Great Congressional Documents
Great Congressional Documents
The Continental Association … 111
Wartime Proclamations … 127
The Declaration of Independence … 135
Beginning in 1765, the British government, which was heavily in debt, had tried to tax the American colonies to help pay the bills. The taxes met with increasing resistance until finally, in December 1773, Bostonians dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. This episode became known as the Boston Tea Party. In 1774, the British government passed the Intolerable Acts to punish Boston for the tea party. 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.
Before the passage of the Intolerable Acts, the colonies had gone their separate ways and there had been little sense of unity among them. But as they watched Boston suffer from the closing of its port, the other colonies wondered if they might be the next to suffer from the British forcing taxes and punishments on them. It became clear that something must be done to address these threats from the British in a united way.
The colonial answer was to send representatives to the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Congress was supposed to make the colonists' feelings known to King George III (1738–1820) and ask him for a remedy. When he failed to respond in a satisfactory way, the Second Continental Congress was formed and met in 1775.
The First Continental Congress met on September 5, 1774, at Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Twelve of the thirteen colonies sent delegates to the Congress. Georgia, a small colony with a forceful and popular British-appointed governor, James Wright (1716–1785), chose not to participate this time. Virginia House of Burgesses member Peyton Randolph (c. 1721–1775) (see sidebar entry on Virginia Delegates on p. 114) was named president of the Congress.
Most of the delegates had never met before, and they spent a great deal of time sizing each other up. The participants came with conflicting views about what exactly they were protesting and what they hoped to accomplish at the meeting. But most agreed that matters had reached a point where the colonies no longer needed a "parent"—a "mother country"—and they resented being dominated by Great Britain. The name they chose for themselves, "Continental Congress," suggests that the delegates realized they were on the brink of something huge, something that would finally embrace the entire American continent.
Members of the First Continental Congress could basically be divided into two groups: conservatives, who hoped to patch up the quarrel with England, and radicals—especially the Massachusetts and Virginia delegates—who were determined to resist.
Many issues were discussed, and at considerable length. Delegate John Adams (1735–1826) described the process as "very tedious." But a truly remarkable harmony emerged from the discussions. Resolutions were passed, and "addresses" prepared, which stated the colonies' case to King George and to the people of Great Britain and America. Included in the addresses was a warning to the people of Great Britain: "Take care that you do not fall into the pit that is preparing for us"—a pit in which British citizens would lose their rights and liberty.
The most important document produced by the First Continental Congress was the Continental Association (also called "The Association"). The Continental Association was important because it marked the first time that all the colonies were joined in a common goal—to punish Great Britain in ways that would hurt. The document stated the colonists' complaints and described a boycott of British imports and exports that would remain in effect until their complaints were addressed. (A boycott is a refusal to buy goods from or sell them to another.) The colonies were one of Britain's major trading partners. The delegates believed that the measures adopted by the Association would bring England to the verge of financial ruin in a very short period of time. The Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774, after agreeing to meet on May 10, 1775, if King George did not respond to its complaints in a satisfactory way.
King George did not respond satisfactorily, and the Second Continental Congress came together in May 1775. Many delegates were still not ready for an open break with Great Britain. Congress did take action to put the colonies in a state of readiness for war, however, and it seemed a good idea to make a statement to justify these actions. Two documents were adopted by the Congress soon after it reassembled: the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and, to please the more conservative, the Olive Branch Petition. The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms justified the actions Congress had already taken to get ready for a possible war. The Olive Branch Petition repeated colonial grievances but declared colonial attachment to King George and expressed a desire for harmony. Following the adoption of these documents, the Second Continental Congress then adjourned on August 2, 1775.
A little more than a month later, the Second Continental Congress came together once again. Delegates learned that King George had rejected the Olive Branch Petition and had proclaimed that the colonies were in a state of rebellion. The Revolutionary Congress continued its discussions, and the following year voted on its second great document, the Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776. Its third great document, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was adopted on November 15, 1777.
The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to formally announce to the world that America was withdrawing from the British Empire and to explain the reasons why. But as Congress found itself fully engaged in a war for independence, it became clear that it was impossible to run a war and make quick decisions when each newly created state was operating independently. The need for a government powerful enough to defeat the British led to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles served as the basis of government for the new country until the Federal Constitution was adopted in 1788.