The Continental Association

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The Continental Association

Adopted by the First Continental Congress

Enacted October 20, 1774; excerpted from Documents of American History

"To obtain redress of [our] grievances, which threaten destruction to the lives, liberty, and property of his majesty's subjects, in North-America, we are of the opinion, that a nonimportation, nonconsumption, and nonexportation agreement, faithfully adhered to, will prove the most speedy, effectual, and peaceable measure…. "

From the Continental Association

Ever since 1765, the British had been trying to tax the colonies to pay British bills, and discontent gradually spread throughout America. Matters came to a head in December 1773 when Bostonians dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. To punish them, the British Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774. The Intolerable Acts closed the Port of Boston, gave the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts complete control of town meetings, ordered that British officials who committed major crimes in the colonies would be tried in Great Britain, and required that the colonists house British soldiers in dwellings belonging to private citizens.

The colonies had been established by British merchants as trade ventures and at first the colonies could not have survived without the merchants. But America had grown and prospered, and by 1775, the colonies felt able to survive on their own. They feared that new acts and taxes passed by the British were going to destroy the prosperity the colonies had carefully built up and nurtured for more than a century. Their fears deepened with the punishment of Boston, and so

the colonies came together in a Continental Congress to decide how best to express their displeasure to King George III (1738–1820) and Parliament.

It was Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794; see sidebar on p. 114) who formally proposed the boycott of British goods that is outlined in the Continental Association. A boycott is a refusal to buy, sell, or use certain products from a particular company or country, usually for a political reason. On September 27, 1774, after twenty-two days of discussion and debate over the proposal, the First Continental Congress voted to cut off all trade relations with Great Britain. A committee was appointed to decide how to achieve this goal. The committee prepared the document called the Continental Association, which was signed by congressional representatives on October 20, 1774. Their signatures on this document marked the real beginning of American unity.

The Continental Association begins with an expression of loyalty to King George. It is followed by several grievances (complaints) and then by the specific details of what the colonies planned to do to ensure that their grievances were addressed. They planned to discontinue imports, exports, and the slave trade; they also planned to develop American agriculture and industry to lessen dependence on imported goods.

An important provision of the Continental Association had to do with committees of correspondence. Committees of correspondence already existed in the colonies. Their purpose was the exchange of information at a time in the country's history when producing newspapers was a time-consuming process—newspapers were published weekly. The Continental Association gave the committees of correspondence the power to enforce the measures agreed upon in that document.

Things to remember while reading the Continental Association:

  • Even though all the members of Congress signed the Continental Association, they were still deeply divided over the issue of separation or independence from Great Britain. At this point, some were merely hoping for a repeal of the Intolerable Acts, although others, such as John Adams (1735–1826) and Samuel Adams (1722–1803), long had independence in mind.
  • An interesting provision of the Continental Association was the agreement to "neither import nor purchase, any slave." At the time, there was heated debate both in Britain and in America over slavery, with people questioning whether it was moral or even whether it was a good business practice. The use of forced labor evolved in the colonies because of labor shortages. This was especially true in the agricultural southern colonies, but about one-half million slaves were working in all thirteen colonies in 1775. At the time the Continental Association was adopted, greedy London merchants reaped the profit from importing African slaves into the colonies, and they would suffer the most if no slaves were imported. The British also liked to send prisoners to the colonies to work out their punishment as servants. They too fell under the heading of slaves. But for the next several years, the Continental Congress would be far too busy with other matters to deal with the issue of slavery. In fact, it would take nearly a hundred years—and a bloody Civil War (1861–65)—before slavery actually ended in America.
  • The provision about rice in the Continental Association came at the urging of South Carolina. That colony's delegates claimed the local economy would be ruined if exports from South Carolina stopped completely. So rice was exempt from the ban on exports.

