."

On the colonial level, Massachusetts was, as usual, the first to make the transition. When Governor Thomas Gage dissolved the increasingly rebellious lower house in October 1774, it met as the provincial congress; John Hancock was named as its president. It quickly took over the direction of the local communities of correspondence, and named a Committee of Safety to meet increasingly threatening efforts to impose crown authority by the local British masters in the now openly rebellious colony. In New York in the spring of 1775, the colony's provincial congress was organized by the Committee of One Hundred, in effect New York City's Committee of Correspondence. Under its extra-legal auspices, it stripped hastily evacuating British troops of arms and supplies; took control of the cannon at the Battery, a fort at the tip of Manhattan; and destroyed the presses of loyalist printer James Rivington. It committed these acts even as, in the course of the year 1775, it attempted to stave off a complete break with both New York loyalists and the English government.

The Second Continental Congress, meanwhile, lent its legitimacy to the provincial congresses in those colonies that still needed stiff encouragement to move closer to independence. To this end, it officially recognized shaky provincial congresses in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Virginia in the fall of 1775, and urged them to take the next step and reconvene themselves as colonial governments. Even as late as May 1776, the Second Continental Congress was urging several provincial congresses to assume authority as the new governments of their respective colonies. This step had already been taken as much as a year earlier in the more revolutionary colonies of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. In most colonies, members of the colony-wide committees of correspondence were popularly elected to the new provincial congresses. In New Jersey in the spring of 1775, for example, the membership was almost identical. The provincial congress in New Jersey, also a microcosm for the others, took over executive authority by making its own appointments to a wide range of positions, thus effectively usurping the authority of both Royal Governor William Franklin and the New Jersey colonial Legislative Council or upper house. These appointments included not only civil administrative posts but militia and judicial appointments as well.

Not all colonies moved so boldly. The provincial congresses still operated unevenly in 1776, even as the Second Continental Congress moved toward independence. Reflecting the quasi-legal terrain these congresses inhabited as late as June 1776, the provincial congresses of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina had still not instructed their delegates in Philadelphia how to vote on separation from the mother country. As the vote for independence approached, the New York Provincial Congress was hamstrung by the continuing violent activities of local New York City committees arrayed against each other along class lines. Although both the more conservative, merchant-dominated Committee of Fifty-one and the radical Mechanics Committee (made up of shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers) espoused revolutionary principles and independence, they differed on support for mobactivity directed at the politically significant and sizable loyalist element in the city. The conflict between the two committees over utilizing crowd actions against suspected Tories rendered the New York Provincial Congress helpless. It dared not choose sides between revolutionary factions. Its activities ground to a halt as the vote on independence became imminent. This was the most extreme example of impotence among several colonies' provincial congresses. While most by June 1776 ruled totally and effectively (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey were good examples), some in the South, while not helpless, remained only timidly in control of government as the question of separation from the mother country awaited a vote in Philadelphia. In the end all thirteen provincial congresses fell in line behind the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, largely because the national delegation to the Second Continental Congress was going to vote for it whether or not explicit instructions from home arrived in time.

It was no wonder then that, with independence, these provincial congresses dissolved in favor of regularly elected state legislatures, which in turn made provision for executive and judicial authority in the new state governmental agencies.


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

Jensen, Merrill. The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Gilje, Paul. The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763–1834. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Prince, Carl E., et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. 5 vols. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1979–1988.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoContinental Congress ; Revolution, American: Political History .

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Provincial Congresses

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