The Continental Association

We, his majesty's most loyal subjects, the delegates of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode-Island, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the three lower counties of Newcastle, Kent and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, and South-Carolina, deputed to represent them in a continental Congress, held in the city of Philadelphia, on the 5th day of September, 1774, avowing our allegiance to his majesty, our affection and regard for our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain and elsewhere, affected with the deepest anxiety, and most alarming apprehensions, at those grievances and distresses, with which his Majesty's American subjects are oppressed; and having taken under our most serious deliberation, the state of the whole continent, find, that the present unhappy situation of our affairs is occasioned by a ruinous system of colony administration, adopted by the British ministry about the year 1763, evidently calculated for enslaving these colonies, and, with them, the British Empire. In prosecution of which system, various acts of parliament have been passed, for raising a revenue in America, for depriving the American subjects, in many instances, of the constitutional trial by jury, exposing their lives to danger, by directing a new and illegal trial beyond the seas, for crimes alleged to have been committed in America: And in prosecution of the same system, several late, cruel, and oppressive acts have been passed, respecting the town of Boston and the Massachusetts-Bay, and also an act for extending the [boundaries of the] province of Quebec, so as to border on the western frontiers of these colonies, establishing an arbitrary government therein, and discouraging the settlement of British subjects in that wide extended country; thus, by the influence of civil principles and ancient prejudices, to dispose the inhabitants to act with hostility against the free Protestant colonies, whenever a wicked ministry shall chuse so to direct them.

To obtain redress of these grievances, which threaten destruction to the lives, liberty, and property of his majesty's subjects, in North-America, we are of the opinion, that a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement, faithfully adhered to, will prove the most speedy, effectual, and peaceable measure: And, therefore, we do, for ourselves, and the inhabitants of the severalcolonies, whom we represent, firmly agree and associate, under the sacred ties of virtue, honour and love of our country, as follows:

  1. That from and after the first day of December next, we will not import, into British America, from Great-Britain or Ireland, any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever, or from any other place, any such goods, wares, or merchandise, as shall have been exported from Great-Britain or Ireland; nor will we, after that day, import any East-India tea from any part of the world; nor any molasses, syrups, paneles, coffee, or pimento, from the British plantations or from Dominica; nor wines from Madeira, or the Western Islands; nor foreign indigo.
  2. We will neither import nor purchase, any slave imported after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.
  3. As a non-consumption agreement, strictly adhered to, will be an effectual security for the observation of the non-importation, we, as above, solemnly agree and associate, that from this day, we will not purchase or use any tea, imported on account of the East-India company, or any on which a duty hath been or shall be paid; and from and after the first day of March next, we will not purchase or use any East-India tea whatever; nor will we, nor shall any person for or under us, purchase or use any of those goods, wares, or merchandize, we have agreed not to import, which we shall know, or have cause to suspect, were imported after the first day of December, except such as come under the rules and directions of the tenth article hereafter mentioned.
  4. The earnest desire we have not to injure our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain, Ireland, or the West-Indies, induces us to suspend a non-exportation, until the tenth day of September, 1775; at which time, if the said acts and parts of acts of the British parliament herein after mentioned, are not repealed, we will not directly or indirectly, export any merchandize or commodity whatsoever, to Great-Britain, Ireland, or the West-Indies, except rice to Europe.
  5. Such as are merchants, and use the British and Irish trade, will give orders, as soon as possible, to their factors, agents and correspondents, in Great-Britain and Ireland, not to ship any goods to them, on any pretence whatsoever, as they cannot be received in America; and if any merchant, residing in Great-Britain or Ireland, shall directly or indirectly ship any goods, wares or merchandize, for America, in order to break the said non-importation agreement, or in any manner contravene the same, on such unworthy conduct being well attested, it ought to be made public; and on the same being so done, we will not, from thenceforth, have any commercial connexion with such merchant.
  6. That such as are owners of vessels will give positive orders to their captains, or masters, not to receive on board their vessels any goods prohibited by the said non-importation agreement, on pain of immediate dismission from their service.
  7. We will use our utmost endeavours to improve the breed of sheep, and increase their number to the greatest extent; and to that end, we will kill them as seldom as may be, especially those of the most profitable kind; nor will we export any to the West-Indies or elsewhere; and those of us, who are or may become overstocked with, or can conveniently spare any sheep, will dispose of them to our neighbours, especially to the poorer sort, on moderate terms.
  8. We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families will go into any further mourning dress, than a black crape or ribbon, on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals.
  9. Such as are venders of goods or merchandize will not take advantage of the scarcity of goods, that may be occasioned by this association, but will sell the same at the rates we have been respectively accustomed to do, for twelve months last past.—And if any vender of goods or merchandize shall sell such goods on higher terms, or shall, in any manner, or by any device whatsoever, violate or depart from this agreement, no person ought, nor will any of us deal with any such person, or his or her factor or agent, at any time thereafter, for any commodity whatever.
  10. In case any merchant, trader, or other person, shall import any goods or merchandize, after the first day of December, and before the first day of February next, the same ought forthwith, at the election of the owner, to be either reshipped or delivered up to the committee of the country or town, wherein they shall be imported, to be stored at the risque of the importer, until the non-importation agreement shall cease, or be sold under the direction of the committee aforesaid; and in the last-mentioned case, the owner or owners of such goods shall be reimbursed out of the sales, the first cost and charges, the profit, if any, to be applied towards relieving and employing such poor inhabitants of the town of Boston, as are immediate sufferers by the Boston port-bill; and a particular account of all goods so returned, stored, or sold, to be inserted in the public papers; and if any goods or merchandizes shall be imported after the said first day of February, the same ought forthwith to be sent back again, without breaking any of the packages thereof.
  11. That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfaction of a majority of any such committee, that any person within the limits of their appointment has violated this association, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.
  12. That the committee of correspondence, in the respective colonies, do frequently inspect the entries of their customhouses, and inform each other, from time to time, of the true state thereof, and of every other material circumstance that may occur relative to this association.
  13. That all manufactures of this country be sold at reasonable prices, so that no undue advantage be taken of a future scarcity of goods.
  14. 14. And we do further agree and resolve, that we will have no trade, commerce, dealings or intercourse whatsoever, with any colony or province, in North-America, which shall not accede to, or which shall hereafter violate this association, but will hold them as unworthy of the rights of freemen, and as inimical to the liberties of their country.

And we do solemnly bind ourselves and our constituents, under the ties aforesaid, to adhere to this association, until such parts of the several acts of parliament passed since the loss of the last war [French and Indian War], as impose or continue duties on tea, wine, molasses, syrups, paneles, coffee, sugar, pimento, indigo, foreign paper, brass, and painters' colours, imported into America, and extend the powers of the admiralty courts beyond their ancient limits, deprive the American subject of trial by jury, authorize the judge's certificate to indemnify the prosecutor from damages, that he might otherwise be liable to from a trial by his peers, require oppressive security from a claimant of ships or goods seized, before he shall be allowed to defend his property, are repealed.—And until that part of the act of the 12 G. 3. ch. 24, entitled "An act for the better securing his majesty's dock-yards, magazines, ships, ammunition, and stores," by which any persons charged with committing any of the offences therein described, in America, may be tried in any shire or county within the realm, is repealed—and until the four acts, passed the last session of parliament, viz. that for stopping the port and blocking up the harbour of Boston—that for altering the charter and government of the Massachusetts-Bay—and that which is entitled "An act for the better administration of justice, &c. "—and that "for extending the limits of Quebec, &c." are repealed. And we recommend it to the provincial conventions, and to the committees in the respective colonies, to establish such farther regulations as they may think proper, for carrying into execution this association.

The foregoing association being determined upon by the Congress, was ordered to be subscribed by the several members thereof; and thereupon, we have hereunto set our respective names accordingly.

IN CONGRESS, PHILADELPHIA, October 20, 1774.
Signed, PEYTON RANDOLPH, President. (Commager, pp. 84–87)

What happened next …

Members of Congress adjourned the meeting on October 26, 1774, and agreed to meet again on May 10, 1775, if King George did not address their complaints satisfactorily by that date. Their actions had fallen short of an open break with the mother country, but at the same time many people began to realize that the colonies were on the brink of war.

It remained to be seen whether the people of the colonies would agree to live without their usual entertainments and luxuries such as rum, molasses, and sugar. Many citizens everywhere objected to the terms outlined in the document, and the colony of Georgia did not agree to them at all. One colonist complained that the restrictions were so burdensome that he might just as well be a slave. He declared, "If I must be enslaved, let it be by a king at least, and not by a parcel of upstart lawless Committee-men. If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion, and not gnawed to [death] by rats and vermin."

The committees responsible for enforcing the boycott eagerly went to work to make sure people were complying. Their enforcement methods were often rough—a favorite was tarring and feathering, a rather painful procedure involving covering a person's body with hot tar, then feathers. Before long there were riots in the streets against such tactics. But for the most part, people cooperated by having nothing to do with Great Britain or its goods. Between 1774 and 1775, the value of imports from England decreased by an astonishing 90

percent! The First Continental Congress drew the colonies together in a common cause, in a way colonies had never come together before. This was the most important accomplishment of the First Continental Congress.

As far as Great Britain was concerned, the Continental Congress was an illegal body with no right to meet at all, or to pass laws. The fact that Congress did meet showed that Britain was losing its power over the colonies. Charles Lee (1731–1782), who would later become a general on the American side when the war broke out, had friends in Parliament, Great Britain's lawmaking body. In December 1774, he wrote to one of them, Edmund Burke (1729–1797), saying that he had traveled throughout the colonies "and cannot express my astonishment at the unanimous, ardent spirit reigning through the whole. They are determined to sacrifice everything, their property, their wives, children, and blood, rather than cede [give up] a tittle [the tiniest bit] of what they conceive to be their rights. The tyranny exercised over Boston, indeed, seems to be resented by the other colonies in a greater degree than by the Bostonians themselves."

British merchants soon felt the pinch of the boycott. They petitioned Parliament, imploring it to give in to the colonies' demands, repeal the Intolerable Acts, and relieve the merchants' "grievous distress."

Did you know …

  • Congressman John Adams was an important part of the First Continental Congress. He had long been in the fore-front of resistance to British authority. As a delegate from Massachusetts, the colony suffering the most from the Intolerable Acts, Adams had much to gain from steering the delegates in the direction they finally chose—toward opposing royal tyranny and joining in a common cause with Massachusetts. Adams put in many hours helping to compose the documents prepared by the Congress (see sidebar entry on Adams's writings on p. 125).
  • Like Adams, Congressman John Hancock (1737–1793) of Massachusetts was an early patriot, and a strong supporter of the boycott of British goods. He was a wealthy merchant who looked upon British customs officials with contempt; they in turn despised him. One of Hancock's first open acts of resistance against British oppression took place in 1768, when customs officials boarded one of his ships and he forcibly removed them. Later, his ship Liberty was ordered seized by customs officials, who were attacked by a Boston mob when they docked. Hancock was charged with failing to pay duty on his cargo. His name became a legend among Boston's agitators.

Where to Learn More

Bliven, Bruce. The American Revolution, 1760–1783. New York: Random House, 1981.

Burnett, Edmund Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Norton, 1964.

Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958.

Dictionary of American Biography. 21 volumes. New York: Scribner's, 1957.

Draper, Theodore. A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York: Times Books, 1996.

"Journals of the Continental Congress—In Thirty-Four Volumes." [Online] http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjclink.html (accessed on March 19, 2000).

Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Meltzer, Milton, ed. The American Revolutionaries: A History in Their Own Words, 1750–1800. New York: HarperTrophy, reprint edition, 1993.

Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.

Virginia Delegates to the First Continental Congress

Of the fifty-six delegates to the First Continental Congress, the group from Virginia was the most distinguished. The group included Patrick Henry (1736–1799), Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), Peyton Randolph (c. 1721–1775), and George Washington (1732–1799).

The occasion of the First Continental Congress gave Patrick Henry his first opportunity to show off his speaking skills before a large group of the best-educated and most influential men in the colonies. Some people (who favored a break with England) found Henry's words stirring, while others (who feared a break) found them chilling when he boldly stated, "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American." With these words, Henry encouraged the delegates to work toward a large and noble purpose and not try to seek advantages for their individual colonies. For example, some larger colonies were seeking to have the number of votes in the Congress be determined by the size of the colony.

Congressman Richard Henry Lee was born into a famous Virginia family and was a close friend of Patrick Henry. In 1752, at the age of twenty, Lee formed his own military group of volunteers. He offered their services to the British during the French and Indian War (1754–63; fought in America by Great Britain and France to decide who would control North America). Lee was insulted when his soldiers were rudely rejected for being amateurs. The experience contributed to his dislike of the British, and he become an outspoken voice in favor of taking strong measures against Great Britain. He suggested the boycott of British goods that is outlined in the Continental Association. Lee became a member of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, whose duty was to see that Virginians observed the boycott.

Peyton Randolph, who was the first president of the Continental Congress, was descended from an old and distinguished Virginia family. Among the famous American Revolutionary War figures who were connected to the Randolph family was Thomas Jefferson

(whose mother was born a Randolph). According to his biography in the 21-volume Dictionary of American Biography, Randolph was "the most popular leader in Virginia in the decade before the Revolution," and when talk of revolution grew louder, "he was made the presiding officer of every important revolutionary assemblage in Virginia."

Randolph was a lawyer and a charitable man who helped support the widows and orphans left behind by the French and Indian War. He was a large and imposing figure who commanded the respect and admiration of his peers and was the first choice of delegates to the First Continental Congress to lead them. At the time he was in poor health, and in late 1775 he died suddenly. He was only fifty-four years of age and left no children. His sizable land holdings in Virginia passed to his wife, Betty.

George Washington also came from an old Virginia family. Like Richard Henry Lee, Washington had reason to dislike the British dating back to the French and Indian War. Washington helped the British during that war by leading two companies of Virginia militia (citizen soldiers) into battle. He gained valuable military experience and might have stayed in the militia, but he learned that his rank of lieutenant colonel was going to be reduced so that British officers could always have a higher rank than the colonial officers. He resigned in disgust and held a grudge against the British for this unfair treatment.

John Adams, Founding Father

John Adams (1735–1826) was born in Quincy (then called Braintree), Massachusetts, the first of the three sons of his farmer father, also named John, and the hot-tempered Susanna Boylston Adams. The boy's parents encouraged their independent son to take part in town meetings, teaching him that his conscience must serve as his guide to life. The young Adams was educated at Harvard College (now Harvard University) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he began to practice law in 1758. In 1764, he married bright, strong-willed Abigail Smith, who became his lifelong soul mate and intellectual partner.

Adams was an early and eloquent foe of British oppression and one of the foremost agitators for American independence from Britain. A man with a splendid mind, he wrote vivid diaries, letters, and essays and gave patriotic speeches. When war was unavoidable, it was Adams who proposed George Washington to head America's Continental Army, and it was Adams who persuaded Thomas Jefferson to be the chief writer of the Declaration of Independence. Adams helped organize the American army and visited foreign countries to enlist their aid in the battle against Britain. When the war finally ended in 1783, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay negotiated the Treaty of Paris (France) that officially ended the Revolutionary War. In 1785, Adams went to England to serve as the first official representative of the newly independent United States. In 1789, Adams was elected vice president under George Washington. He served for eight years before being elected the second president of the United States.

In 1824, Adams had the pleasure of seeing his son, John Quincy Adams, take the oath of office as the sixth president of the United States. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, ninety-year-old John Adams died at his home.

John Adams's Writings

John Adams wrote many letters and diary entries describing his journeys to Philadelphia and his attendance at the First and Second Continental Congresses. These writings are considered the liveliest and most enjoyable version of what went on both in and out of Congress. Adams and his fellow Massachusetts delegates left Boston for the first session of the first Congress on August 10, 1774. On their way to Philadelphia, the delegates met people in carriages and on horseback who had come to show their sympathy for Boston and their support for the Congress (Boston was suffering from Great Britain closing Boston's port to all business). Adams stopped in New York City and met some New York delegates for the first time. In his diary, he commented on their homes, their appearance, and their personalities. He also found time to do some sightseeing; he came to the conclusion that New York could not compare to the splendor of Boston, although he did admire its architecture. Here from his diary is his impression of New Yorkers:

With all the opulence and splendor of this city, there is very little good breeding to be found. We have been treated with [great] respect; but I have not seen one real gentleman, one well-bred man, since I came to town. At their entertainments there is no conversation that is agreeable; there is no modesty, no attention to one another. They talk very loud, very fast, and all together. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break out upon you again, and talk away.

Adams threw himself into the work of Congress with his customary dedication. He often grew exasperated at the slow pace of the decision making. His letters to his wife, Abigail Adams (1744–1818), were his main respite from the cares of Congress. The letters mixed political talk with gossip, and expressed his desire to have her with him. (She remained at home in Braintree, Massachusetts, near Boston, with the couple's young children.) In this excerpt from one of his letters to Abigail, Adams expressed his disgust with Congress:

I wish I had given you a complete history … of the behavior of my compatriots. No mortal tale can equal it. [I witness] the fidgets, the whims, the caprice, the vanity, the superstition….

As he confided to his diary, Adams believed that one reason for the slow pace of Congress was that it was made up of men of "wit, sense, learning, acuteness, subtlety, eloquence … each of whom has been [accustomed] to lead and guide in his own Province…. Every man [was] anorator, a critic, a statesman; and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, and his political abilities." If "it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five," Adams complained, "we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics, and then—we should pass the resolution, unanimously, in the affirmative."